Friday, January 19, 2007

Le rouge & le noir

Title: The Red and the Black
Author: Marie-Henri Beyle
Nom-de-Plume: Stendhal

Translator: Burton Raffel
Modern Classics Library 2003;
November 1830

# of Pages:
485 +endnotes

Began Reading:
December 19th, 2006
Finished Reading:
January 14th, 2007

Commencing every shift at the cafe , as if on Auto Pilot, I reach under the counter for the infamous log book. The book that holds all the secrets of the shifts between my own, where each devoted member of the staff writes important notices of what drop-offs were done and which illustrious customers came in yelling out 'Hari Krishna' to the freshmen learning that hot water is really only for when you bleach your whites. "The Red and the Black by Stendhal is a really good book. Has Vanessa read it?" The handwriting distinctly M's, it is still a compliment that she would take the trouble to write such a recommendation.

The Title: Within the circle of R&B readers, past and present, there has been a never-ending - dare I say un-progressive - debate on Stendhal's choice of title. Red... Black... Red... This particular exchange was peculiar for myself considering that there is one passage where the two colours become characters of there own. At the time I was reading this passage my pen on its own accord boldly encircled the words and wrote the words 'rouge et noir = chance'. There is an element of chance throughout the piece - the fact that the characters' thoughts and behaviour on the whole are completely unpredictable! One would expect ecstasy at the devotion of a young, proud woman's love, yet at certain points our so-called hero Julien Sorel discovers- oh no REdiscovers - another gentlewomen to bestow his affections on. Julien's behavior often resembles that of someone who is bi-polar, changing his mind as often as one (hopefully) changes their underthings. When he takes to riding the horse for the Prince's procession in town, one would have thought his character would have met the obligation with some disdain - Julien, idolizing Napoleon, desires throughout to be as honorable as he. He feels caught in society as his beliefs are rooted in another age. Julien adores Napoleon, aspires to glory, but must be wary of people's fear of 'heroes' in post-Terror France. The parade he participates in is more than contrived, it is an artificial display of heroism, with young soldiers dressed up nicely. Julien, however, is given the opportunity to act out the role and he enthusiastically seizes the moment and rides in the front. While feeling immensely proud of himself, the act of riding requires just enough bravery to mount one's own stead. Truly Julien! How could you have thought that would make Napoleon proud?

But I digress... forgive me, Reader - a consequence of loving-yet-hating this fellow whom we find to be our hero only because Stendhal chooses it to be so.

It was as I began searching some online French versions of the book to see if some of the passages that I felt to be mountain-moving in English were accurate to the original when it hit me. 'Le rouge et le noir' (French titles only have the first letter of the first word capitalized). ... Not 'Rouge et noir' LE rouge et LE noir' i.e. THE Red and THE Black. Stendhal is being specific, not general, in his use of the colour terms. Had he wanted to allow for more room for interpretation within the title than he would not have included the article but the fact is HE DID. Now, which specific Red? And which particular Black? The common conclusion is army (r) and clergy (b), which institutionally are portrayed as having many parallels in the areas of -ah! What? That in fact is my own debate. It seems that most sources concur that Stendhal is portraying the corruption of the army and church. But it also appears, especially within the church when Julien goes for his training, that Stendhal is criticizing the useless existence in general. Each group and others such as aristocrats, diplomats, etc. create conflict that defies logic in order, the text insinuates, for them to have some purpose to their existence. It seems that only in turmoil can heroism exist, only in condemning a damned soul can one be saved and only in defying norms can passionate love exist. This novel's plot resides in the contradictions of thoughts and actions in ways that are frustrating (especially at the end). I shall finish discussing this subject now, not because I want to stop, but because to explain my reading I'd need to find textual examples (at the most pivotal, exciting moments!) and ruin a delightfully suspenseful book.
My shift ended and I walked out onto the quiet avenue. Heading South, my mind replayed the message in my mind. Red and black. Red and Black. The author's name lost in my subconscious. But the title was there, bold and daring. A walk through campus, a right on St. Catherines and without realizing it, my feet carried my body into Chapters bookstore. 'One Red and Black', I requested.

