Monday, June 1, 2020

Stendhal - The Red and the Black

The Red and the Black, Stendhal’s masterpiece, is the story of Julien Sorel, a young dreamer from the provinces, fueled by Napoleonic ideals, whose desire to make his fortune sets in motion events both mesmerizing and tragic. Sorel’s quest to find himself, and the doomed love he encounters along the way, are delineated with an unprecedented psychological depth and realism. At the same time, Stendhal weaves together the social life and fraught political intrigues of post–Napoleonic France, bringing that world to unforgettable, full-color life. His portrait of Julien and early-nineteenth-century France remains an unsurpassed creation, one that brilliantly anticipates modern literature. 

Comment: I had not planned to read this book but having finished the ones I had destined for the month of May, I impulsively grabbed this one from the shelf, where it had languished since 2008. I only knew it was a classic French novel and I set my expectations on what I had previously read of the genre and of the time (19th century).

In this novel, the author develops a clever satire of the French society post Napoleon. Many people are tired of the class differences and wish for change but the "rules" are so interwoven among every class that hypocrisy and ambition never truly disappear.
It's in this setting that we meet young Julian Sorel, the third son of a prosperous carpenter but who never showed affection towards his sons, Julien in particular.
Julian has always been different, more intelligent and dedicated to reading and studying. Most of all, wishing for something to prove he is worthy of success like his idol Napoleon. With the help of a priest, he starts to climb his small town society by becoming a tutor for the town's richest man's sons and later on, to Paris and all its opportunities.
The problem is how Julien does that and how both calculist and naive he is when it comes to matters of the heart...

This is a book divided into two parts: the first while Julien is in his small town and the second in Paris. In each we get to see how his ambition for social climbing puts him in complicated situations but at the same time there's this deep desire for love and acceptance, even in his most depreciate self worth comments and I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for him and, dare I say it, sad he wasn't able to use his intelligence to simply know better
In fact, the story could have gone differently, had Julien been more self aware than he declared being.

Of course, though, the author wanted to make a point and he used a real life case that happened to build up this story around it. The personal little details regarding the characters can be taken any way but the author also involves everything they do within the society they live in, at a time people were still debating the effects of Napoleon's defeats. It only shows to prove humans don't really change in what matters: we are today as globally ambitious, opportunists and often mean and people two centuries ago even if we now have technology and different governments.

Political and social satire aside, what makes a romance is, evidently, the development of the characters. Julien is both fascinating and annoying because so much could have happened differently for him had his personality been another. He could still be clever and ambitious and somewhat hypocrite (we all are somehow) but still able to make better choices. I suppose this is the key aspect of the whole story have a base: Julien needs to have many "negative" characteristics but also something better to counterbalance but sadly, his naivete and true desire to succeed were not met with the right weapons.

I won't comment on his love affairs because they seemed to have only served a purpose and I can't see them as something he genuinely felt or I wasn't told about it in the right way.
This is where my experience with this story probably was lost: the writing style wasn't one I could simply appreciate. While in reading other books of the genre and time, I was still deeply absorbed by the stony, it wasn't the case here. I'm not talking about the constant comments the author inserts as if talking directly to the reader, one can get used to this. I mean the vague and sudden jump from one situation to the effects or the result or the sequence of that with no notion whatsoever it would happen. I sometimes felt lost as if there were sentences or paragraphs missing.

I think this, more than the exaggeration of every single thing ("romantic" encounters especially) the characters did - did people really behave like that? - was what annoyed me because I still need some things to be obvious and not only a guessing game or an inferring ability of the reader, as if we are all mind readers. It's a style, the romanticism of the time helped, but like in every genre, not all authors do it with the same eye and skill for detail.

Cover of my Portuguese edition
There were some elements I liked, especially the more philosophical consideration the characters sometimes have (too bad most of the characters aren't likable).
I also had a aha moment when the situation about how the whole drama surrounding Mathilde la Mole, one of Julien's affairs, develops for I did read Queen Margot and some of the is clearly an inspiration to the events happening in this book, mostly towards the end.
Did the little things I liked ave the book...probably not and that's why my grade isn't higher.

I'd say the biggest issue I had was with the way the author presented the story. He wanted to convey a message and he used Julien's life to do it. Fine so far but the problem is that if some of main characters' behavior and personality traits aren't easy for the reader to empathize with, despite enjoying and understanding a novel, there's no real connection and, in that case, this could have been only a tale or a short story on the dangers of being too ambitious while not controlling yourself to be so.

All things considered, this wasn't the best classic ever but it offered enough to be readable.
Grade: 6/10

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