Saturday, July 14, 2012

Stendhal, The Red and the Black


Opening Passage:

The small town of Verrières may be regarded as one of the most attractive in the Franche-Comté. Its white houses with their high pitched roofs of red tiles are spread over the slope of a hill, the slightest contours of which are indicated by clumps of sturdy chestnuts. The Doubs runs some hundreds of feet below its fortifications, built in times past by the Spaniards, and now in ruins.

Summary: The novel takes place toward the end of the Bourbon Restoration, during which France still lives in the shadow of the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon. The aristocracy lives in fear of another Revolution, referring to it repeatedly; the specter of Napoleon lingers throughout the land, a source of fear for some and for dreams of glory for others. It is a society that cannot help but be rife with hypocrisy. Through this society we follow Julien Sorel, son of a carpenter, handsome, intelligent, with a prodigious memory. He is one of those inspired with dreams of glory by the figure of Napoleon, and would, were he able, go into the military as an officer; but it is not a military age, and it is very difficult to become an officer. So instead he goes the route that seems available to him: the Church. Of course, he is a complete unbeliever; he believes in the God of Voltaire, not that of the Bible. But obviously this does not get promotions in the Church, so he sets himself to fooling everyone, to the point that he memorizes the Bible in Latin, word for word. He becomes tutor to the children of M. de Renal, where he meets Madame de Rênal. Over time the two fall in love and have an affair; this ends up forcing a situation in which Julien has to leave and go to seminary. At seminary his hypocrisy is seen through almost immediately by his duller fellow students, who see clearly enough that even when he has the right answers it has too much of the book in it, and his fine future suddenly does not seem so assured. But it is in seminary that he finds the major protector in his life, M. Pirard, who manages, after leaving the seminary himself, to get Julien a position with the Marquis de la Mole, an important and wealthy government official. There he meets Mathilde de la Mole, the Marquis's daughter; like Julien she is caught up in dreams of glory, but hers are inspired not by Napoleon but by the heroic deeds of her ancestors. They have an affair, the result of which is a pregnancy, which touches off the crisis on which the novel ends.

A great deal happens in the novel beyond what this bare summary can suggest. The work is usually classified as a major example of realism, but although it's on only a first reading, I have to say that anyone who thinks this novel realistic has been duped. Not only are none of the characters entirely reliable, it becomes quite clear as we proceed through the story that the narrator himself is not reliable -- he keeps trying to pushing the reader into a particular point of view, and shows repeatedly that he is playing to, and sometimes with, what he assumes to be the reader's prejudices. The narrator, in short, is as much a hypocrite as the characters, as is, in fact, necessary given that he is bound up in the very same society they are. The psychological close-ups of the characters are brilliant, but they are also contradictory; for instance, the narrator in turns treats Julien as audacious and non-audacious, intelligent and non-intelligent, as it suits him. In context these assessments are always plausible; but another thing will happen and the narrator will give us a completely contradictory assessment. Even the epigraphs are often made-up or misleading. The narrative also makes rare but definite use of farce and melodrama -- these are some of the best parts of the book, in fact -- and the primary mechanisms of plot are not realistic but consist of chance and the unpredictable irrationality of various characters. (The hero, or anti-hero, Julien, is an extraordinarily passive character: his few plans go astray, and almost every success he achieves is because of luck or favor.) The detail, especially the psychological detail, is certainly rich, but it is a façade. The novel is not just about hypocritical characters; it is a hypocritical novel about hypocritical characters, told from a hypocritical point of view. This in itself would make the book a tour de force. Julien Sorel is not a very sympathetic character -- he is, of course, a hypocrite through and through, quite deliberately (one of his heroes is Tartuffe), to such an extent that were it not for some humanizing episodes he might come across as psychopathic -- but given his society and the sheer disparity between his dreams of glorious activity and the purely passive and ambiguous successes he does achieve, it is very difficult to have such a sour and smirking amusement at his life as the narrator does. Everything is ambiguous in this novel; one could miss this, because the narrator is very good at intruding and telling you the way it is -- but, again, the narrator repeatedly shows himself untrustworthy.

Quite a complexity; I doubt this book can be done justice on a single reading. At the same time, I confess, I don't have a huge urge to read it again.

Favorite Passage: The character I liked best in the book was Korasoff, the Russian prince. He's also the only character who is presented in a humorous light by the narrator who is genuinely funny.

In London he at last made acquaintance with the extremes of fatuity. He made friends with some young Russian gentlemen who initiated him.

'You are predestined, my dear Sorel,' they told him, 'you are endowed by nature with that cold expression a thousand leagues from the sensation of the moment, which we try so hard to assume.'

'You have not understood our age,' Prince Korasoff said to him; 'always do the opposite to what people expect of you. That, upon my honour, is the only religion of the day. Do not be either foolish or affected, for then people will expect foolishness and affectations, and you will not be obeying the rule.'

Recommendation: Probably for some people and not for others.


