Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, March 7, 2011

"The Red and the Black" by Stendhal

So, Stendhal. A one-named personage bears the expectation that he's sufficiently famous to be recognized by that single name, yet I'd never heard of him before. (I promise I'm really not completely uneducated, even though I may give that impression with depressing regularity.) I figured he must fall somewhere between Jesus and Flea.

In case this is the first you've heard of Stendhal also, here's a little bit about him. Stendhal was a Frenchman whose real name was Marie-Henri Beyle. He was born in 1783, just a few years before the French Revolution began. He did most of his writing, including The Charterhouse of Parma, after the Napoleonic era but before he stroked out and died on a Paris street in 1842.

Stendhal's works were renowned for their psychological insight. In fact, though I didn't even notice this as I read but I recognized it when it was pointed out in the Afterword, Stendhal spent very little time describing his characters' outward appearances, instead focusing on their thoughts and motives. He reminded me of Henry James by seamlessly and believeably allowing me into his characters' minds.

I didn't automatically know what the colors in the title referred to, nor am I sure I would have figured it out from the text, but luckily the blurb on the back of the book spelled it out for me: "the red" is the military and "the black" is the clergy. Unfortunately the same blurb also revealed what I consider a major spoiler, as it referred to something that didn't occur until about 50 pages from the end of the book. (See how nice I am, that I'm not telling you what that spoiler is?) The spoiler was almost forgivable, as it was only mentioned in relation to Stendhal's inspiration for the story, but that part of the plot would have had a much greater impact on me if I hadn't been expecting it. Or . . . maybe not. The copy Elvis read didn't have that spoiler, and to him it seemed as if that part of the book came out of nowhere.

The Red and the Black is the story of cold-hearted, calculating young Julien Sorel and his ambitions. He is pulled in two directions. He idolizes Napoleon but feels he has to hide that admiration, probably because it was frowned upon in Restoration France as disloyal to the king; and, anyway, the time for military glory seems to have passed. He is drawn to the church as a career, even though it is nearly meaningless to him as anything beyond a source of money and social status. But his ambivalence is pretty well derailed when he discovers sex. The book is divided into two parts, each dealing with one of his two all-consuming affairs.

Although Stendhal does provide a clear window into his characters' minds, he leaves it to his readers to decide how we feel about them.  He once wrote that "a novel is like a bow; the violin casing that renders the sound is the reader." Stendhal relates the thoughts and emotions of  his characters, but he does little to influence the way the reader judges them. Indeed, Elvis and I had quite different feelings about Julien: I thought he was despicable, and Elvis thought he was just young and confused. Maybe we were both right.

7 comments:

Andi said...

I first heard about this one from one of my professors as an undergrad, and I've been game to read it ever since. Have I read it? NOOO (story of my life), but your review is certainly giving me a push I need. I vow not to read any blurbs because I hate spoilers. Yours was a lovely, non-spoilery blurb. :)

Eclectic Indulgence said...

It's been nearly three years since I read this one, and I must say that it does not stand the test of time in my head. I had to go back and read my review on the subject, which thankfully took me back to one of my favourite quotes on vanity that I believe I keep misquoting.

My review here:
http://eclectic-indulgence.blogspot.com/2008/06/red-and-black-stendhal.html

I always ignore the backs and flaps of books, and try not to read reviews unless I've already delved into the book or have a really good idea of what it's about already. That said, I completely screwed up my current reading of War and Peace because of a character list that gave away the ending. The nerve of some people.

Trisha said...

I try to skip blurbs and summaries before reading because of my severe dislike of plot spoilers.

I've had this one on my shelves for years - an inheritance from somewhere.

Kathy said...

So apparently I *am* the only person who had never heard of Stendhal. :-/

You're all so good about not reading the blurbs. I fear I just can't resist.

Anthony said...

The Charterhouse of Parma pips Scarlet and Black for me, but they are both outstanding. The other Stendhal worth reading is his essay On Love and his journal.

Bellezza said...

Hmmm, I've wanted to read this for quite a few years. I'm glad you gave a little background knowledge here, with no spoilers. Perhaps this summer for me?

Kathy said...

Two more votes to show I am the only person in the world who hasn't heard of Stendhal. ;)

Anthony--looks like I have some more to add to my TBR!

Bellezza--I'll be looking forward to hear what you think of it! I bet you will enjoy it.