Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Red and the Black

Thank god that's over. That's what I was thinking after finishing Stendhal's Le rouge et le noir, a long 500 page monster that took me over a week to read. I brought it with me on my trip to Kelowna, so that I would read it on the plane. Instead, I watched that new reality show The Voice. That tells you how gripping I thought Stendhal's novel.

Julien Sorel is an ambitious and extremely intelligent son of a carpenter. He lives in a very small and provincial town in France. It looks like this:

The mayor of the town elects to hire Julien as a Latin tutor for his two sons. What the mayor doesn't know is that Julien absolutely despises the materialism and hypocrisy of the bourgeois, especially during the Bourbon Restoration period of France's history. Julien himself is divided in his ambitions: he longs to be a great military leader like Napoleon, but he's also drawn to the learned and respected profession of priesthood. Both of these ambitions take a backseat when Julien decides to seduce the mayor's wife in order to simply prove his superiority.

When Julien and the mayor's wife are inevitably found out, he is sent to Paris to become the secretary of a marquis, drafting letters and doing business for him. Julien is introduced to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, and his dark ambition grows. He tries to seduce the marquis' daughter, Mathilde, which takes up about 150 pages of the novel.

The Red and the Black is a confusing novel. It sounds like it's simple and a fun read, kind of like Bel-Ami. In fact, superficially the plot sounds similar. However, this is not Bel-Ami at all. In reality, Stendhal's novel is a deep and detailed portrait of the main character's psychology, stretched over 500 agonizing pages. It's like reading Henry James, but not quite as psychologically accurate.

However, it's not just psychology. Stendhal's novel is an extremely biting satire of French society, which was obsessed with materialism, surfaces, and hypocrisy. Nobody ever says what they mean, and nobody ever shows people their real faces. It's all a facade.

What's frustrating about The Red and the Black is that every ten pages or so, Stendhal has something interesting or complicated or gripping to say. He goes through stretches where in a matter of paragraphs, he quickly advances the plot. These bits are few and far between however. Every time I was drawn into the novel, at the end of the ten pages, Stendhal pushed back as hard as he could, leaving me wondering why the hell am I reading this book.

This might be a problem with the translation, but I doubt it. The issue is that there's often a disconnect between the flow of sentences. People will say things and do things, but in the next sentence, the author has already moved on. This means the reader has to follow very closely for fear of missing something integral that won't be repeated for some bizarre reason. I kept wondering why people weren't reacting to dialogue, but after awhile I realized that the plot and the dialogue are so irrelevant to Stendhal's interests. His only concern is showing us how corrupt Julien and society are.

And boy howdy is Julien corrupt. Normally, even with anti-heroes or morally ambiguous characters, I still like them. This is not the case with Julien Sorel. I don't think I've ever hated a person so much, often to the point of considering giving up the book. There's a loooooong section near the end, when Julien has "fallen in love" with Mathilde, the marquis' daughter, but she has yet to reciprocate. In order to have her, Julien engages in a long campaign of seducing a nice unsuspecting widow, all to inflame Mathilde's jealously. He breaks the heart of an innocent woman in order to have the bored and spoiled and irritating Mathilde. And this isn't a small scene. It takes about 150 pages for Mathilde to finally and completely throw herself at Julien's feet, using such bizarre language as "I am your slave and you are my master". Ugh creepy. This is me reading Mathilde's "seduction":

Did I mention that I really didn't like this book? Frankly, it's boring. 250 pages could have been cut out and the novel would have still been able to make its points. All the most interesting stuff is mentioned and then never picked up again. Julien becomes the unwitting pawn in a dangerous political game, and it's extremely fascinating for Julien's character and for the plot. Here's how it goes down:

Julien is told by the marquis that he has to take notes during a political meeting, then condense the notes into a few pages, memorize them, go to England and recite them to an exiled Duke, who will help the political group's ambition to raise an army. Stendhal relates the entire meeting and it - is - boring. So much talk that does nothing to advance the plot! Then, after the 40 page meeting is over, Julien memorizes the sheets and goes off to England, almost getting attacked as a spy by enemies. He relates his message to the Duke and returns home. That part, the most interesting part? That takes 6 pages. What the fuck, Stendhal? Give me something I can sink my teeth into!!!!

