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The Red and the Black, Book II: wicked games

November 24, 2010 19 comments

Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal. The translation I used for the quotes is by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

Do you like The Sorrows of Young Werther? Wuthering Heights? Romantic literature? I don’t. Every time I read a book from that movement I yawn, no matter how good it is supposed to be. So finishing The Red and the Black was sheer literary torture.

 Julien Sorel is now in Paris, working as a private secretary for the Marquis de la Mole, who has two children, Norbert and Mathilde. Both children are about the same age as Julien. The de la Mole are described as ancient nobility. Mme de la Mole values birth above all, no personal quality can surpass that of a high birth.

Julien has this particular position devoted to governesses, tutors and secretaries. They are above servants because they work with the house’s children and their education can make of them valuable companions for their masters but they remain servants. This ambiguous position is put forward by Stendhal in the Marquis’ attitude toward Julien. When Julien wears the black suit of the secretary, his relationship with the Marquis is that of a servant. When he wears the blue suit the Marquis gave him, he is his equal and they converse freely as the Marquis would with one of his peers. The clothe may not make the man but sure makes the gentleman.

Somewhere else in the mansion, Mathilde de la Mole is bored. She worships her ancestor Boniface de la Mole, who was Marguerite de Navarre’s lover and was beheaded on the Place de Grève on April 30th 1574. She thinks men during the reign of Henry the Third were braver than her contemporaries. Why does she admire this period of the Ancient Regime? The time of religion wars, massacres in the name of God and secession of the nobility from the king? In my vision, the reign of Louis the 14th was more flamboyant. Does she identifies to these troubled times as her time is troubled too and also requires to pick a side?

Her boredom reminds me of Musset describing le mal du siècle at the same period (1). Musset writes that love affairs were the only passionate things that remained. 19-year-old Mathilde is led to the same conclusion and starts fancying Julien because she wants to be in love and because he is different from the gentlemen she usually meets. Moreover, the potential scandal associated to having an affair with a plebeian increases the thrill of the relationship.  

Une idée l’illumina tout à coup : J’ai le bonheur d’aimer, se dit-elle un jour, avec un transport de joie incroyable. J’aime, j’aime, c’est clair! A mon âge, une fille jeune, belle, spirituelle, où peut-elle trouver des sensations, si ce n’est dans l’amour? J’ai beau faire, je n’aurai jamais d’amour pour Croisenois, Caylus, et tutti quanti. Ils sont parfaits, trop parfaits peut-être ; enfin, ils m’ennuient.

Suddenly an idea dawned upon her: ‘I have the good fortune to be in love,’ she told herself one day, with an indescribable transport of joy. ‘I am in love, I am in love, it is quite clear! At my age, a young girl, beautiful, clever, where can she find sensations, if not in love? I may do what I like, I shall never feel any love for Croisenois, Caylus, e tutti quanti. They are perfect, too perfect perhaps; in short, they bore me.’

 This street, Rue de l’Humilité (Humility Street) is certainly not where the Hôtel de la Mole was located. Neither Julien or Mathilde could have lived on such a street, for this concept is totally foreign to their minds. The beginning of their relationship is theatrical. They drop each other letters, they meet at night in dangerous conditions. Their affair is poisoned by second thoughts from the start and Julien knows it:

Mlle de la Mole me regarde d’une façon singulière. Mais, même quand ses beaux yeux bleus fixés sur moi sont ouverts avec le plus d’abandon, j’y lis toujours un fond d’examen, de sang-froid et de méchanceté. Est-ce possible que ce soit là de l’amour? Quelle différence avec les regards de Mme de Rênal!

‘Mademoiselle de La Mole keeps looking at me in a strange fashion. But, even when her beautiful blue eyes seem to gaze at me with least restraint, I can always read in them a cold, malevolent scrutiny. Is it possible that this is love? How different from the look in Madame de Renal’s eyes.’

Their relationship starts as a wicked game, like in a play by Marivaux. It makes the whoooole second book. That’s where I gave up the first time and I struggled to finish it, not to be tempted to try it again later. I found the story implausible. I won’t give more details to avoid spoilers but what a tedious reading! This book contains everything I dislike in romantic romance: fabricated pain, whims, big words, despair, violent actions supposed to show off deep feelings. To me, Mathilde and Julien are only two haughty and obnoxious people deserving the fate they made up for themselves. I felt no compassion for either of them and I thought Mme de Rênal beyond silly.

