Stendhal • The Red and the Black

I’m still working out what I want these reviews to be, trying to develop my voice while holding onto the delight I’ve been experiencing as I begin reading consistently again for the first time in years. This process makes reviewing classics like The Red and the Black by Stendhal a rather imposing task, since I know whatever I write will be inadequate, particularly because I was bored for large chunks of the novel as the plot whirred away and Stendhal exhausted his barbs.

So here are a few words on The Red and the Black. I read Catherine Slater’s 1991 translation for Oxford, and I thought it was very readable.

Stendhal, The Red and the Black, trans. Catherine Slater. 1830 novel about an ambitious young man in post-Napoleonic France. Tepidly recommended.

 Camille Corot • Toussaint Lemaistre

Camille Corot • Toussaint Lemaistre

The Red and the Black is a novel about power. Julien Sorel is a young man from the fictional village of Verrières in the Franche-Comté. His hero and model is Napoleon, only a decade and a half on from the Hundred Days, so Julien must hide his relentless ambition, even as he works to acquire power in society (the red), in the church (the black), and in love.

Julien comes from a peasant family whom he despises and who mistreat him in return. Coming from the lowest position, he witnesses the stratifications of French society up to the very top, and resents his position, even as he attempts to increase and consolidate his own power. He is bookish with an excellent memory; he has the whole Latin New Testament memorized. Displaying feats of memory is one of his primary methods of advancement.

His strongest character trait is hypocrisy. Julien embraces his hypocrisy, enjoys the game, though this devotion poisons his interpretations of other people. He cannot see other people’s actions or words except as covers for something else. In this way, every action becomes a power-play, every move, wittingly or not, counts. Stendhal takes great delight in pointing out Julien’s limitations.

All the first moves made by our hero who thought himself so cautious were, like the choice of a confessor, acts of sheer thoughtlessness. Led astray by all the presumptuousness of an imaginative young man, he took his intentions for facts and believed himself to be a consummate hypocrite.

Power is the lens through which Stendahl passes his ironic wit to examine class, the church, and personal relationships. The novel is full of incident, all analyzed sardonically. This is frequently wearisome as a reader, particularly the endless twists of the love affairs with Mme de Rênal and Mlle de la Mole, which dominate the plot of the novel. As everything is power and as, for Stendahl, the husband is the master, you have to put up with numerous scenes like this:

“Punish me for my appalling pride,” she said to him, hugging him in her arms till he could hardly breathe. “You’re my master, I’m your slave, I must ask your pardon on my knees for having tried to rebel… Reign over me for ever, punish your slave severely when she tries to rebel.”

The she in that passage is Mathilde de la Mole, daughter of Julien’s employer, the Marquis de la Mole. Mathilde could have been the most interesting character in the novel, but instead, upon finding herself in love, she becomes the willing slave of her lover. Her selfhood is extinguished in Julien’s story. And it takes a couple hundred pages.

But what could become a whole book of dreadful slogging is enlivened by Stendhal’s delightful style. Almost every page yields a cutting and witty observation. Stendhal's early use of free indirect discourse is also notable:

There must be an element of insult in this way of behaving; but he was unable to detect it. On the contrary, there was an absence of hatred in the eyes of everyone he encountered going through the dormitories: What does this mean? It must be a trap, let’s play things carefully.

There are large parts of the later chapters that are essentially stream-of-consciousness, a stylistic choice arising out of Stendhal’s attention to psychology. This attention gives depth to what could have been a rather shallow, cynical bildungsroman with two love affairs and some political machinations.

Stendhal is particularly fond of developing believable contradictions or inversions. How can someone who is purely innocent end up committing sin for virtuous reasons, and what would their reaction be upon realizing their sin? How can acting perfectly cold and even cruel towards a woman inspire love in her? These inversions feel illuminating, though more in the moment than upon reflection.

I would argue that there are too many inversions in the love affair with Mlle de la Mole, which takes up most of the second book. Mathilde and Julien seem to switch places back and forth from chapter to chapter between who is acting coldly yet is passionately in love and who is acting desperately in love yet is doubting. You get the feeling that Stendhal is simply manipulating his characters to find new contradictions. Or perhaps I just lost patience with the affair. And don’t get me started on how it all turns out!

I can see why The Red and the Black is a classic, but I must admit that I thought it could be around two hundred pages shorter with nothing lost.