Thursday, January 7, 2016

"he had not been in love with her three days earlier, when he had been hiding in the great mahogany wardrobe" in Stendahl's The Red and the Black

I've had a couple of Stendahl novels on my shelves for almost a decade, and I've been putting them off because I had an impression of Stendahl as being rather heavy going, quite serious sort of grumbling literature. Oh, I knew I'd read him one day, but it was pretty easy to push that day back and back into the dim future. This weekend, however, that day finally came, and I took down a copy of The Red and the Black, instantly discovering that I'd been wrong about poor Mr S all these years. Rather than being a ponderous sort of psychological study, The Red and the Black is a fairly light satirical social novel in the vein of Voltaire's Candide. Who knew?

By light satire, I of course mean stylistically, not necessarily thematically. The Red and the Black chides every social stratum of France to be found in 1830, Stendahl claiming that almost every living Frenchman (and Englishman, via an amusing chapter set in London) is a hypocrite. This hypocrisy has real results on real people's lives, but nobody is interested in becoming better and thus creating a better world. The protagonist of the novel, Julien Sorel, makes it a point to live hypocritically, and every so often when his situation changes, "he had to construct an entirely new character for himself." New because Julien attempts to act in ways that will materially benefit him, ways that run counter to his actual (quite low) opinions of the people who are his benefactors. Julien believes that if he is his true self he will be despised and therefore starve to death. The irony of this is that Julien's true self is pretty awful; he's not the sublime and proud work of art he imagines himself to be. He's a petty and prideful little man who just happens to be good looking and was taught Latin at an early age by a generous curate. Julien is certainly not Candide either, for all The Red and the Black's debt to Voltaire (and Voltaire is mentioned frequently in the novel). Candide was an innocent; Julien is naive (or provincial, as the author will tell you at some length), but he is by no means pure and good.
In the nineteenth century when an influential man of good family meets a man of spirit, in the ordinary course of events he either has him put to death, condemned to exile or imprisonment, or humiliates him in such a way that the fellow is foolish enough to die of grief. In this instance, by chance, the man of spirit is not the one to suffer.
Julien has been taken in by M. Renal, the mayor of a provincial town, as a teacher of Latin for his sons. Julien resents being treated as a servant (though he was regularly beaten by his father, who worked him at a saw mill, and so Julien's fortunes are markedly improved by this new position). He resents his social/economic place beneath the coarse and shallow M. Renal, and to revenge himself Julien seduces Madame Renal, the mayor's wife. The results are predictable and farcical, and Julien must eventually flee this employment. He is lucky to receive a scholarship to a seminary in the provincial capital. He immediately alienates his 200 fellow seminarians, and sees the whole project of organized religion as just another form of hypocrisy and self-serving greed. Being a self-serving greedy hypocrite, Julien works to be successful while despising everyone around him. At some point Julien is taken out of the seminary to work for the Marquis de la Mole in Paris. There, Julien is raised in station yet again, resents the world around him, and essentially the same series of events unfolds as happened in the Renal household. At least Julien learns to ride a horse in Paris.

I was just about to say that it's difficult to sustain satire for 500 pages, but what might be more accurate would be to say that I find it difficult as a reader to sustain interest in a 500-page satire. The novel is a bit of a picaresque in the way that Dickens' novels are picaresques: a character is followed as he interacts with a variety of other characters who represent the author's ideas of social classes or types. As such, the interest is primarily in the satire of the various social types, and the plot is repetitive. Julien finds a niche, fails to fit in, and must find another niche. And again. And again. Everyone he meets is corrupt in some way. This, I agree, follows the pattern of Candide, but Voltaire's novel was mercifully short. The Red and the Black is not short, and because it's built on a repetitive pattern, you can see the plot creaking along as it points you to actions you've long predicted. Some eye-rolling and sighing has been involved in the reading of this novel.
Why, my good sir, a novel is a mirror journeying down the high road. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure blue of heaven, sometimes the mire in the puddles on the road below. And the man who carries the mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror reflects the mire, and you blame the mirror! Blame rather the high road on which the puddle lies, and still more the inspector of roads and highways who lets the water stand there and the puddle form.
That defense of the vulgar actions Stendahl's characters perform follows on the heels of the author's claim that his characters are "wholly drawn from imagination, and conceived as being well outside those social habits which will assure the nineteenth century so distinguished a place amongst all other centuries." Good one, Stendahl. This is a highly quotable novel, full of pithy paragraphs. It's not a great thing in toto, but it's pretty good and worth having read. It will probably be a few years before I take The Charterhouse of Parma down from the shelf, though.

Photo credit: Mighty Reader


  1. You're further along with this novel than I ever got. I read it just before I started WE. Maybe if I were writing about it publicly I would have forced myself to think about it more, rather than shrug.

    Charterhouse of Parma begins with a battlefield scene that is excellent and had a big effect of fictional war writing. I do not know what it has to do with the rest of the novel, but it's good.

    1. "I don't know what it has to do with the rest of the novel" must be a common reader comment with Stendahl. A hundred pages from the end of The Red and the Black, the novel turns into a wish-fulfillment fantasy a la de Quincy's Hadrian. The wealthy nobility Julien despises is making him one of them, despite themselves. So huh. But as a counterweight to that nonsense, the narrator is becoming more intrusive, in a Sternesque manner. A good parenthetical about how his editor won't let him skip a dull long political scene and just insert a line of asterisks instead. An aside about how the dullness of Julien's life at one point must even bore the reader. Things like that, quite amusing but strange eruptions. I imagine Stendahl tired of the project, pushing himself to wrap things up and move on to some other writing, no longer able to take the novel seriously.

  2. I confess also to being intimidated by Stendahl; I've attempted _Charterhouse_ several times, but my mind could not adapt to the style and tone of the narrative (which might be blamed on the translation), and I've never gotten beyond a few dozen pages. But this suggests a question: are you a reader who will not abandon a book but will finish it in spite of obstacles, or do you give a book a certain amount of time/pages to either hook you or suffer the consequences of abandonment? Are there particular books that have stumped you?

    1. I always find myself sort of negotiating the terms of the narrative with the author for the first chapter or two, which really means me getting used to whatever it is the author is doing in the writing. The style of The Red and the Black is similar enough to a lot of things I've previously read (Voltaire, for example) that it was no big deal. I'd thought Stendahl's style would be difficult, heavy somehow, but it's not.

      I've found that a lot of books that had patches of heavy going for me were worth reading anyway, worth the effort of pushing through whatever sections I didn't connect with. Hell, everything I have read is worth having read. In living memory, there is only one novel I put down never to pick up again, and it was a popular recent novel by a popular living author of what's popularly called "literary fiction." So go figure. But as far as novels go, I finish everything. Why not?

    2. It did take me two attempts to read Brothers Karamazov and Moby-Dick, but they are both excellent novels. I just had to become a better reader for those books in order to finish them. It took me months to get through Gargantua and Pantagruel because a lot of the last third of it is just silly and not particularly interesting. I poked away at Lydia Davis' collected stories for most of a year, chipping away. Most of that was forgettable stuff, but among the forgettable were hidden some remarkable things, well worth plowing through to discover. I usually won't pick up a book unless I'm curious about it.

      The final fifty pages of The Red and the Black are just awful, absolutely ridiculous, by the way. But I kept pushing on because I'd already gone along with Stendahl for 450 pages so I didn't want to abandon him that close to the end.