The Red and the Black by Stendhal is the story of Julien Sorel, a young Frenchman of middle - class origins. The tale centers on his love affairs and his attempts to socially advance himself in a mostly aristocratic world. I found this to be brilliant book and character study. The novel worked on several levels.
The work was first published in 1830 in French. I read the Burton Raffel translation of this novel. As is the case with many famous books, there is a lot of disagreement about the quality and accuracy of translations. Thus, as I went, I reread some passages from the Horace B. Samuel translation to try to get a little better feel for the original.
Julien is a carpenter’s son. His father and brothers are abusive to him and his family does not understand his bookish ways. Early on, he develops a strong desire for social advancement. While still only eighteen, he begins an affair with Madame de Rênal. She is a woman married to an insensitive and boorish man. She is trapped between her love of Julien and guilt over the affair.
When the affair is discovered and runs into other difficulties, Julien flees and enters a seminary. He does not do this out of religious devotion as he has no faith. Rather, he believes that a religious occupation is the only way that a man of little means can advance in the world. As he romanticizes the recent past, he often laments that in Napoleon’s time, he would have been able to advance in the military. Thus, some interpret the book’s title to relete the black to the clergy and red to the military and glory.
Julien finds corruption and petty jealousy at the seminary and thus, after about a year, leaves for a clerical/religious position working for Marquis de La Mole, a wealthy nobleman involved in politics. Julien becomes trusted assistant to the Marquis. He makes friends and earns the admiration of people in the highest echelons of society. He also begins a clandestine affair with the Marquis’s daughter, Mademoiselle de La Mole. This young woman has a volatile, changeable personality. Her character is also complex and marvelously well drawn. The relationship undergoes a lot of ups and downs. When Mademoiselle de La Mole’s father discovers the affair, Julien runs into terrible trouble due to his non - aristocratic origins.
Julien is a marvelously drawn character. However, he is often unlikable. Early on, his prime motivation is to climb in the world socially to the exclusion of all else. He enters a seminary despite that fact that he has no faith because he believes that the religious life is the best way for him to achieve social and financial success. However, when he begins to fall in love, he does begin to humanize and show a few positive virtues.
Julien romanticizes the previous Napoleonic era. He laments the fact that in that era, a young man of modest means could have achieved great success in the military, a path now only open to the aristocracy. He also professes to believe in Republican ideals. This is a key facet of his worldview and personality.
The portrait of Julien is interwoven and works well with Stendhal’s tone and prose style. The narrative is third person but often gets into the minds of the characters, especially Julien and his girlfriends’, by placing their thoughts into quotations.
The prose is playful and lively. It is surprisingly so, especially for a book that was written in 1830. One reason that I delved onto the Samuel translation, which is much older than Raffel’s version, was to try to ascertain the true tenor and tone of the original writing. Though the Samuel translation seems a little more restrained then Raffel‘s, both exhibit a certain amount of playfulness and cynicism that I assume is inherent in the original French. The narrative is full of criticism, sometimes light and humorous, of the society that Julien finds himself in.
At one point Julien attends a dinner party also attended by a host of intellectuals,
"The dinner was mediocre; the conversation irritating. “It’s a bad book’s table of contents,” Julien thought. “They proudly tackle all the important themes of human thought. But after you listen for three minutes, you have to ask yourself which stands out more clearly, the speaker’s sheer bombast or his abominable ignorance.”"
I believe that in the above passage, Stendhal is taking shots at the dinner party guests and Julien’s tendency to be a smart alack.
Conventions, ideas and religion are also poked at. Later, when Julien is contemplating death,
"“if there is another life? Oh, if what I find is the Christian God, I’m ruined. He’s a despot, so He’s obsessed with revenge: all His Bible talks about is atrocious punishments. I’ve never loved Him; I’ve never even wanted to believe anyone honestly loved Him. He’s utterly devoid of pity (and here Julien remembered several passages from the Bible). He’ll punish me with abominations.”"
The above illustrates a lot about the way in which Julien thinks. He tries to punch holes in the universe. He does often so irreverently.
This book is also an examination on love. Stendhal wrote a work of philosophy called On Love. I have not read that work, but a little research indicates that the author identified four types of love in it: physical love, love as a social game, vanity love and passionate love. Julien and his two lovers seem to transition between all three forms throughout the narrative. I would need to devote a separate post to this subject in order to do it justice.