Narrative: Shakespeare is loved and admired, not only for his ability to use words -such a variety of words! - like a true weapon, for that rich dialogue, and for his mastery of both comedy and tragedt but also for the ways in which the plot progresses through psychological narrative. Stendhal's novel, one of two that are actually complete, is considered to be the first in its genre that did so. These conclusions, though true and accurate, don't seem to do Stendhal's storytelling genius justice. It seems unlikely that he sat at his desk one evening and came to the realization that since no other novel has ever had a psychologically telling plot, that he would be the first making his piece an instant classic. (unlikely, but not impossible) Looking at this passage may be telling enough:

"As I've become less deceived by mere appearances," [Julien] told himself, "I've learned that Paris drawing rooms are inhabited by respectable people just like my father, or by clever rogues like these old convicts. They're right: society people will never wake up, in the morning, with this agonizing though: 'How am I going to eat?' And they boast about how honest they are ! And when they serve juries, they fiercely condemn a man who stole a set of silver tableware because he thought he'd die of hunger. ..." page 476

Throughout the novel we are introduced to a variety of characters within rural upper class, Parisian 'aristocracy', priests, Bishops, seminarians, etc. Julien is perpetually attempting to understand the intentions of these people. Even in moments of love and lust, Julien questions his present company's actions and words, deciphering what intent lies behind it? Was Monsieur de la Mole really interested in Julien or simply wanting entertainment when he invited the young clerk down in a blue suit for supper? Does Mathilde sacrifice herself for love or because she is playing to the romantic conventions of love? Julien is constantly trying to stay ahead of the game, playing as tactfully as Napoleon would and viewing his social world as one would look upon a battlefield.

And this brings us - oh yes! - back to the title. Red and black are often used as the two colors in a game, not only roulette, but chess and checkers, both games that are attributed with war analogies. Could this be another purpose for Stendhal's title? Whatever the answer, Stendhal's genius in storytelling through the characters' thoughts (the reader has insight into several others in the tale) is one that allows the reader to understand the motives behind the events that unfold in the story. We cannot judge a character solely by what they do but must also take into account their thoughts and private strategies. After all, when Julien is in love with Mathilde he treats her with contempt and indifference so that she will end up loving him more. His actions alone would allow us to believe Julien despised the woman's presence, but his thoughts give us the understanding behind his mean, calculated actions. This method of narration is so sophisticated here (and so innovative) that it adds more than just spice to the story; almost 200 years later, reading this work, we can still explain why Stendhal deserves such credit.

The book connoisseur who was destined to serve me that memorable day was tall. He gave off a sense of consistent discomfort as if he was taken by unpleasant surprise at his person finding itself in such a large body. The shadows under his eyes spoke to my romantic imagination and I guessed that he had had a long spell of reading the night before. This mental fragment of romantic fancy made me overlook his repulsiveness, or at least not focus on it at that time. "That's Stendhal. Follow me." We discovered the R authors, followed along the Ss, "Steinbeck..." But no Stendhal.

One other point on Stendhal's narrative.

Often when I attempt writing, ink to paper or fingers to the keyboard, the description of an environment or person is often the most difficult. I know the effect that I want the passage to convey- the room to be gloomy, the man to be handsome - but because we all vary in tastes (not all women like tall, blond and blue eyed) it is difficult to be in control of the reader's response.

See how Stendhal solves this dilemma:

"The rooms through which these gentlemen walked, on the ground floor, before arriving at the marquis's private office, would have seemed to you, oh my reader, quite as melancholy as they were magnificent. If they were offered to you, exactly as they are, you'd refuse to live in them: this is the land of yawning and dreary formalisms." page 229

GENIUS!! Stendhal is focusing on the reaction of the reader speaking directly to us, admitting to his and our presence in the tale. There is no description of the room, only what we ourselves would imagine this 'ground floor', through which you are walking with Julien, to look like.