You might say that maybe my problem with Stendhal is that I'm missing the point. The plot truly is tertiary to reading the text. Okay, fair enough. If only the psychology of the character was accurate enough to be a convincing portrait. Nope. At the very end, Julien falls madly in love with Mathilde and wants to escape with her, but the old mayor's wife, scorned and forgotten (mostly) sends a character reference letter to the marquis, which needless to say, it's fairly negative. In  anger, Julien travels to the small town, buys guns, and then shoots her. Want to take a guess how many pages this action takes up? Nope, not 6. More like 1. ONE FUCKING PAGE? Are you kidding me?

Now, I understand why he shoots her. I understand it has to do with Julien's frustrations at finally achieving his goals, but then they're snatched away from him. What I don't understand is why Julien suddenly becomes remorseful and demands the death sentence, even though the mayor's wife's injuries are not fatal, or serious. During his trial, he speaks for over 30 minutes to the jury, trying to make women cry (yes really), telling them he deserves to die.

Why, Julien? Why stop there? What gave you all this guilt? Well, Stendhal steps in and reminds us that Julien was really in love with the mayor's wife and never in love with the pregnant and disgraced Mathilde.

Oh, I see. So Julien is even more loathsome than I thought. Like I say, it's fairly rare that I'm so incensed against a character that I start to dislike the book itself. Man, I loved Bel-Ami, and the protagonist in that book is a vile creature. But he isn't worse than Julien. No, Georges never lets anybody truly into his heart. With Julien, he falls in love with them and then crushes them. It's terrible because Julien does for a moment love these girls, but then sends them packing when he decides he's had enough with them. Makes me want to fucking puke I'll tell you that.

So are there any positive aspects to this book? Yes, a few. Stendhal's prose isn't one of them, that's for sure. I did like the political stuff a lot. It was fascinating and confusing because Stendhal never gives the reader any background or context. The reader is assumed to be familiar with the political atmosphere already. Unfortunately, my library's copy of this book is one of the Signet Classics, an imprint woefully lacking in proper academic editing, like the Penguin books are. There's very little help coming from the translator in this edition. I had to Wikipedia quite a bit of the Bourbon era of France to make heads or tails of it. That's not against Stendhal though. In fact, I was quite pleased with the political machinations of the bourgeois as depicted in this book. It was entertaining and Machiavellian.

I also enjoyed Julien's time in the seminary (just before he heads off to Paris) because of the same reasons. Even though all these boys are training to be devout and morally upstanding priests, they are still in competition with each other for placements, which is why the political machinations of the priests and their Machiavellian schemes are all the more interesting. I enjoy works of art that depict the mental battles, fought only through words and the verbal traps and attacks people come up with. Sort of like the non-physical aspects of HBO's Oz. There's a lot of tricks and manipulation in the show, which is probably the only part of the show I liked. This kind of thing is interesting to me, and Stendhal pulls it off quite well. It's too bad the whole seminary episode isn't really picked up again at all. It's just a sequence to show the audience how ambitious Julien is, and how utterly clueless he is until he reaches Paris.

So ultimately, I didn't hate The Red and the Black, but I didn't love it either. I found it to be overly long, disjointed and often, extremely boring. But I did really get a kick out of certain parts, and when Stendhal has his mind on it, he can write a pretty gripping scene of just two people having a conversation. The problem is that you have to wade through endless paragraphs of dubious psychological insight. This is an important novel for the development of the internal life, but it wouldn't come to maturity until Henry James and D. H. Lawrence took a stab at writing something truly internal. Oh well.

I'm taking a small break from 19th century French literature with Patrick White's The Vivisector, which I'm already 200 pages into. Then it's Cousin Bette by Balzac up next. Check back for more longwinded reviews of books nobody reads anymore.

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