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Stendhal - Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) Legolas Send a noteboard - 28/04/2012 10:26:21 PM
As far as intriguingly mysterious titles go, there are few other classics that can rival "The Red and the Black", or at least I've always thought so. The red what and the black what? For Stendhal's contemporaries (the book was published in 1830), this probably wasn't quite so difficult to guess: the red uniform of the soldier and the black clothes of the priest - the two most obvious ways for a low-born but ambitious young man to make his career.

Julien Sorel is such a man, burning with admiration for the great Napoleon who fell from power about a decade earlier, and determined to reach far greater heights than the sawing enterprise of his family in a quiet town near the Swiss border. This career begins modestly but promisingly with his appointment as tutor to the mayor's children, and will rapidly grow far beyond that; but at the end of the day Julien's pride and disgust for hypocrisy are even stronger than his ambition, with all the consequences that entails.

Wikipedia tells me that Stendhal is "known for his acute analysis of his characters' psychology", and that certainly is something you have to hand to him. Julien Sorel is an interesting and complex character - albeit a long way from sympathetic. In romance like in his career, he is manipulative, proud in the extreme and prone to radical changes of heart. This doesn't seem to hinder him in his success with the two women he falls in love with, though; on the contrary, the second relationship reads like an advertisement for the manipulative and somewhat repulsive seduction technique known nowadays as PUA. The woman in question is Mathilde-Marguerite de La Mole, the daughter of a wealthy marquis, who is just as proud as Julien, and whose ideas about romance are mostly inspired by the story of her famous ancestor and his royal mistress (which will be familiar to those who have read Dumas' Queen Margot, or seen the movie version; for everyone else, see Wikipedia). Which makes it somewhat difficult to feel much sympathy for her, either.

There seems to be something about the 1820s and 1830s that inspired great writers to write depressing novels about characters that readers have a hard time sympathizing with. Flaubert with Madame Bovary, Thackeray with Vanity Fair, and then this one, all of which I've read in the past year and a half, so the pattern is fairly striking to me (the exception is George Eliot's Middlemarch). But this book is not quite as bleak as Madame Bovary, fortunately - it's too inconsistent in tone for that. Flaubert and Thackeray had a clear idea of where they wanted to go with their respective novels, which tone they wanted to take, and how they could motivate their decision to make their characters so unsympathetic. It's not clear to me that Stendhal had a clear idea of any of these things while writing this novel (in fairness, he did write it in an astonishingly short period of time, which considering the undeniable quality of the novel is an impressive achievement), and so I'm really not quite sure what to make of it.

In terms of plot and pace, there is unevenness as well; the last third of the novel is noticeably faster-paced than the rest, and on several occasions momentous events are described in a single line after several pages of unimportant things in great detail (at one point I had to backtrack half a page and go search for such a momentous event that I'd apparently missed somehow). No doubt this was intentional, but it's still somewhat strange. The attention devoted to the political background of the period varies greatly as well; one chapter describes a political conspiracy at the highest level with very serious potential ramifications, but after that hardly anything is heard about the whole thing. A footnote indicates that Stendhal originally intended to omit the details and simply indicate that Julien played a modest role in a certain unspecified conspiracy (as well he might have done: he published his novel very soon after the events that inspired that chapter, and it must have been a highly sensitive topic), but that his publisher convinced him otherwise.

All in all, Le Rouge et le Noir is a fascinating novel, at times funny, at times gripping, and insightful in human psychology throughout. It's not always a smooth and pleasant read, and I definitely can't rank it among my favourite books, but I think the effort is well worth it.
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Stendhal - Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) - 28/04/2012 10:26:21 PM 8277 Views
Another of those I read when too young - 01/05/2012 06:30:28 PM 1270 Views
I mostly have that with War and Peace. - 01/05/2012 06:41:38 PM 1395 Views
I last read it a few years ago - 02/05/2012 03:38:02 AM 1240 Views
Yeah, that does make me wonder about you at 21, I must admit. - 02/05/2012 06:57:17 PM 1535 Views
A couple of my friends called me a "socially deviate asshole" back then - 02/05/2012 08:05:03 PM 1714 Views
That explains a lot. - 02/05/2012 08:22:04 PM 1659 Views

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