Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Red and The Black by Stendhal

The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830, 532 pages-translated by Roger Gard in 2002 from the French)

The Red and the Black by Stendhal (pen name for Henry Marie Beyle-1783 to 1842-France) has been on my  read soon list for a very long time.     The Red and the Black is on pretty much all lists of 100 best novels and on many top ten lists.     I recently read and posted on his one other canon status work,  The Charterhouse of Parma.      Of the two, The Red and the Black is the most still read.    I think anyone who reads one of these two books will want to go on to read the other one.     There simply is no higher status canon writer of the 19th century than Stendhal, not even Tolstoy or Flaubert or Dickens.      He has a few peers but no superiors.     I have said before that the modern Japanese novel came into existence via young Japanese men with elite education being creatively stimulated by the greats of 19th century French literature.     For these writers, above all this meant Stendhal.    Kenzaburo Oe  among many others studied French literature before he began to write his great works.    Michio Takeyama, author of one of the very best novels about WWII from the point of view of a Japanese soldier The Burmese Harp  carried a copy of The Red and the Black in his rucksack through out his years in the Japanese army.   When I  found out that Stendhal was one of the ten percent who survived the French Army's  march back to France from Moscow                                                          bn with the  Napoleon's troops I knew he was at the very least a man of very strong character.

Clifton Fadiman in The Life Time Reading Plan says The Red and the Black is one of  the first novels centering around a young man from the provinces coming to the big city (Paris) to make his fortune.   In France in the early years of the century a bright young man with no family status or wealth had few options to make his fortune.     There was the red of the uniform of Napoleon's army and the black for the cassock of the clergy.     

The central character of The Red and  the Black, Julian Sorel is a bookish young man born into a working class family.   Julian has no interest in spending his life in hard labor in the saw mills like his father.     Through a lucky set of contacts Julian in time obtains a good clerical position in the church and with the recommendation of a cardinal he becomes the bookkeeper for a wealthy   merchant with a much younger love starved wife.    From there Julian goes on to have a series of adventures and encounters which I do not want to spoil for future readers.    

I found  The Red and the Black not at all a stale stuffy old book.   It has a lot of very acute psychological observations.   It is a great adventure story because we know and care about Julian even though we know he is no epic hero!.    It is a funny satire of the French society in the early 19th century that is pretty much a universally applicable story.    Historically the influence of this book is huge.     I think maybe one of the reasons Michio Takeyama took this book to war with him is he wanted to be able when he could to retreat into a wonderful work of art by a man who also withstood the horrors of war.  

The Red and the Black is not a hard book to follow.    There are only a few central characters.    It is actually quite funny in parts.    I think I would  advise readers new to Stendhal to first read The Red and The Black and then The Charterhouse of Parma.       

Roger Gard in his introduction to the book gives us some good historical background.   I really respected him when  after completing his biographical and historical data section he tells the first time reader to skip the rest of his introduction as  you really do not need a set of instructions to read this book.   He says if you want to you can come back and read the rest of his introduction after you are finished with the book but he really sees little need to do so!.   There is an honest man.

Mel u

1 comment:

Fred said...

Mel u,

I've read both _The Red and the Black_ and _The Charterhouse_, and I agree with you. If one can read only one by Stendhal, then it must be _The Red and the Black_.

I really remember nothing about _CoP_, and even after reading your post on it, I still remember nothing about it. It really never made any impression on me.

_The Red and the Black_ is much different. I remember much of it and much that is humorous in it. I actually felt sorry for poor Julian at times. He is so filled with the pomposity of youth.