Wednesday, August 11, 2010
"The Red and Black" by Stendahl
Post-Napoleonic France was no meritocracy.
Stendahl's ambitious and ambiguous protagonist, Julien Sorel, is a peasant with a great memory for Latin and Biblical passages. These academic talents are joined to a youthful sensuality that earns him the romantic admiration of two women, one a bourgeois and the other a titled aristocrat.
The young intellectual does well to depart the family run mill where his father metes out brutal beatings as reward for his lack of interest in the enterprise.
This unfortunate childhood means that Julien, like most people, has multiple dimensions, some of which are off-putting to those around him (and to the reader).
Sorel’s cold calculations, his toying with the feelings of smitten and repressed women, serve him well on the way up, but rampant internal dialogues and painful inexperience litter his progress with self-made obstacles.
Julien is a closet admirer of Napolean (Red) during the post-revolutionary restoration (Black) and opts for the life of an aspiring Catholic cleric to ensure his future, staining himself with the same hypocrisy he sees and loathes all around him.
As such, "The Red and the Black" sketches a panorama of what the social climber faced both in the provincial setting, where this “Bildungsroman” begins, and among the Parisian aristocracy, where it ends.
The novel is a confirmed classic with a compelling narrative that should hold a reader’s attention all on its own.
However, an interest in how young Dukes and Counts of the era conversed with, and considered, each other will increase the appeal of "The Red and Black." A curiosity about bourgeois comportment and France generally will help, too.
Diane Johnson, tapped to pen the introduction of the Kindle version review here, notes that Stendahl’s portraits of the two principal female characters, Madame to Renal, and the aristocrat Mademoiselle de La Mole, are deeper and more loving than those typically found in novels of the time.
The ladies are, like Julien, alternately admirable and flawed and therefore realistically rendered, chafing at the limitations of their classes and gender.
To give away the end is to give away the book so prospective readers will have to take the plunge content in knowing that “The Red and Black” maps a rake’s progress while exposing, via the author’s own experiences as a man of consequence and leisure, 19th century French society and its maladies.