Skip to main content

The Charterhouse of Parma

The New Yorker Sept. 27, 1999, Talk of the Town

The season’s literary “It” boy is two hundred and sixteen years old

The literary pot-boiler is the Holy Grail of book publishing. Combining brisk sales and celebratory reviews, it is the rare novel that enables a beleaguered editor to feel that he is simultaneously serving the cause of culture and shoring up his company’s bottom line. In the last few weeks, an epic tale of war, love, sex, politics, and religion has been accomplishing this trick with great aplomb. One noted critic included it “among the dozen finest novels we possess”; another called it “the novel that another called it “the novel that Machiavelli would write if he were living.” Sales have been similarly impressive. It is currently in its fourth printing, and bookstores all across the city arc having difficulty keeping it in stock. Needless to say, Hollywood has been inquiring about the availability of movie rights.

The novel is Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma,” originally published, to great acclaim, in 1839 (the above quotes are from Henry James and Balzac). The new edition, translated by Richard Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and published in a beautifully illustrated edition by Modern Library, has an unusual history. Two years ago, Ben Sonnenberg, the wealthy patron of the arts and the founder of the literary journal Grand Street, realized that there was no good modern translation of his favorite French novel. “The Charterhouse of Parma” had made a lasting impression on Sonnenberg when, as an aesthete-in-training living in Paris during his early twenties, he first read it. “I thought that Stendhal-along with Shakespeare, Halzac, and Jane Austen-was the author you needed to read in order to know everything about life: he said the other day.

Although Sonnenberg, who suffers from multiple sclerosis is now confined to a wheelchair, he is still a literary operator; his Riverside Drive study is one of New York’s few remaining intellectual salons. He decided that his friend Richard Howard-whose translations of Gide and Baudelaire are considered modern classics-would be an ideal translator for Stendhal’s masterpiece. Continuing his practice of paying talented writers generously, he offered Howard an unusually large fee and asked Modem Library if it would be interested in publishing it.

In an arrangement reminiscent of the circumstances under which the novel was originally composed (Stendhal dictated “The Charterhouse of Parma” to a copyist in the course of a fifty-two-day burst of inspiration), Howard translated a chapter each week and brought it over to Sonnenberg’s apartment to read it out loud, and together they fine-tuned the work in progress. The story of Fabrizio del Dongo, an impetuous young aristocrat who joins Napoleon’s Army just before the Rattle of Waterloo, the book bas an action-packed narrative that lends itself to this kind of dramatic presentation. “It was a wonderful experience to read it as if I were an actor,” Howard says. ‘Every translator needs a director, and working with Ben was like having my own private one.” The book was published last February and posted modest sales until a few weeks ago, when rave reviews appeared almost simultaneously in the New York Times Book Review (which ran an unusually long piece), The New York Review of Books, and the Los Angeles Times’ book-review section, where Edmund White declared that “‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ has never sparkled in English with such radiance as it does in Richard Howard’s new translation.” Although Modern Library has tried to satisfy the sudden demand by quintupling the number of copies in print, there are virtually no books currently available. “I haven’t seen such a scramble for a book in a long, long time,” said Rob Schumann, the general manager of Book Hampton, which has sold out its stock twice so far.

While intending to do good, Sonnenberg and Howard may end up doing quite well. “This edition of ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ ranks as one of the Modern Library’s fastest hardcover best-sellers,” the Modern Library publisher David Ebershoff said. “It will be assigned in schools for the next twenty-five years.” Sonnenberg said, “I am astonished to find myself associated with something that might actually make money. In all my life, that has never happened to me.”