I suspect the romance between Julien and Mathilde inspired Proust for Swann’s Way on the aspect of a love created by mind delusion more than a genuine love feeling. Julien could say the same thing about Mathilde as Swann about Odette:

Dire que j’ai gâché des années de ma vie, que j’ai voulu mourir, que j’ai eu mon plus grand amour, pour une femme qui ne me plaisait pas, qui n’était pas mon genre!

To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style!” (translation C.K. Scott Moncrieff)

The second book is also full of political intrigues that totally escaped me. I have the kindle version and a help from a foreword would have been welcomed on that part. Or maybe Stendhal was standing in the middle of the way: a lot of details about Julien attending mysterious meetings and passing secret notes but not relevant enough for the reader to make something out of it. In addition to my lack of knowledge of the political context, it may also be a flaw of the novel.

If I try to set aside my distaste for this love story and my not-understanding the political issues, I liked Stendhal’s innovative style. He varies the narrative points of views, switching between Mathilde and Julien. He intervenes in the story, calling out to the reader. There are many spoken or unspoken dialogues. The reader sees situations through the characters’ partial and limited point of views. He avoids heavy literary and cultural references and uses simple but efficient words. There are very few descriptions of settings, homes, clothes. The whole book is centred on dialogues and workings of inner minds. About writing a novel, Stendhal states:  

Un roman est un miroir qui se promène sur une grande route. Tantôt il reflète à vos yeux l’azur des cieu, tantôt la fange des bourbiers de la route. Et l’homme qui porte le miroir dans sa hotte sera par vous accusé d’être immoral! Son miroir montre la fange et vous accusez le miroir! Accusez bient plutôt le grand chemin où est le bourbier, et plus encore l’inspecteur des routes qui laisse l’eau croupir et le bourbier se former.

A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shows the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.

Whatever. The problem for me was not the mirror or the man carrying it but indeed the road he chose to show us. I did not like it and I blame the road as a creation of the writer. 

  (1) The Confession of a Child of the Century was published in 1836.

 

The Red and the Black, Book I

November 18, 2010 7 comments

Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal. Translated as The Red and The Black by C K Scott Moncrieff. I will use this translaction for the quotes.

The Red and the Black is a coming-of-age novel, relating the story of Julien Sorel. This is a book I tried to read as a teenager, at the same time I read – and loved – Madame Bovary. It is one of the rare classics I abandoned because Julien Sorel got on my nerves.  

The novel starts in Verrières, a small city in Franche-Comté. Julien Sorel is a peasant’s son, despised by his father because he’s more interested in reading than working in the family sawmill. The two first instructors of Julien’s early age were his cousin the Surgeon-Major, who was in Napoleon’s Great Army and Reverend Father Chelan, a priest. The first one taught him to worship Napoleon and the second one to worship God. Julien concludes from these two teachers that only two valuable careers are possible for an ambitious but poor young man: the army (The Red) or the church (The Black). We are in 1827, during the Bourbon Restoration. Napoleon being dead and republican ideas prohibited, Julien decides to start a career in the Church.

Thanks to Reverend Chelan, Julien learnt Latin and was able to recite the Bible in Latin. He thus sounds really literate to Monsieur de Rênal, the mayor of Verrières, who decides to hire Julien as a tutor for his children. Julien has an affair with Mme de Rênal and joins the seminary in Besançon to become a priest. 

Stendhal’s ambition is to show his time. “A novel is a mirror carried along a high road.” He portrays the Provincial life, with its narrow-minded, illiterate society. The local bourgeois are only interested in money. He also pictures France during the Restoration of the Bourbons. Pro-Napoleon people are defeated and monarchists come to power. Personal interests use historical events to take other people’s properties or positions. It reminds me of what I’ve read about behaviours during the Occupation and after 1945. Stendhal sometimes gives away his opinion:

La marche ordinaire du XIXème siècle est que, quand un être puissant et noble rencontre un homme de cœur, il le tue, l’exile, l’emprisonne ou l’humilie tellement, que l’autre a la sottise d’en mourir de douleur. The ordinary procedure of the nineteenth century is that when a powerful and noble personage encounters a man of feeling, he kills, exiles, imprisons or so humiliates him that the other, like a fool, dies of grief.

