Tuesday, November 8, 2011

438. The Red and Black – Stendahl

History: Written in 1830 the book was written in two volumes. The novel’s composite full title, Le Rouge et le Noir, Chronique du XIXe siécle (The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the 19th Century), indicates its two-fold literary purpose, a psychological portrait of the romantic protagonist, Julien Sorel, and an analytic, sociological satire of the French social order under the Bourbon Restoration(1814–30). In English, Le Rouge et le Noir is variously translated as Red and Black, Scarlet and Black, and The Red and the Black, without the sub-title.Occurring from September 1826 until July 1831, Le Rouge et le Noir is the Bildungsroman of Julien Sorel, the intelligent, ambitious, protagonist from a poor family, who fails to understand much about the ways of the world he sets to conquer. He harbours many romantic illusions, becoming mostly a pawn in the political machinations of the ruthless influential people about him. The adventures of the flawed hero satirize French early nineteenth-century society, especially the hypocrisy and materialism of thearistocracy and members of the Roman Catholic Church in foretelling the coming radical changes that will depose them from French society.The first volume’s epigraph is attributed to Danton: “La vérité, l’âpre vérité” (“The truth, the harsh truth”), which is fictional, like most of the chapter epigraphs. The first chapter of each volume repeats the title Le Rouge et le Noir and the Chronique de 1830 sub-title. The novel’s title denotes the contrasting uniforms of the Army and the Church. Early in the story, Julien Sorel realistically observes that under the Bourbon restoration it is impossible for a man of his plebian social class to distinguish himself in the army (as he might have done under Napoleon), hence only a Church career offers social advancement and glory.In some editions, the first book ("Livre premier", ending after Chapter XXX) concludes with the quotation: “To the Happy Few”, a dedication variously interpreted to mean either the few readers who could understand Stendhal’s writing; or a Shakespearean allusion to Henry V (1599); or a sardonic reference to the well-born of society (viz. Canto 11 Don Juan, 1821, by Byron) or to those living per “Beylisme”: personal happiness being the purpose of existence — accordingly, every action taken to achieve that is permissible — hence Julien’s expediency with people — wherein “La force d’âme” (“Force of the soul”) is the most important virtue, realised as courage, resolution, and moral energy. (It seems most French editions do not have this quote, for unclear reasons; as is well-known, it appears also at the end of "La Chartreuse de Parme").
André Gide said that The Red and the Black was a novel ahead of its time, that it was a novel for readers in the 20th century. In Stendhal’s time, prose novels included dialogue and omniscient narrator descriptions; his great contribution to literary technique was describing the psychologies (feelings, thoughts, inner monologues) of the characters, and as a result he is considered the creator of the psychological novel.
Plot: Book I presents the ambitious son of a carpenter in the (fictional) Verrières village, in Franche-Comté, France, who would rather read and daydream about the glory days of Napoleon's long-disbanded army, than work his father’s timber business with his brothers, who beat him for his intellectual affectations.[1] In the event, Julien Sorel becomes an acolyte of the abbé Chénal, the local Catholic prelate, who later secures him a post as the tutor for the children of Monsieur de Rênal, the mayor of Verrières. Despite appearing to be a pious, austere cleric, Julien is uninterested in the Bible beyond its literary value, and how he can use memorised passages (learnt in Latin) to impress important people.
He enters a love affair with Monsieur de Rênal’s wife; it ends badly when exposed to the village, by her chambermaid, Elisa, who had romantic designs upon him. The abbé Chénal orders Julien to a seminary inBesançon, which he finds intellectually stifling and pervaded with social cliques. The initially cynical seminary director, the abbé Pirard (of the Jansenist faction more hated than the Jesuit faction in the diocese), likes Julien, and becomes his protector. Disgusted by the Church’s political machinations, the abbé Pirard leaves the seminary, yet first rescues Julien from the persecution he would have suffered as his protégé, by recommending him as private secretary to the diplomat Marquis de la Mole, a Roman Catholic legitimist.
Book II chronicles the time leading to the July Revolution of 1830, and Julien Sorel’s Parisian life, as an employee of the de la Mole family. Despite moving among high society, the family and their friends, condescend to Julien for being an uncouth plebeian — his intellectual talents notwithstanding. In his boundlessly ambitious rise in the world, Julien perceives the materialism and hypocrisy important to the élite of Parisian society, and that the counter-revolutionary temper of the time renders it impossible for well-born men of superior intellect and æsthetic sensibility to progressively participate in the public affairs of the nation with any success.
The Marquis de la Mole takes Julien to a secret meeting, then despatches him on a dangerous mission to communicate a political letter (that he has memorised) to the Duc d'Angouleme, who is exiled in England; however, the callow Julien is mentally distracted, by an unsatisfying love affair, thus he only learns the message by rote, but not its political significance as a legitimist plot. Unwittingly, the plebeian Julien Sorel risks his life in secret service to the right-wing monarchists he most opposes; to himself, Julien rationalises such action as merely helping the Marquis, his employer, whom he respects.
