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The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century (The World's Classics) Paperback – September 5, 1991
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Little appreciated in its day, this 1831 classic by Henri Beyle (that was Stendhal's real name) tells the story of the rise and fall of Julien Sorel, a man of affairs in every sense. It's also a scathing indictment of a materialistic society, France under the Bourbons and an irresistible chronicle of love, politics and manners. The book now resides securely on most short lists of the world's great novels.
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French
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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.
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.).