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The Red and the Black Paperback – May, 2005
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|Paperback, May, 2005||
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Because this classic was written in 1830, today’s readers can be forgiven if some of the plot lines, psychological exposition, obvious use of foreshadowing and characters seem a bit familiar. It is easy to envision a young Theodore Dreiser, Erich Maria Remarque, Saul Bellow or Willa Cather holed up in a corner devouring every word as it sowed the seeds for their writing (I found so many parallels with An American Tragedy and Augie March). Stendhal’s story delves deeply into a particular society in a unique period of history. Julien indeed feels a bit lost; he would rather have been marching with his hero Napoleon in an earlier time. At times it seems tedious, which Stendhal comically acknowledges: “The total boredom of the life led by Julien, without real interests, will no doubt be shared by the reader. These are the flatlands of our journey.”
Yet the journey takes us to a conclusion that has a lasting effect. I doubt it can be forgotten by anyone once read. Like training for a long race, it makes all the toil that came before it more enjoyable and relevant. I can better understand why, in life, there are but a happy few.
The plot follows a young man who wants more from life than being a peasant. He educates himself and comes to the attention of the local church hierarchy. He furthers his education and gains a position in a middling household as a tutor to the children of a local somebody. The envy he feels and the derision and contempt he is treated with conspire to push his ambition further to ruinous heights. He commits adultery and causes scandal eventually ending in murder.
One feels sorry for him as a victim of society's class divisions and rules yet at the same time he brings his tragedy on himself. It is almost Shakespearean in its scale.
Highly recommended for all lovers of quality literature.
The Red and the Black first caught my attention 25 years ago in January 1983; a stack of copies were set out on a table in the Tattered Cover Bookshop, Denver (then on 1st Avenue in the Cherry Creek area). At that time, the Penguin edition was a new translation to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the author, Henri-Marie Beyle, January 23, 1783. I don't know how or why I decided to buy a copy; maybe it had something to do with the brief review on the back cover, which was perhaps then as it is now: "Handsome, ambitious Julien Sorel is determined to rise above his humble provincial origins." Maybe I saw something of Julien in myself, or maybe like Mathilde de la Mole, I was looking for a life outside the script dictated by parents and society, or trying to find a world beyond materialism and utilitarianism, something inspirational and possibly Romantic. It was with this novel that I first realized that a writer could communicate intimately across centuries; I fell in love with Stendhal. I wanted to know about his life. He wrote with integrity; he wrote what he knew to be true about life, and he did not let the marketplace dictate what he should write. Beyle was a human being first, then a writer.
In January 1983, as now in January 2008, reading The Red and the Black, I am astounded with the author's ability to move smoothly from the character's interior thoughts into action or landscape while encompassing his characters in their political/social matrix. Whether in a high-society drawing room or in the stillness of night, Stendhal gave his work movement, dynamism. There is something uncanny about the author's ability to draw characters like Madame de Renal and her husband, a small-town merchant, politician, religious hypocrite. It is the Renals of the world who have the power to destroy the Romantically inspired Juliens and Mathildes, and yet a market-driven nation doesn't seem to function without the Renals. An unusual but appropriate companion reading to Stendhal's work might be Tocqueville's Democracy in America; volume one published in 1835.
Any English major will enjoy this book. It encapsulates a time period beautifully and is darkly humorous. It is a bit slow at times, but Julien is an interesting enough character that even the longest psychological monologues are interesting.
Stendhal's best, will grab you, take you into Julien's world and leave you wanting more.