A basic knowledge of late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century French history will be helpful to readers of this novel as much this history is intertwined with the book’s plot, characters and themes. Julien is obsessed with the past. He also rubs noses with a lot of political and religious figures who are very involved with political and social situation in France during the period known as The Bourbon Restoration.
This book is a brilliant character study. It is also an interesting examination of relationships. It is a lively social commentary. In some ways, it seems very much ahead of its time. I highly recommend this to those who like the above attributes in novel.
This sounds like a really good book—I’ve not read anything by the author, and it sounded a bit dour until you said it was also witty. I always wonder about translations—I’m reading War and Peace and the translation is marvelous—flows well, and is quite easy to read, but without modern phraseology. But still, I wonder about nuances that are missing because it is translated.
Excellent review of what sounds to me like a very intriguing novel.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review of The Red and the Black. I have contemplated trying this one from time to time, and perhaps I will. For some reason, I seem to have avoided French classic authors in the past. Must correct that.
Hi Jane - This book was both witty and lively.
I also worry about translations. I tend to do research to find the best version that I can find.
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the good word Judith.
I also have read only a limited number of French Classics. With that, I thought thaf this book was fairly accessible. I thought it was easier to read then what I have read by Victor Hugo.
how interesting that you compared a couple of translations... sometimes there's a great difference, i guess... i've tried several times to read Stendhal, but have not been successful... there's just something about his writing... but your excellent post makes me think i should give it another shot so i'll do a bit of exploration... tx for looking into his character a bit...
Thanks Mudpuddle. I found the two translations very different. I found the Raffel translation very accessible. It might be wise try.
There are only two French classics I disliked, one is this, the other Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. I seriously wonder if the translation improved this. Reading your review, I think I should have loved but I didn’t. I seem to remember Emma had the same experience.
It's so interesting to read your review of this, and the comments too. It's a classic I've toyed with reading in the past, particularly as my familiarity with this period is relatively low. The characterisation sounds excellent, very well observed.
I read this book ages ago and really liked it... it must have been one of the first to offer a psychological study of a character and was so well done. I enjoyed reading your review as a refresher for my memories of a great book, thanks.
Hi Caroline- That is very interesting. I am not sure if translation improved it, if it did that would be fascinating. As I mentioned, I found Julian unlikable so I can see that putting a reader off.
I never read Nortre Dame De Paris.
Hi Jacqui - I think that the characterization is the book’s strongest point. If you read this I would love to know what you thought.
Thanks Lisa - It really delved into the minds of Julian and some other characters. This was indeed groundbreaking for the time.
Sounds great! This is one I want to read and I did indeed have a copy at one point (not sure if I do any more). The choice of translation can be crucial I find. Fortunately, I've just embarked on a giant Dostoevsky and the version I've picked is excellent so far! :D
Thanks for stopping by Kaggsys.
I have come to realize how important choosing the right translation is. I found this one to be very accessible and much easier then the Horace B. Samuel version.
I have heard of this book, not read it. I did have to read La Chartreuse De Parme for French at university, in the original- I doubt I could do that now!
Translations are an issue, whatever the original language - what to choose? I tend mostly to read translated books in Penguin, which employs some big names to do this, eg Dorothy L Sayers for The Song Of Roland. It’s not always just “how accurate was it?” but also “does it get the feel of the original?” I’ve seen Shakespéare performed in Hebrew and absolutely felt as if I was listening to the Bard’s work, because the translator was one of the countrry’s top poets.
Hi Sue - My wife can read and understand French. Unfortunately I have no such ability. I have begun to do a lot of research before reading a translated work.
I would think that Shakespeare would be so difficult to translate. The performance in Hebrew sounds so interesting.
I have read this too and was just as surprised as you at how easy it was to read and how fully drawn the characters were. I did not even know much French history but felt the author filled me in quite well. Great review, Brian.
I enjoyed reading your review because you enjoyed the book so much. It sounds like a very engaging classic. I'll keep it in mind for future reading. Excellent commentary!
Hi Brian, Excellent review and I also like the passages you quoted. This book sounds humorous too with Julian's description of the dinner party. Translations are so important because you want a modern translation to be able to understand the novel but not sacrifice the author's poetic style. I heard good things about Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma as well.
Thanks Judy - It really was not a difficult read. The characters were so well crafted.
Thanks Suko. This one was enjoyable.
Thanks Kathy. Some parts of this books were funny.
Some modern translations are so good. However, some older translations work wavy well too. I am currently reading a Constance Garnet translation of Fathers and Sons which is very good.
