Marie-Henri Beyle, the French author who lived from 1783 to 1842, was a “romantic realist”. So, clearly of an oxymoronic bent and with an overactive sense of humour. He adopted the nom de plume M. de Stendhal, officier de cavaliere from 1817 onwards, having fallen in love with a blonde, Wilhelmine, in Stendal – a town in the heart of Germany, Saxony-Anhalt, 125 km to the west of Berlin. He added the “h” to make correct German pronunciation more likely.

Prior to that he had assumed – dizzyingly – up to 200 nom de plumes, publishing only one work under his own name, The History of Painting in 1817. Wilhelmine, or Minette, his term of endearment for Miss W., was clearly something special. She was his “star of the north”. From then on Stendhal never adopted another nom de plume.

However, he did, notoriously, adopt other stars of the opposite sex, reaching out to whole constellations – in the south, west and east and most other points of the compass in between. Stendhal was a notorious womaniser. He eventually contracted syphilis and died, not of the disease, but more likely overapplication of the toxic cure.

The Charterhouse of Parma, published in 1839, three years before his death, holds me in the grip of nostalgia. I first acquired a copy in 1968 – an edition in the original French (pretentious from the start) – bought to impress a potential girlfriend. Result? The book impressed, but I did not. When she moved on, I consoled myself by actually reading the thing.

Instantly, I was distracted from my temporary grief by Stendhal’s world of military campaigns, chivalric deeds and political intrigue. Latterly I also read The Red and the Black, published in 1830, chronicling the attempts of a provincial youth to overcome his humble background and rise above his roots through a combination of talent, hard work, deception and hypocrisy. Do I feel a blubbing political autobiography coming on?

I did not return to my favourite, Charterhouse, until last summer, when I happened across a 1999 translation by Richard Howard, an American poet, academic and translator. It was like the return of an old, familiar friend – as if I had never left Stendhal’s romantic Parma. This classic, revisited after 50 years, did not disappoint.

The book has epic sweep, yet is founded on intimate, absorbing detail. At one level it reads like a soap opera – the hero escapes a tall tower, using a long rope; a lover is wooed from his cell window, using a complex system of semaphore on sheets of paper. At another, political intrigue, every bit as complex as current European shenanigans, is played out in the fictious court of Parma. Villains are ruthless, heroes are undaunted, maidens – not many of those, mind you – are in distress.

Stendhal’s hero, Fabrice del Dongo, a headstrong, young, Italian aristocrat, has – to put it mildly – a comprehensive CV. Here is a barebones version of the plot. Fabrice is an admirer of Napoleon, unusual for an Italian of the era, when France and Italy were at war. He joins Napoleon’s army and sees action ranging across Europe.

The wayward Fabrice leaves Napoleon’s service, then, incoherently, becomes a prelate in the Catholic Church. A prelate with no interest in religion, but plenty in women. His beautiful Aunt Gina, Duchess of Sanseverina, and her lover, the devious, married, Prime Minister of Parma, Count Mosca, then try to establish the former soldier/prelate/philanderer at court, but a repellent Prince Ranuce-Erneste IV, who lusts after Gina, has Fabrice imprisoned in the notorious Farnese Tower.

Being locked up in the tower does not deter Fabrice, who embarks on his star-crossed love affair with the gaoler’s daughter, Clelia, who boasts the twin virtues of being beautiful – and dull.

Charterhouse was hailed as a classic on publication. Honoré de Balzac – Stendhal’s constant competitor for recognition by the French literary establishment – in a lengthy review which must stand as one of the bitchy literary world’s greatest acts of disinterested generosity, lavished praise, saying; “One sees perfection in everything”.