Meanwhile, in the preceding months, the Marquis’s bored daughter, Mathilde de la Mole, had become emotionally torn, between her romantic attraction to Julien, for his admirable personal and intellectual qualities, and her social repugnance at becoming sexually intimate with a lower-class man. At first, he finds her unattractive, but his interest is piqued, by her attentions and the admiration she inspires in others; twice, she seduces and rejects him, leaving him in a miasma of despair, self-doubt, and happiness (he won her over aristocrat suitors). Only during his secret mission does he gain the key to winning her affections: a cynicaljeu d’amour proffered to him by Prince Korasoff, a Russian man-of-the-world. At great emotional cost, Julien feigns indifference to Mathilde, provoking her jealousy with a sheaf of love-letters meant to woo Madame de Fervaques, a widow in the social circle of the de la Mole family. Consequently, Mathilde sincerely falls in love with Julien, eventually revealing to him that she carries his child; yet, whilst he was on diplomatic mission in England, she became officially engaged to Monsieur de Croisenois, an amiable, rich young man, heir to a duchy.
Learning of Julien’s romantic liaison with Mathilde, the Marquis de la Mole is angered, but relents before her determination, and his affection for him, and bestows upon Julien an income-producing property attached to an aristocratic title, and a military commission in the army. Although ready to bless their marriage, he changes his mind upon receiving the reply to a character-reference-letter he wrote to the abbé Chénal, Julien’s previous employer in the village of Verrières; however, the reply letter, written by Madame de Rênal — at the urging of her confessor priest — warns the Marquis that Julien Sorel is a social-climbing cad who preys upon emotionally vulnerable women.
On learning the Marquis’s disapproval of the marriage, Julien Sorel travels to his home village of Verrières and shoots Madame de Rênal during Mass in the village church; she survives. Despite the efforts of Mathilde, Madame de Rênal, and the priests devoted to him since his early life, Julien Sorel is determined to die — because the materialist society of Bourbon Restoration France will not accommodate a low-born man of superior intellect and æsthetic sensibility possessing neither money nor social connections.Meanwhile, the presumptive duke, Monsieur de Croisenois, one of the fortunate few of Bourbon France, is killed in a duel fought over a slur upon the honour of Mathilde de la Mole. Despite her undiminished love for Julien, his imperiously intellectual nature, and its component romantic exhibitionism, render Mathilde’s prison visits to him a duty.
Moreover, when Julien learns he did not kill Madame de Rênal, that resurrects his intemperate love for her — lain dormant throughout his Parisian time and his passion for Mathilde, who visits him during the final days of his life. Afterwards, Mathilde de la Mole re-enacts the cherished, sixteenth-century French tale of Queen Margot visiting her dead lover, Joseph Boniface de La Mole, to kiss the lips of his severed head. In the nineteenth century, Mathilde de la Mole so treated Julien Sorel’s severed head, making a shrine of his tomb, in the Italian fashion.
Review: "I will be famous around 1880," boasted Marie Henri Beyle to posterity sometime around the beginning of the 19th century, with full knowledge that nosy critics would one day be poking around in his private diaries. "I shall not go out of style, nor my glory go out of style."
The author more commonly known as Stendhal was off by a decade or so. The first of his many revivals began around 1860, spurred by the writers whose audiences he had helped create. First Balzac, who, exulting over one of Stendhal's two great novels, The Charterhouse of Parma, wrote, "If Machiavelli had written a novel it would be this" (that was a compliment). Then Zola, who proclaimed Stendhal "the father of us all" (an odd tribute to a man who never married). Only Victor Hugo, with no idea that Walt Disney would someday turn his own most famous creation into a cartoon musical, dared to write, "Stendhal can not last."
Stendhal, the French novelist with the German pen name and the Italian temperament, has already outlasted all of his contemporaries and very nearly everyone who has come along since. He is the novelist who always seems contemporary without having ever been in vogue. Today, he resists critics' attempts to classify him as one of the Romantics; he seems to have almost nothing at all in common with Byron, with whom he walked the streets of Milan, and is only slightly less at home in the company of the great "social" writers of the later 19th century who would claim him for their ranks. (Stendhal would have considered their politically engaged novels to have been a giant step in reverse. "Politics, set among the imagination's concerns, is like a pistol shot fired at a concert," he wrote, a line he liked so much he worked it into both The Charterhouse of Parma and The Red and the Black.)
