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on January 10, 2001
A more entertaining treatment of the theme of the transgressive individual and hypocritical society than Camus' 'The Outsider'. 'The Red and the Black' is often held up as the starting point of 19th century European realism, and the book has the socio-historical breadth, narrative variety, powerful set-pieces and vivid characterisation we expect from such a term.
But in its breathless speed, deceptively casual style and weightless movement, making it read more like a thriller than a novel of social mores, it is a world away from the works of Dickens, Tolstoy or Balzac, which are too often grounded by detail; and closer to the Voltaire of 'Candide'.
Similarly, Stendhal's supple psychological analysis is not the rigid speculation of these masters, but a recognition of shifting, provisional consciousness more usual in James and Proust. finally, the novel's formal playfulness, the interplay between narrator and his material, his ironically 'heroic', Dumas-like approach to his hero and the more bathetic reality foreshadow the 'anti-fiction' procedures of Nabokov.
The difference between the Oxford World's Classics tranlation (Catherine Slater) and the Everyman (Scott Moncrieff) is that the former is unpoetic, serviceable, but a great, lucid pageturner, while the Moncrieff is poetic, often beautiful, but frequently stumbling, tripping up over the Stendhalian pace. Roger Pearson's OWC introduction brilliantly reveals the intricate patterning and allusiveness inherent in Stendhal's seemingly rushed prose; Everyman has a useful selection of major critical responses to the book (Balzac, Zola, Sainte-Beuve, James etc.).
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on December 9, 2001
Some things never change. In the world today we're used to hearing about corporate climbers who are willing to do anything to move up in the company. Sacrifice their wife or husband, time with their children, and sometimes even their soul. All in pursuit of the American Dream, a.k.a. materialistic eden. In THE RED AND THE BLACK Stendhal shows us that things weren't much different in 1830, when the book was published in France. Julien Sorel is a young man who was cursed with a scumbag, loveless father who has no interest in his family except in what they can do for him financially. After bargaining with the local mayor of his hick town, his father negotiates Julien to be the tutor of the prestigious house of Renal. One thinks of a slave auction as his father milks the mayor for all the money he can connive out of him in return for Julien's services. Of course Julien has bigger plans, after all, his idol is the great destroyer of the aristocracy, Napoleon. Julien glances over the fact that Napoleon set up his own aristocracy. Yes, Julien is a closet revolutionary who despises the very people he has to serve or suck up to. This brings up the largest idea of the book. Namely, that to get ahead in the world, you have to be a chameleon who changes shades according to what influential man or woman's favor you are trying to curry. Kissing butt is a polite way of phrasing it. While he is being bored by the Renal's children he falls into an affair with the mayor's wife. While this might have helped his career he unfortunately falls in love. He seems to start all of his plans of advancement pretty well, but in the end he always messes it up by actually having a conscience. By showing the superficialities of love, he falls in love. One of the most ironic points in the book is when he starts studying to be a priest when in actuality, he is an atheist. Even with this against him, he shows more morality and godliness than his colleagues at the seminary. Julien is feared no matter what circle he travels in, because who better to recognize his below level rebellion than the hypocrites of every level of society. This is ultimately the horrible conflict of Julien. At what point will he be unable to retain his identity? At what point does acting like a sellout make you a sellout even in your own heart? This book is divine. I am shocked that only 4 reviews have been written about it. It is hard to know what to make of it because it is so futuristic, looking more towards the 20th century than the 19th. There is none of the crippling sentimentalism of Dickens or Eliot here. He is more comparable to Thackeray or Balzac. This is a powerful book with flashes of erotic power which I am surprised made it through the censors of his time. It looks more towards Camus but Stendhal is ten times the artist. I highly recommend reading this and will soon move on to THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA. Almost forgot, Catherine Slater does a great job translating this work from French to English.
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on December 3, 2001
This is one of the finest novels of the 19C. It chronicles the relentless rise - and inevitable, brutal fall - of a talented and highly ambitious young man during the French restoration. You witness Julian, from his abusive childhood at a sawmill, as he gains the position of a tutor with the local gentry on the strength of his having memorised the entire Vulgate Bible, into the highest ranks of the aristocracy. All around him, there are characters in equal parts fascinating and pathetic, perhaps more interesting than he and yet eventually his victims.
The protagonist Julian is at times cold, calculating, shrewd, a fool, and very sad, desperately in need of love. But he is always realistic psychologically and cunning, if lucky and then very unlucky. Julian bursts all of the limits imposed on him and in the process indicts the society from which he sprung and gained. This is utterly spellbinding fiction, into which you can go as deeply as you wish, from simple emotional reactions and an exploration of a rigid society, to structuralist symbolism if that is your bag. I started reading this in a bout of insomnia and continued, rivetted and repelled, through the entire night.
Highest recommendation.
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Stendhal's 'Le Rouge et le Noir' (The Red and the Black) is a classic novel that was very important to me in early formation of directions in life. I found I could identify quite strongly with Julien Sorel, who wanted a better life, a life of meaning and importance, and was torn about which direction in which to go.

The Red (symbolising the church, the scarlet of cardinal's robes) and the Black (symbolising the military, the uniform, etc.) were both options held out to me early; in fact, I rejected both for a while, but have found myself drawn back in the red direction.