  1. <p>I agree; I don't feel the urge to read it again either. Many books are worth having read; far fewer invite re-reading. Stendhal is a clever author, too clever by half. He slices and dices and dissects his characters, but he loves none of them, and his lack of affection is absorbed and internalized by the reader. 
    </p><p>Very interesting that although Julien imagines his end to be his last great stand and his defining moment, it's not even portrayed. Already he has faded out of importance and the action passes to other characters. It seems appropriate that the book should end with Mme. de Renal, who is the character who comes closest to being the heart of the book. Mathilde, like Julien, is always playing a role. Mme. de Renal truly loves.

  2. I think your point about Stendhal's lack of love for the character hits something quite right, and it hits a problem that inevitably rises whenever the tone taken in a book is 'ironic' -- ironic tone detaches everything from what is discussed, and thus tends to break the bond by which an author can make a character or a story interesting and worthwhile. In a sense it's a sort of insult against the characters and an intrusion on the reader: here, pay attention to these characters; ah, see, they are barely worth the attention.

    I hadn't thought about Julien having faded out of importance by the end, but of course you're quite right. The disparity between Julien's dreams of glorious achievement and the passive ambiguities he actually does get continues right through to the end.

  3. The foreward makes the point that almost every twist of Julien's fate is driven by chance. Even his one big moment of action, when he travels back to Verrieres to wreak his revenge on Mme. de Renal (not because she has spoiled his chances, but because he doesn't like the letter's description of his character), comes, by chance, to nothing. Chance, always chance! But of course we know that "chance" is really just Stendhal tweaking the outcomes of events. Julien's hapless, overweening egotism becomes tiresome long before the end of the book, and if Stendhal has useful things to say about his the foibles of society, they become lost in the contempt he has for everyone and everything. 

    Julien goes through his methodical and passionless seduction of the Marechale by copying out Korasoff's love letters without bothering to read them first. When he's reproached with making odd references, he goes back and actually reads what he's sending out and is "quite surprised to find this letter almost tender". The surprise for the reader is that any character is capable of almost tenderness -- but naturally, it's a calculated tenderness in pursuit of seduction!

  4. I thought the Marechale letters episode was in some ways the best part of the book, in part because it sums up everything Julien was doing the entire book: just following a formula without bothering to understand it. Of course, I thought almost all the episodes having to do with Korasoff were genuinely funny, right down to his going around Europe while always carrying around a giant portfolio of love letters for any occasion in his luggage; so that might be part of it, too. I think a farcical novella about Korasoff and Julien would have been a much more gripping story.

    I think as the story proceeds it becomes harder and harder to take Julien's egotism as plausible. It's very plausible in the beginning -- young man, Napoleonic dreams, channeled into what is apparently the only possible route to glory, which happens to be the priesthood. Well and good. But while he occasionally questions his egotistical dreams, he never actually learns, even when (as in the cave when visiting Fouque) he has some genuine insight that in other people would have had some effect. But as the story goes on he seems more and more clueless. Perhaps some of that can be attributed to the fact that he gets into murkier and murkier waters as he proceeds, but you're quite right that the egotism gets a bit tiresome, and I think part of it is that it seems more strained.

  5. What was intriguing was the subplot, almost shoehorned in, in which Julien is pressed into service as a spy, or at least a messenger. (I was going to say "turned spy", but that's not passive enough to describe his role.) Suddenly here is a matter of real import, not just to the men involved but to the country, and Julien has a crucial part to play. I was impressed with his performance on the road -- he sticks to his mission! He rescues Geronimo (also a favorite of mine -- there is no malice in him)! He recites his message admirably! And then he sinks back into love-sickness in Strasbourg, and mopes like a puppy, and Korasoff turns up with his valise of letters and utters the most admirable lines in the whole book:

    "And who said anything about composing phrases? I have in my hold-all six volumes of love-letters in manuscript. There are specimens for every kind of woman, I have a set for the most rigid virtue. Didn't Kalisky make love on Richmond Terrace, you know, a few miles out of London, to the prettiest Quakeress in the whole of England?"

    And Julien is again enmeshed in his petty intrigues, and the whole cloak-and-dagger business -- a most fascinating bit of plot -- falls by the wayside. 

    Perhaps a Russian as well as an Englishman would also have written the tale of Korasoff and Julien. Didn't Iris Murdoch say in that interview "<span>In a curious way English-speaking people feel a great affinity with the Russians. Somehow, the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in translation seem very natural to us. It’s as if they were already writing in English. I think that we have the same feeling about Proust—that he’s really an English writer! He speaks to us very directly . . . whereas Stendhal and Flaubert are more remote. We know they’re French." </span>

    You tell 'em, Iris!

    On a totally unrelated note, your comment login system is completely Byzantine. There, I said it.

  6. Yes, that was very weird, that that subplot started and then didn't really go anywhere.

    The comment system will probably be changed by the end of August, if it's any consolation.


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