Nietzsche called him "the last of the great French moralists"; more than a century later he may seem to us more like the first of the great French moralists. His best English-language biographer, Matthew Josephson, thought that he played "the good European" long before that role was widely appreciated. But Stendhal was condescending toward the Germans, loathed the English ("Nothing can equal my love for English literature, except my repugnance for Englishmen"), and was contemptuous of his French countrymen. The Italians? Well, they named a street after him in Milan and even gave him a bust in La Scala, but at least one Italian writer complained angrily that "Stendhal loved everything that we detest about our country." It's not surprising that no "good European" nation has ever claimed him; he didn't write for good Europeans.
Who would claim such a failure, one whose books were out of print when he died?
Not lovers of great adventure novels. Though deputy commissary Beyle fled with Napoleon and the Grand Army in the horror-filled retreat from Moscow, he never made mention of it in his fiction. (He did write a terrific chapter on the Battle of Waterloo, which he did not see, for The Charterhouse of Parma.) Not feminists; his unclassifiable book on seduction, Love, is gravid with tips for young sexual predators such as "Glances are the big guns of the virtuous coquette" and "A long siege humiliates a man but ennobles a woman."
Certainly not admirers of great literary men of noble character. Stendhal was an opportunistic hack and a plagiarizer; his "biographies" of Mozart and Rossini, both of whom he was ahead of his time in admiring, are filled with passages lifted whole from other writers, and even the quotes and epigrams from famous writers that he used to open the chapters of his great novels were often distorted or invented altogether. Stendhal could even be called, with some justification, a slacker, having left most of his potentially great works unfinished.
Who would claim him? Why, of course, those of us resentful toward our economic and social superiors, who are envious of the beautiful and famous, who are pissed off at our lack of social standing, and eternally indignant that our talents aren't fully appreciated. Have I left anyone out?
Simply put, in The Red and the Black -- the colors in the enigmatic title might refer to roulette, to passion and the black robes of the clergy, to the red flag of war and the black flag of anarchy, or to any of a dozen other possible symbols -- Stendhal foreshadowed alienation and disaffection. He made them as sexy as a lipstick trace on a wine glass by embodying them in Julien Sorel, an epicene young theology student endowed with his creator's own intelligence and ambition without any of his physical repulsiveness. (If a smart producer had cast the role of Julien for a movie in the early '50s, he might have cast James Dean -- or, better yet, the young Montgomery Clift, who played a variant of Julien in the film version of Dreiser's "An American Tragedy.") Stendhal, the provincial petite bourgeois, then took his revenge on French society by pointing Julien on the road from Verriers ("one of the prettiest little towns in all Franche-Conte") to Paris and -- voil�! -- the modern novel was born.
It has been said that Julien Sorel is the fictional creation of the 19th century who most haunts the 20th. (That he haunts 20th century writers is undeniable; one need only visit a secondhand bookstore and look at the number of movie novelizations penned by writers who use his as their pen name. The anonymous author of the Rocky paperback, for instance, was "Julia Sorel.")
Yet if some modern readers have been slow to come to Stendhal, a possible reason is that his best novels don't read as modern as they feel. The famous C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation for Modern Library was first published in 1926. Margaret R.B. Shaw's 1953 translation for Penguin reads like a translation of an 18th century novel.
The new translation by Burton Raffel rocks. Or, more precisely, it's a blast, which is exactly how Raffel (a distinguished professor of humanities at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who has also dragged Balzac's old warhorse, P�re Goriot, kicking and screaming into the 21st century) has Julien describe his own life: "'If you give me twenty francs,' he says to a visitor while awaiting his trip to the guillotine, 'I'll tell you, in detail, the story of my life. It's a blast.'" Raffel restores to Stendhal the quality that, in the words of V.S. Pritchett, makes "each sentence of his plain prose" read like "a separate shock."
Let's compare two different versions of the oft-quoted passage on Julien's narcissism, translated first by Moncrieff then by Raffel:
-- "Julien's life was thus composed of a series of petty negotiations; and their success was of far more importance to him than the evidence of a marked preference for himself which was only waiting for him to read it in the heart of Madame de Renal."
-- "Julien's life was thus composed of a series of petty negotiations, and their success concerned him far more than the signs of special affection he could have read in Madame de Renal's heart, if only he had bothered."
Thanks to outdated translations, Stendhal has spent the last few decades languishing in the twilight realm of the praised but unread. Now, thanks to Raffel's translation, Julien Sorel can begin haunting the 21st century.
Opening Line: “The small town of Verrières may be regarded as one of the most attractive of the Franche-Comté.”
Closing Line: “She didn’t seek in anyway to take her own life, but three days after Julien, died, while embracing her children.”
Quotes: “After moral poisoning, one requires physical remedies and a bottle of champagne.”
“Love born in the brain is more spirited, doubtless, than true love, but it has only flashes of enthusiasm; it knows itself too well, it criticizes itself incessantly; so far from banishing thought, it is itself reared only upon a structure of thought.”
Rating: Not Good, however a classic.

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