Stendhal ends the paragraph by ensuring that the reader separates themself from Julien's character. "Julien's enchantment grew still stronger. 'How can anyone be unhappy,' he thought, 'when they live in such splendor!'" page 230

Had Stendhal described a dark room, a percentage of the audience, myself included, would have felt a comfort in such rooms and a kinship with Julien. However, Stendhal's title as a literary master comes in as he exploits his position of power as author - we cannot ever feel empathy for Julien (sympathy is a whole other issue).

Our Heroines: There are two in this novel: Madame de Renal, who is the mother of the three boys Julien is hired to tutor and Mathilde, the daughter of Julien's later employer. Each lady finds herself the principal topic of one of the two parts in the book. And within those parts one finds that both have a chapter entitled BOREDOM. Now, if one would visit the highly esteemed reading group that is presently devoting their time to this tome, one would see that they share a slight preference for Mme de Renal which I do not. Both women love Julien because he creates a purpose in their otherwise ordinary lives. Once you finish reading the book, please reread the two chapters mentioned above and you shall see what I mean. My apologies for not explaining my point further here. It is not because I wish to simply spurt out my meagre opinions of these bold female characters that are, above all else, entertaining, intelligent in their way and spirited (once Julien comes into the picture) but it would spoil some of the intrigue and that wouldn't be fair, now would it, comrades?

"No! No! You can't do that! You can't not have this book!" I knew I was loud but did not care. "I am sure we have it..." The fellow who read all night and felt uncomfortable in his own skin went to the front desk. "Ah Ha! Here! I've got it!" He placed a fresh copy, the cover of which you see above, in my eager hands.

In concluding the subject on female characters (though I do hope that some of your readers will comment below on the subject), I'd like to quote from It concerns a topic that for some time I have been biting on and considering to make into a theme for a month of reading sometime this year (along with the 3 trillion other challenges I am doing this year. "Unlike the heroines of certain English novels, who are apt to be clinging, frail, and doomed like Clarissa or Tess, to die at the least transgression, Stendhal's heroines are witty, rational, responsible for their own actions, and willing sometimes to sacrifice our pity for respect. Above all, they are women in a French novel, which is quite a different tradition, always franker about sex and infinitely less censorious." Page xix

During the 2000 Presidential Election, Al Gore said that this was his favorite piece of literature. Why wasn't he elected again?...

Stendhal had over 200 pen-names. He was short, fat ugly and very un-Julien.

The chapter headings are invented quotations that are attributed to famous writers and philosophers. These headings are definite tells on the chapter to come.

Read This: When you are ready for a real challenge. For something very unexpected. Not a vacation read, but the girls at got it right when they chose this book as a together read. Definitely will be a source for many juicy debates which I hope you will all be in tune for.

As For the Chunkster Challenge: Bookfoolery, I know that this is kinda cheating because I started this in December, but maybe I can negotiate a half-point? Please, pretty please. I'll still consider myself having 3 to go! But damn! I'm a peacock for having read this one.

Now What: Well, M here it is. Another blog post that I have tried for a week to perfect which you will churn through the mincer I am sure.

Can anyone guess which book I am reading now and thus emulating above (slightly)?? Anyone save M...

The bad news right now is that I saw these amazing poetry volumes that I actually wanted (only$3 each!), but since I swore not to buy a book until I read 10 (which is what I usually do in a month), it was hard but I resisted. I am wondering if anyone out there is kind enough to buy it for me...


Bellezza said...

I believe I caught a mention of this book in your blog before you reviewed it because it caught my interest so much I picked it up from the library yesterday. I didn't read your review carefully, only skimmed it because I want to be "fresh" for my own first read. However, I look forward to coming back and leaving a lucid comment.:)

By the way, I noticed that you had listed Possession in your sidebar as a book you're getting to at some point. May I just tell you that in my opinion it was so awesome I've read it two years in a row? It takes a lot for a book to be that good because there are so many unread titles calling my name.

