55 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2006
The Red and the Black is the greatest novel ever written. I first began reading it six years ago, and I've read it twice a year ever since. I own five different translations: Robert Adams (Norton Critical), Lowell Bair (Bantam Classics), Catherine Slater (Oxford World's Classics), Burton Raffel (Modern Library), and Lloyd C. Parks (Signet Classics).
I use the Parks version as my reading text and use the others for comparison, whenever a particular word or passage seems odd. The Raffel translation is an acceptable substitute, if you're only buying one version; but I like it less because it lacks depth, texture, and flavor, like those bland lattes they sell at Starbucks. It's almost as if Raffel wants you to forget that Stendhal was French, that the characters are French, and the action takes place in France. You could easily switch character and place names and never know the book had been penned by a foreigner.
Note the differences between these two versions of the same passage. Raffel at p. 88 (paper): "She loved him a thousand times more than life itself, and never gave a thought to money." Parks at p. 102-3: "She loved him a thousand times better than life, would have loved him had he been ungrateful and untrue, even if he had belonged to the opposite party, the Bonapartists... and her money meant nothing to her." (Elipsis in original.)
I keep giving Raffel a fair shot at becoming my primary text, but I keep coming back to Parks. Page for page, it's a better read.
64 of 73 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2006
The Modern Library "translation" by Burton Raffel of THE RED AND THE BLACK is actually a vulgar, anachronistic retelling of Stendhal's novel. I recall abandoning it in disgust when the main character refers to his life as a total "blast". MTV was obviously very popular in 1830 France.
Instead, the brilliant Moncrieff translation, as revised by Stendhal scholar Ann Jefferson, is highly recommended (Everyman paperback, ISBN 0460876430).
June, 2011 update: Just read the translation Roger Gard did for Penguin just before his untimely death. It is accurate, fluent, free of Briticisms and has excellent and extensive notes. Highly recommended!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: Kindle Edition
I wanted very much to like this book and indeed there was much in it to savour and enjoy. The author casts an observant if cynical eye over early nineteenth-century France, the post-Napoleonic era. Through his hero (or perhaps anti-hero), Julian Sorel, he shows us small town, provincial attitudes, takes us into the hierarchy of the Church and then, as Julian's unusual talents allow him to rise, leads us into the top echelons of Paris political and social life. Throughout the author showed the hypocrisy and greed prevalent in every part of society, the jostling for power and social position and the precarious nature of social status in a society still quivering from the upheavals of its recent history.
However, I felt the book had some important flaws too. Julian is a cold, calculating hypocrite (though with occasional flashes of manic passion) and as such I found it hard to empathise with him at any point. His two great love affairs were on-off to such an extreme that it became tedious and repetitive. At least a quarter of the entire novel is taken up with descriptions of how Julien and Mathilde fell in and out of love with each other repeatedly and only once or twice at the same time. I found myself quietly chanting `she loves him, she loves him not' each time I resumed reading. Unfortunately I also `loved him not' but a good deal more constantly than the spoiled, haughty and frankly unstable Mathilde.
There is always an issue with translated novels in that the reader is not able to determine whether any flaws are with the original or the translation. I started to read the Moncrieff translation and while it may have been accurate it was so poorly written as to be almost unreadable. I then moved on to the translation by Burton Raffel, which flowed much more smoothly and had a more literary feel. Overall, though, the book came over as somewhat fragmented, with contradictions from chapter to chapter. How much to blame this on the original or the translator, I am unable to say.
There is sometimes a tendency to assume that in great literature, entertainment comes second to the insight the author gives us into humanity and society. I beg to disagree. If a book fails to engage the reader's sympathies, then I think it is less likely that the author's message will be heard. For me, that was ultimately the problem with this novel. I understand why it is called great; I admire the writing, the observations of a particular time in French history, the descriptions of the various levels of society and I am glad to have read it. But unfortunately, because of my antipathy to the main protagonists, I can't say that I found reading the book a wholly enjoyable experience and, in the end, I was unmoved by Julien's eventual fate.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2006
The first great psychological novel ever written, THE RED AND THE BLACK centers around Julien Sorel, a tender and honest young man, but one consumed by ambition, and "filled with imagination and illusion." Napolean is his hero, yet he believes the Church has now rightly re-established its position at the head of society. (Red=color of the French army uniforms; Black=color of the priests' robes.) Julien, an outwardly pious seminary student (he's memorized the entire New Testament), wavers between these two positions. While acting as tutor to her children, he seduces Mme. de Renal; his seduction is carefully plotted, almost as if it were a military campaign. He finally succeeds, but later her husband finds out about it, and Julien leaves. He becomes a secretary to a wealthy landowner and falls in love with his beautiful daughter Mathilde. Just before they are to marry (she is already pregnant) an anonymous letter comes to Mathilde's father revealing the affair between Julien and Mme. de Renal. He now forbids the marriage, and Julien, passionately overwrought, seeks out his former mistress, finds her in a church, and shoots her. He is tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death - even though it's later learned that Mme. de Renal recovers fully from the shooting. No pleading by friends will persuade Julien to help himself, and he calmly goes to his death.
Stendhal is a master at analyzing the inner workings of his characters, especially of Julien Sorel. This constant delving into Julien's psychological motivations sometimes causes the plot to slow to a crawl, but it is crucial to the book and to Stendhal's art. Julien is an extremely complex character, at war with the "respectable" society he so wants to be a part of, so critical of his own actions and thoughts yet so shrewd and calculating, many readers find him a figure worth endless study. There is so much to admire here, though I found Julien's meticulous seduction of Mme. de Renal and the final scenes in prison to be the best parts. The power he gains over Mathilde by feigning to be disinterested in her is also masterful. It's a masterpiece, and worth the time necessary to read and digest it all.
