How a 19th-Century Frenchman Nailed Love for All Time squib

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For all of the works of prose that focus on the subject of love—surely the greatest theme and mystery in literature—it’s curious how rarely authors get clinical about the subject. To break it down. To pin it to a dissecting tray, fold back the layers, and say, “see that part over there? That makes for skipped heart beats. This part here, that takes care of the arousal. This middle bit, that’s when you know you’re hooked.”

But if ever there was a born literary dissector, that would be the Frenchman Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as the novelist Stendhal. He went by a lot of different names in France in the first half of the 19th century, being King Pseudonym. He disliked his father, thinking he wasn’t creative enough, and doted on his mother, who died when he was seven.

He dug the military and the theater, serving in Napoleon’s army, engineering a rescue on a river that was much discussed, then sojourning in Italy where he picked up some dandified ways, which played well in Paris, where he went through woman after woman. You might say Stendhal dated serially; or you might say he had a thing for racking up sexual conquests.

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