The story is one of coming of age as a bookish fellow in a working-class family, then ambition (but not overpowering ambition; in fact, Julien's father wishes he had more), then shifting careers (rare in an era and country where one's path is usually set for life early; however, this was the post-revolution era in France, in which some things were giving way, some more than others, it seems). Julien is pulled by events rather than being the director and creator of realities; Julien finds he loves the affect of various roles in life (more than the substance and responsibilities that come with such roles) -- for instance, he loves the swagger and the horsey-ness of being a soldier, but doesn't particularly like to get dirty or have to fight. He likes the trappings of religious office, but isn't inclined so much to spirituality, and Julien ran up against this in seminary:

The seminary director said to Julien: 'Truth is austere, sir. But our task in this world is austere, too, is it not? You must take care to guard your conscience carefully from this weakness: Excess of feeling for vain exterior charm.'

There is love, a love triangle in fact, romance and thwarted desires, and loves fulfilled, if not completely. It ends with a dramatic homicidal act, trial, an execution, and a most bizarre funeral. The melodramatic performance of Mathilde (re-enacting an earlier story with which she was familiar in which the heroine carried the severed head of her lover to his grave) provided the most animated conversation among ministers and psychologists I have ever witnessed.

Stendhal often built a character's name out of words that were descriptive, which is sometimes lost in translation as the names often don't get translated in the same way, or may have lost the immediacy of their meanings over time. Julien may be a play on Julian the Apostate, enemy of Christianity; Abbe Castanede is decidedly Spanish and inquisitional; Noiroud and Moirod come from words meaning swarthy and mottled; many other examples abound.

This is a very hard book to encapsulate in such a small space. It is not easy reading, but it is rewarding reading.

And again, an interior dialogue of Julien in seminary helps inform me, and keeps me thinking (both for and against in many ways):

'In the seminary, there's a way of eating a boiled egg which declares how far one has progressed down the saintly path....What will I be doing all my life? he asked himself; I'll be selling the faithful a seat in heaven. How will that seat be made visible to them? by the difference between my exterior and that of a layman.'

Choose your path wisely.
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on December 5, 2004
Stendhal's THE RED AND THE BLACK tells the story of the relentlessly ambitious carpenter's son, Julien Sorel, as he plots and achieves his climb to the highest levels of French society. What he finds there is a pervasiveness of hypocrisy, duplicity, and callous self-interest mirroring his own character and which eventually destroys him. The novel is Stendhal's contemporary indictment of the chaos and vacuity of post-Napoleonic France.

Some novels hold up remarkably well through the passage of time and the changing of venue, and THE RED AND THE BLACK is one such novel. The story itself is engaging and enjoyable and the social representatives encountered throughout the narrative, including the protagonist Sorel, are very recognizable to the cynics and social critics of today. The truth that Sorel, the climber, uncovers is that these social types are present at all levels of society.

But I don't often look for symbolism when I read and I enjoyed THE RED AND THE BLACK because it is a rollicking good story told with great introspection and wit. For that, I endorse this book with my highest recommendation.

Jeremy W. Forstadt
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on December 13, 2004
I'm a little surprised at some of the criticisms of R&B in these comments, though they seem to reflect that Stendhal is a more penetrating psychologist than some readers recognize. ("Who else, besides Stendhal, has been a psychologist before me?" asked Nietzsche.) Julien's character is a great achievement precisely because he remains, to some extent, a "stranger." Don't we all? N.b. that both Stendhal and Nietzsche were opera fans; I suspect that the shared appreciation of opera's hyperboles and melodramas may have come from their recognition that we are all acting a part.

Stendhal is more readable than even perhaps Flaubert precisely because of his "modernity" as regards plot and character. I have read R&B at least 10 times and will be reading it the rest of my life. I only wish Stendhal had written a dozen other novels.

Slater's translation for Oxford is also top-notch. DO NOT waste your time with Burton Raffel's new translation for Modern Library, or the old Penguin translation. (The new one for Penguin is quite good, but Slater's is better.) It's unfortunate that Oxford doesn't do a better job of getting its editions of this book and "Charterhouse of Parma" into bookstores.

Incidentally, R&B is a favorite of both Al Gore's and Judge Richard Posner's ... go figure!
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on September 8, 2002
The translation done by Lloyd C. Parks is the best, truly rendering the flavor of Stendhal's style into English. Amazon has it - just look for ISBN 0-451-51793-8. As a French major in grad school, I was studying "The Red and the Black" in one of my French Lit courses and the instructor happened to mention that a colleague in the English Dept. had done an excellent translation of it. I was curious enough to buy it and read it so I could judge for myself. I was so impressed that the very next semester I took a 19th Century Lit course taught in English by Dr. Parks. The course included Stendhal's book (nothing like picking a book apart in two languages!) - and yes, he did use his translation of the book! ;-)
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on December 16, 2013
Nothing wrong with the book. It wasn't what I thought it was, however, which was an anthology of occurrences in the 19th Century.
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on June 5, 2000
Though this novel is supposed as a psycological materpiece I have found it to be sordid and incongruent. Stendhal should have spent less time on his discriptions of Julien Sorel's superficial love endeavors and "rendez-vous" and more time on his character's true personality. After reading 508 pages I found the main character to be a complete stranger. All that was revealed about Julien was that he stuck to his morals all the way to the end. Stendhal should have learned from his creation's ideals and stuck to the basics.
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