Your blog is fascinating. Although I am not a first time visitor by any means, I've spent a lot of time reading the wonderful sidebars.

Bellezza said...

p.s. I finished Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana last week and wrote a very, very brief review on my blog. It was also mesmerizing to me.

bookish lore said...

I read Stendhal's masterpiece some years ago but I'm ashamed to admit I have a very dim memory of that reading.

However, your excellent review and the fact that I've recently found out this novel was banned in my country during our very own time of terror have made want to try it again.

Your musings on its title were absolutely refreshing! (and to think that Stendhal called it just Julien in the beginning)

Sara said...

When I saw the cover, I initially thought it said The Bed and the Black and I thought you were reviewing some erotic parody.

Lotus Reads said...

What an enticing cover! It definitely beckons to be read. Going to read your review now.

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

sigh. I never got past chapter one. I really tried...a few times. Wny couldn't I get into it??? This was a really fabulous review and yet I'm not curious to try again. I hope to someday but I am counting my participation in "Reading..." a flop this time around. Hopefully the next book will inspire me more. What are we reading next??

Isabella said...

Well done.

It hasn't come up in any of the searches I've done, but if you ask me what I associate with "red" and "black" off the top of my head I'd say "sex and death."

I like your take on game and strategy. I got the feeling ALL the characters were operating within their own strategies, even if they themselves could identify them, their motive, only in retrospect.

As for the women... I agree Julien is a convenient distraction from their respective ennui. Do you think they both really, I mean REALLY, love him at the end?

I think Mathilde's thought was central: "Nothing can so distinguish a man as a death sentence. It's the only thing one can't buy."

Stendhal IS amazing at drawing the reader in, all the more so when none of his characters are particularly sympathetic.

hellomelissa said...

you really must have been perfecting that review all week! thanks not only for the well-done review, but for the great idea of not buying a new book until you've read 10. i should really take that into consideration.

nessie said...

hey Mel, I actually cheated. No I didnt buy any books. Lets just say others have been buying them for me with an iou date being somewhere around the time I get to my 11th book.

Isa, I don't know about love. I think Stendhal's critic about this passive, protected bored France that he demonstrates is that it isn't really possible - there isn't space for real love that hasn't been tested for even when it is there is such an audience that - like with our two heroines - we are unsure if it is genuine.

heather I understand your sentiments - I have been reading Don Q for 3 years now and read about a dozen pages per year. The first hundred were great but the book got to be soooo boring that can't seen to get through it. My idea is that there will come a time when that book will just fit and I'll tackle it to the end. Dont have any guilty feelings ;)

Bookish Lore stop by when your done and email me with your thoughts. This book has had me talking tons with folks recently.

Sara & Lotus I Love this cover. The Modern Library editions are pretty good though I am told to stay away from all russian translations.

And last but not least bella Bella! Stopped by and glazed the review on Eco since I will be reading it for TBR this fall but promise to stop by with more comments on that when I am done.

I finished Possesions some time ago. I am working on a MEGA AUTHOR post - I have read all the works by Jane Austen and want to write one post on her as an author. It would be a different approach then on writing each book one at a time and it would be interesting to explore writing that way as well. Thats way on occasion it takes me so long to post up. I have been reading an Austen between reads to be able to do this post. One more book to go (Emma).

I adore Possessions! Also, Mansfield Park is worth the read - the movie is good too!

Bybee said...

Thanks for the review. Next time I see this book, I think I'll buy it.

Bookfool said...

I was just certain I replied to your question about the Chunkster Challenge, here (although I haven't been able to get to your blog, which kind of makes that an impossibility). Just in case, though . . . yes, it counts. I posted a message saying, "Go right ahead and start, if you're chomping at the bit," or something of the sort, in December.

I love the way you put that, "I'm a peacock for having read this one." I'm so glad I can read your blog, finally!!!

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