15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2003
Readers in my generation grew up with some pretty awful translations, with even the French and Russian writers often coming off sounding Victorian. We should be grateful for Burton Raffel and other currently active translators (including Richard Pavear and Larissa Volokonsky, who got the vernacular back into Dostoievski) for changing that. It was Raffel who finally enabled me to read and savorDon Quixote, and I'll always thank him for that. Now I also owe him thanks for making Stendahl's uneven but nonetheless great tale of Julien Sorell so engaging and readable.
If any reader out there can make any sense of the mystifying jacket photograph on this book, please share that sense with us. What does it have to do with the book? More to the point, what IS it? Do the torso and the oversized hand belong to the same person, or what?
But, hey, the Modern Library gave us a full cloth binding on this one, so we can forgive the jacket.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2007
Hideous translation of a brilliant book. Try the translation by Lowell Bair instead - intelligent and crisp.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2006
Mari-Henri Beyle wrote the French classic "The Red and The Black" about an ambitious and purportedly bright young man of very Latin temperament from the countryside of Eastern France under the pen name of Stendhal in 1829. Burton Raffel's translation is mostly readable, using great vocabulary and with strong verbs he preserves the long sentences of the original's detailed descriptions. It needs to be read carefully as it reflects the book's difficulty, the perfect one not existing.
So, the main character, Julien Sorel, chooses a religious career (the Black) as family tutor, short-term seminarian and property administrator over a dream career in the army (the Red), after Napoleon's, because he wants to have power and for presently possible pecuniary gains. He posesses a variety of extremes: he's "an expert latinist", yet, "together with his fiery soul, Julien posessed one of those stunning memories so often linked to stupidity." Sensitive, "Beginning in childhood, he had moments of exaltation", but to his demise also slender and with "delicate features" and "huge black eyes", he naturally feels able to entertain the concept of "being introduced to all the pretty ladies of Paris" because he feels he can relate, idealistically again, to sociable, intelligent, spirited, beautiful, rich women. Really, he desires to please and finds himself more committed than he can take, and he reveals his past and his weaknesses and inexperience, as the young third son of a carpenter.
Sometimes, Julien shows his immaturities. His two lovers have a great hold over him, these become the forces in his life that not even the eventual career in the army as lieutenant can impede. Mademoiselle de la Mole, Mathilde, his Paris employer's daughter becomes "absolute mistress of both his happiness and his imagination" in a game about willpower in which he even says to himself: "I've been able to preserve my dignity. I've not said I love her." When he makes Mathilde pregnant and decides to marry her, his former love Mme de Renal writes to reveal their affair to the Marquis de la Mole, Mathilde's father, who, although had become attached to Julien "like a fine spaniel" decides he does not want him as son-in-law, and Julien shoots Mme de Renal in church. Their affair was very real however, and while in prison, he falls in love with Mme de Renal one more time. She, too, had remained in love with her young former children's tutor "completely lost in her profound remorse" and she had spent much time thinking of "this unusual being, who once he had come into her life had turned it upside down" and having moods after he had had to leave because of her status as Mayor's wife, paying her a last late night visit. He is sentenced to death, although she does not die from the shooting.
More translations, for example, on Mathilde, Mlle Marquise de la Mole, Julien's intelligent blue-eyed eighteen-year-old convent-educated love: "It is always said that a pretty aristocratic woman is the most astonishing thing of all, for a spirited peasant, when he reaches the higher rungs of society." She is "sublime" - she speaks of "black incertitude". She says early on: "What great deed isn't extreme when it's first begun?" and he says on her "with a tigerish look", "I shall have her". This is Julien's "craziness", as he becomes "a self-made social climber" and "a miserable man at war with all society" mostly because of a girl from a wealthy family with such a visible queenly attitude which destroys his personal sense of dignity.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2010
I must say that learning about the 19th century French history helped me to understand the historical context of this book, which definitely added more depth to and appreciation for the psychology of the characters. This if kind of French/male version of Vanity Fair--social commentary on the ironies and hypocrisies of the culture--an ambitious social climber from low class, high class women whose lives are dying from boredom, churches and politics all exploiting one another for self preservation and promotion. And the worst obstacle in this game is genuine human feelings which ultimately lead to destruction. Most chapters have poignant quotes that add dark, satirical, often very funny delight to the following stories, "Everyday events are so grotesque they keep yo from seeing the very real misfortune of our passions--Barnave", "Words have been given to men in order to hide their thoughts--R.P. Malagrida" After this book, I will definitely plan on reading Voltaire.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Stendhal's masterpiece 'The Red and the Black' is a perfectly woven portrait of the tragically rigid impositions of the church and society on man. Julien Sorel, the young and brilliant protagonist, falls in love first with a provincial wife, and later a Parisian wife of a Marquise. A wonderfully conceived depiction of the arbitrary forces which prevent the individual from happiness. Stendhal is a clunky stylist in comparison to Flaubert, but his characters may be more complex and interesting. 'The Red and the Black' often transcends the somewhat belabored arguments leveled against the church; his characters breathe with life and miraculously rich developments and contradictions. A true masterpiece of French realism.
8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2003
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I put off reading this novel for 30 years because I could not get past the first page in prior translations. Raffel has created a highly readable version which moves without getting bogged down in Victorian hyperbole. His addition of modernized expressions detracts in no way from the period of the novel; these additions simply make it more accessible to the modern reader. I was delighted to discover a compelling story, and a very likeable, although fallible hero. The plot reminds me in many ways of Dostoevsky's "Idiot": the author's indictment of the suffocating societal milieu, the sympathetic hero, the various femme fatales, as well Stendhal's delicious skewering of the corrupt powermongering clergy....altogether quite an enjoyable read that I was sorry to see end.