Stendhal and Napoleon
On Napoleon Episode 2 of 3
Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Sunday 09 December 2012
Stendhal and Napoleon:the story of a novelist cooking for the emperor. Andy Martin tells how writer Stendahl, later to be the renowned author of the French classic The Red and the Black, followed Napoleon across Europe to Moscow in 1812 and changed fiction in the process. Part of Radio 3’s series of programmes on Napoleon, marking his huge influence on nineteenth century European culture.
Two hundred years ago the French novelist, at that time a big fan of Napoleon, became a kind of catering manager to the emperor and journeyed from France to Russia attempting to feed some of the thousands of troops who marched on Moscow. On the way he got into all sorts of scrapes, glimpsed his hero, narrowly avoided being burned as cities and towns were scorched around about, and saw very little fighting. He got to Moscow and pretty much turned around and headed home. But getting out was harder still than getting in. Death and hunger was everywhere, even cannibalism, the two combined. At one point he wrote about how he had gone down on his knees at the sight of a potato. Later when he came to write one of his masterpiece novels, The Charterhouse of Parma, the tragi-comic experiences of the campaign and the arbitrariness of battle (how do you know if you are in a battle, what would a realistic description of being under fire actually be?) transformed his writing about Waterloo and ushered in a new realism into the nineteenth century novel.
Andy Martin, French scholar and author of Napoleon the Novelist travels part way with Stendhal from Paris to Vilnius and back again exploring how a romantic young man was transformed into a genius clear-eyed novelist thanks to some potatoes.
A radio “essay”:
‘Jacques Derrida’ in the ‘My Mentor’ series (Radio 3, 2010)
‘In Our Time’ with Melvyn Bragg (Radio 4) on Madame Bovary
and literary trials (2008)
‘Napoleon and Tacitus’ (Radio 3), tying together one shrewd observer of the Roman Empire and one French
Previous series: ‘Conversations’ with artists (Van Gogh, Gauguin – art on radio – surprisingly good combination),
Napoleon, and sixties writers and ideas (‘Paperback writers’)
Participated in the Liverpool Festival of Ideas, November 2006, ‘Free thinking’, sponsored by the BBC
‘Beware Invisible Cows’ is currently in development
‘Walking on Water’, produced by Mike Wallington for Channel 4’s science strand, Equinox.
Someone once said to me that this won a ‘gold medal’ for something in Cannes or somewhere – but I have
never seen any real evidence of this. A true story: Francis Ford Coppola said that this was the ‘greatest surf
documentary’ he had ever seen.
I don’t really understand how any films ever get made, because in my experience they don’t. However, the
UK company Working Title (Four Weddings and a Funeral etc) commissioned me to write a script based on
Waiting for Bardot. I remember a couple of things they said, which I mention here for the benefit of other
aspiring filmwriters. 1. They have a ‘casino mentality’, which means that any idiot going by on the street
could walk in with a brilliant idea, there was no logic or experience involved. 2. ‘Keep it strange’ or something
like that. The point being that you might as well be as idiosyncratic as possible, because they were
sure to come along later and flatten it out and make it as much like every other film as possible.
As for the great Bardot movie, they eventually passed it on to Round Table. They brought in a woman writer
to bring out the film’s more feminine side, but then nobody liked it any more. And the company rolled over
And until the Hollywood Writers’ Strike the American company Cube Vision were keen on making ‘Stealing
the Wave’ but that has stalled…