Monday, May 20, 2013

The Red and the Black

The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

I wasn't sure what to expect from this novel, but I've always kind of wanted to find out about it.  Stendhal was the pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle, a French writer of the early 19th century (I have no idea how you would pronounce "Stendhal" in French, though; in my head it sounds Scandinavian).   The Red and the Black was his second novel, written in 1830.  Stendhal was concerned with creating realistic psychological portraits of his characters, and he seems to have been one of the earliest French Realists.  Reading this book did feel quite a lot like reading Madame Bovary that way; there was the same meticulous dissection of motivations and feelings. 

This is the story of Julien Sorel, a country peasant boy who wants something different out of life.  His father and older brothers are carpenters, and they're doing quite well at it, but they all hate weird young Julien, who only wants to read and despises everything about his family--their peasant class, their greed for money, and their anti-intellectualism.  The local priest has taken Julien under his wing and taught him; Julien has a talent for Latin and he can memorize anything.  Secretly he has no faith whatsoever and idolizes Napoleon.  He dreams of military glory and rising to the top of the ranks before he is 30, but there doesn't seem to be any opportunity for a career as an officer in these degenerate Royalist days, so Julien starts off a religious career as a tutor to a wealthy local family.

Julien's main characteristic is his ambition, but he is naive and doesn't understand the high society he wants to join.  He falls into affairs and intrigues through this ambition, usually hiding his true beliefs in order to get ahead, but he really doesn't fit anywhere.  He dreams of "the red"--a military career that he can't have--and chafes at "the black"--the ecclesiastical career he finds himself in.   In the end he can't fit at all.

There is a lot of early 19th century French politics, which I really don't know that much about, so that was a bit of a problem.  Footnotes helped some, but I would have done well to read a little background first.  Now you forewarned if you decide to read about Julien.

It wasn't my favorite book ever--I liked Madame Bovary more--and it moves deliberately slowly, examining every detail, but on the whole I'm glad to have read it.  The psychological dissection is quite interesting, for me particularly when it came to Mathilde de la Mole, a girl of a proud and mercurial temperament.  




In other news, the Classics Spin #2 number came up as 6, so I will be reading Tennessee Williams' play "A Streetcar Named Desire."  I've never read Williams at all, so this will be neat.

2 comments:

figandthistle.com said...

I've always thought that this looks like a fairly daunting book. Let me know how it is. I got Jenny by Sigrid Undset for the Classics Club Spin.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I would not exactly call the bok daunting, but I do not read Stendhal so well, so maybe it is. Stendhal is odd - subtle, I guess.