Stendhal excels in showing the true motors of his characters. Every one makes decision according to what matters to them or to their dominant traits of personality. Pride, ambition and money guide M. de Rênal and rule his decision making. He hires Julien as a tutor more to show off in Verrières than to really educate his children. Even when he suspects the love affair between his wife and Julien, the only thing he wants is to avoid scandal.

Jamais la vanité aux prises avec tout ce que le petit amour de l’argent peut avoir de plus âpre et de plus mesquin n’ont mis un homme dans un plus piètre état que celui où se trouvait M. de Rênal.  Never can vanity, at grips with all the nastiest and shabbiest elements of a petty love of money, have plunged a man in a more wretched state than that in which M. de Renal found himself.

Mme de Rênal is a typical woman of this century. Like Emma Bovary, Louise de Chaulieu, Renée de Maucombe or Jeanne Le Perthuis, she was educated in a convent. Here is what Stendhal thinks about her education:

Mme de Rênal s’était trouvé assez de sens pour oublier bientôt, comme absurde, tout ce qu’elle avait appris au couvent ; mais elle ne mit rien à la place et finit pas ne rien savoir. Madame de Renal had sufficient sense to forget at once, as absurdities, everything she had learned in the convent; but she put nothing else in its place, and ended by knowing nothing.

She is pure and innocent, despite her age and her children. She is driven by love. Stendhal could have written about her “Elle s’abandonna” (She gave herself away) like Flaubert will when Emma surrenders to Rodolphe.

Stendhal is impressive in his way to desiccate how love grows. The romance between Julien and Mme de Rênal reminds me of Rousseau and Mme de Warens, except that Julien never calls her ‘mom’ (What Freud would do with Rousseau calling his older mistress ‘mom’ is another story). In both cases, the love story blooms in the country in a bucolic setting. In the foreword of Journey into the Past by Zweig, the translator compares Ludwig’s lover to Mme de Rênal. Reading Stendhal now, I think the comparison accurate.  

Julien is the product of the beginning of the 19th C. He is the child of the Revolution and First Empire. He thinks birth is not what gives a man his value. He is driven by a devouring ambition and an unshakeable pride. When he hears about the job opportunity at M. de Rênal’s, his first move is to ask if he will be considered as a servant. Then he is conceited enough to think:

Il faut renoncer à cela, se dit-il, plutôt que de se laisser réduire à manger avec les domestiques. Mon père voudra m’y forcer ; plutôt mourir. ‘I must give up all that,’ he said to himself, ‘rather than let myself be brought down to feeding with the servants. My father will try to force me; I would sooner die.

Sometimes, Julien is really heartless and rotten by hypocrisy and ambition. Stendhal thoroughly describes the workings of his calculating mind. From the very start, I didn’t like him because of such thoughts as this one about Mme de Rênal:

Cette femme ne peut plus me mépriser : dans ce cas, se dit-il, je dois être sensible à sa beauté ; je me dois à moi-même d’être son amant. ‘This woman cannot despise me any longer: in that case,’ he said to himself, ‘I ought to be stirred by her beauty; I owe it to myself to be her lover.’

He considers falling in love as a project. How can someone purposely “fall” in love? Julien sure has qualities. He is hard working and intelligent. As a peasant’s son, his manners are clumsy and inappropriate. He is very ignorant about how to behave in good society. But he is handsome and knows how to be amiable. The Reverend takes him under his wings, Mme de Rênal educates him a little. He is a quick learner and, aware of his lack of propriety, he rapidly improves.

His pride, associated to a strong admiration for Napoleonian heroism, can make him take reckless actions.

He is a complex character, alternatively driven by the coldest thoughts and by hottest passion. He has a terrible ability for concealment and hypocrisy. He joins the seminary only by ambition:

Sous Napoléon, j’eusse été sergent ; parmi ces futurs curés, je serai grand vicaire. ‘Under Napoleon, I should have been a sergeant; among these future cures, I shall be a Vicar-General.’

What is shocking to me is that religion should be a calling and not a career path.

People can’t be indifferent to him. They either like him or hate him. He creates his own enemies by his haughty nature, both at Verrières and in the seminary. Like the characters in the book, he doesn’t leave me indifferent either, I’m much repelled by his coldness, his pride and his hypocrisy.

Book II will show the sequel of his adventures.

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