"Memoirs of an Egotist" (along with "The Life of Henry Brulard") is probably Stendhal's most modern work. Of course that is not to say that "The Red and the Black" or "The Charterhouse of Parma" or even "Lamiel" cannot be read today. They can, and they should be read, and anyway they have influenced every major (and not so major) writer that came afterward, so we are rereading them permanently. But their characters are filled with a passion that is like an exotic brush-stroke for readers today.
"Memoirs..." could have been written this morning. Being an autobiographical sketch, and striving for sincerity (as he says himself several times), it is a different kind of book. Stendhal doesn't attach himself to any literary convention and lets the pen run free. In the beginning he tells how he wanted to write a work of fiction but since he was being constantly interrupted by the routine duties of his job (he was a great slacker, anyway), he decided to write about things that happened to him instead of inventing.
There are too many interesting things in this thin volume to enumerate them all. Here we find the statement that could be put at the front of his complete works: "I don't think men are wicked; I regard them as machines impelled, In France, by vanity; elsewhere, by all the passions, vanity included".
Humor, or rather "wit" (as he would prefer), permeates everything, even the narration of his darkest moments: "I left Milan for Paris on the ** June 1821, with a sum of 3,500, I think, and convinced that my sole happiness lay in blowing my brains out when I'd run through this sum". Of course he didn't. Because of sheer curiosity, on one hand, and on the other because he was "also afraid of hurting myself".
He describes in detail his failure in bed with a young woman, a failure that earned him the reputation of being "impotent" all around Paris. He has the gift of making you understand situations with an amazing economy of words. Same thing when he describes certain characters of the time, like the Commander in Chief of the French Army who, "while waiting for great actions, which do not present themselves every day, and for the opportunity to squeeze the skirts of young women, which only ever really comes along at half-past midnight, as they are leaving, M. de La Fayette would explain rather inelegantly the commonplace philosophy of the National Guard".
There are many comic and adventurous interludes, like his dangerous expedition into London's poorest suburbs in search of a certain house of "dates", or when he tells how at Calais he talked cheerfully ("and almost drunk on English beer") with a British sailor who made a few objections to his stories. A couple of days later one of his traveling companions told him "in measured tones" that the sailor had, in reality, skillfully insulted him and France, without his noticing. "For two days we looked for the English captain in all the filthy taverns that those sort of people frequent" to challenge him to a duel. They never found him.
Overlooking the book is the shadow of Métilde, the woman who rejected Stendhal's advances. In a way, he writes to keep her memory at bay. But her name crawls up here and there.
Although the work was left unfinished (in respect to what the author declared he set out to do) it doesn't feel that way because it follows the crisscross patterns of memory (prefiguring Proust, who was an attentive reader of Stendhal). It is as if a friendly stranger popped in at a party, sat down by your side, told you a few stories and left after murmuring, like Stendhal: "The heat is stopping me having ideas at half-past one".