The Burton Raffel translation is my favorite. He is dependable and his translations of other books are also fine. I agree with your assessment of the novel. One of the many superb aspects of Stendahl is his ability to portray different psychological types. In Julian Sorel he has created a memorable protagonist even if, as you point out, he is unlikable at times.
As others have said, I read this long ago, but remember it being a powerful and penetrating account of social power frictions. Nice to be reminded of it.
Hi James - I found the Raffel translation really good. Thanks for the tip as I am often looking for good translators.
Hi Simon - So much of it was indeed about social power and dynamics.
This book has been on my TBR pile for a while. It was in a murder mystery I watched. It was the key that exposed the culprit.
Hopefully I'll get around to it this year.
Have a good week.
This is another classic that I want to read one day. I've not been good with European classics I must say. I love the sound of this when you say that the prose is playful and lively. It's interesting how surprised we can be by something like this in earlier periods. Somehow we expect them all to be dry and serious, but I don't think they are are they?
I remember many years ago, when I was an active member of online bookgroups, we all shared the first paragraph of our different translations of a Russian novel - I think it was Anna Karenina. The difference between them was quite eye-opening - we had at least 4 different translations I think.
Hi Sharon - Having a classic book such as this connected to a murder mystery is very neat. I think that you would like this. Have a great week.
Hi WG - We do expect some older authors to be a bit dry. However, this was a time when some of the more interesting writing techniques were invented.
Picking the right translation can be so important. It is striking as to how much they can vary.
Thanks for the recommendation. 19th century novels are great, and this one slid under my radar. It sounds like a great character study indeed, and social commentary. Just from what you've written, Julien sounds a bit like a male version of Becky Sharp.
inspite of being written in 18th century book is lively and not much heavy vocabulary or idea which can help me to digest it easily
terrific commentary as ever dear Brain .i cannot resist saying this that your blog is great for people like me who starve for reading but find no time for specially peaceful reading
i found types of love mentioned by writer in another work little strange though
to me love is basically just love if there is one
it is inexplicably deep and overwhelming
Julien sounds complex character due to it's desperation for advancement in aristocratic society
yet i would love to read the writer's analogy and what has he tried to put out
thank you so much for wonderful wonderful blog and recommendations Brain!
hope weather is better and spring is around :)
Hi Paula - The novel truest became great in the nineteenth century. Julian has some of Becky Sharp’s characteristics, but despite his flaws, he has a lot more redeeming attributes.
Thanks Baili. Julian’s desire to advsnce in life is one of his overriding characteristics..
I also would like to Read Stendhal’s On Love.
It looks like wil have about another week of cold weather here on Long Island. I am glad things are nice where you are.
Have a great week!
Glad you enjoyed it! I haven't read it myself, but you make it sound very interesting.
Hi Rachel - If you read this I would love to know what you thought of it.
Julien's opinions about God seem quite interesting or modern for the times? .... I wonder how well that went over (or the book) in 1830 France. ... He seems quite eager for social advancement.
Good on you naming the translator, Brian! It never ceases to amaze me how much the translator can affect our experience of a story, and our understanding of it, and yet they're so often overlooked in the literary world and in reviews. This one sounds like a cracker, I'll have to check out some Stendhal at some point! (Might need to brush up on my French history first though, by the sounds... ha!)
Hi Susan - Julian was very cynical, I think torso then the author. I think that during the original French Revolution, as well as during subsequent revolutions in France, at times, religion came under heavy criticism. However, I think that passage would have been scandalous in a British novel.
Hi Sheree - Whenever there are multiple translations available, I now do a t least a little research. Translators are indeed impactful. I think that you would like this book.
Ah, that's funny - I've had this book on my to-read list for ages, and lately I've been seeing it crop up everywhere. It was recommended in one of the books I read last month - either How Fiction Works or Reading Like a Writer. I think your review is the nudge I needed to finally read it :)
Hi Andrew - If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.
This one sounds good and Julien Sorel sounds like an interesting, if at times unlikable character. Now I'm curious about "On Love".
Fantastic post as usual. Enjoy your week!
Thanks Naida - I am also curious about On Love now. Perhaps I will give it a read soon.
I would love to see an exploration of the different kinds of love. Physical love I'm assuming is lust, but I wonder what he means by the others. This book sounds wonderful. It's going on my to-read list.
Hi Hila - I also think that this is an interesting train of thought. I really want to read On Love.
Post a Comment