Roman Tales by Stendhal (English Translation by Susan Ashe)

roman tales‘Though justice be thy plea…’

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

This slim book contains translations of three of Stendhal’s Roman Tales, together with an introduction by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and some appendices chosen to fill out the background to the stories. Stendhal’s claim is that the three stories are in fact translations of papers he found in archives relating to famous trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Di Giovanni suggests that rather than straight translations, Stendhal has re-written the facts to give them a narrative structure, and this theory certainly seems borne out on reading. The three stories are The Abbess of Castro, Vittoria Accoramboni, and The Cenci.

Each of the stories shows Stendhal’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. On the plus side, he casts a great deal of light on Italian society at that point in history, showing the power of the brigands and bravi who held sway over much of the country and often meted out their own forms of violent justice. We also get a glimpse of how the various Popes of the time handled these brigands and a clear idea of the massive corruption that ran throughout the society. On the other hand, Stendhal shows the same weaknesses that stopped The Red and the Black from being one of the true greats of classic literature for me – repetitiveness, a concentration on often irrelevant detail, particularly about money, and an often confusing way of jumping from character to character or of suddenly introducing characters without sufficient explanation of their connection or relevance to the story.

Stendhal (source: wikimedia)
(source: Wikimedia)

Di Giovanni describes the first tale, The Abbess of Castro, as an example of ‘narrative perfection’ and claims that the eponymous heroine, Elena de’ Campireali, along with others of Stendhal’s female characters, is ‘…amongst the greatest creations in all literature.’ Hmm…I’m afraid I can’t agree, and I felt the entire introduction was making claims for a level of greatness that the Tales don’t live up to. However I found each of the stories interesting despite finding Stendhal’s style somewhat off-putting. The translation by Susan Ashe seemed excellent to me and made the stories flow better than either of the translations I tried of The Red and the Black (Moncrieff and Raffel). Di Giovanni tells us, however, that Ashe made significant cuts and some changes to the Tales as part of her translation and I’m not altogether sure that I approve of that even if it perhaps improved them as stories.

The appendices include an essay by Stendhal on the brigands and bravi which, though informative, was overfull of examples in what seems to be typical Stendhal style. We are also given Shelley’s preface to his own play based on the same historical event that Stendhal uses in the third tale, The Cenci. And lastly there is a one-page description, by Dickens, of the portrait of La Cenci that apparently shows her on the day before her execution. Dickens gets more emotion into that one page, I’m sorry to note, than Stendhal does in the entire tale.

Overall an interesting rather than particularly enjoyable read that, for me, confirms Stendhal as almost but not quite one of the greats of literature.

Portrait of La Cenci by Guido Reni (source: wikipedia)
Portrait of La Cenci by Guido Reni
(source: Wikipedia)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link though the Kindle version doesn’t seem to be available in the US at the present time.

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