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.