The Stendhal vice

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Natural style in writing is probably an invention of Stendhal. The master, of course, is Montaigne, but his language is now archaic and requires so many spelling modernizations and explanatory footnotes. Stendhal is like us. His diaries of two centuries ago read as if they had just been written, or rather, were just in the process of being written.

Setting his novels to one side, when Stendhal writes something you never know what genre it is, and the novels themselves are contaminated with the same dilettante waywardness. Stendhal sets out to produce something according to some plan — a history of Italian painting, a biography, a travel book — and the plan seems to be forgotten after a few pages. What he writes is always a diary, at once intimate and public, like a letter to a trusted friend. The act of writing never isolates him from the other things of life. He passes the night in a café or party, then writes down what he has seen and heard. He has such an ear, or such a capacity for imaginative re-creation, that he fills pages with other people’s stories, told in the first person.