Reader’s Recommendation: The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Note: The following review is spoiler free. Entries in the series will give impressions and merits of the novel, but no synopsis or information that could spoil the experience for the reader.

Today we could compare The Red and the Black to Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards trilogy, the labyrinthine mechanics of social dynamics explored by an ambitious upstart. Some of its hot headed aggression and rising through the hierarchy brings to mind The Three Musketeers (interestingly, published only a decade and a half later). Part of a boom of classic French novels, this book has the elements of a political and psychological thriller, a genre which has certainly grown in popularity and captures the imagination of many readers.

Le Rouge et le Noir offers something fresh in retrospective, not combat or the wars of politicians but focused instead upon the religious caste, real factions in history if that appeals to you. The use of religion, discussion of it, and the interlocking power dynamics of church and state are something rarely explored in a novel that keeps close to our history. It is not the display of obviously hypocritical zealotry with the aesthetics of the faith changed as is the case in many fantasy or science fiction adaptations presenting religion. As with the best intricate novels, the feeling of reading about thinking human beings with desires and goals, all working within a machine with thousands of rules, puzzling out and progressing slowly through hierarchies and systems hundreds of years old is conveyed excellently. It carries the enjoyment of reading the quest of a social climber and the nature of a certain time, a France awash in radicalism of varying kinds, with societies and movements warring for the political ground and to grasp or hold what echelons of prestige and authority they can.

The full title actually includes ‘A chronicle of the 19th century’, firmly rooting it in its place and particularly within the political landscape of the Bourbon Restoration, for those interested in historical background. Carefully written is another thought that comes to mind considering The Red and the Black, and this is only considering the translated text; the original French is likely even better. While detail in lesser novels can run into overcomplication, the richness of the writing, the sense that there’s a clear enjoyment of wordplay and vivid visuals comes through as well as the detail of passions and plotting. Stendhal brings across his real love of writing and a love of the people who will read him, something I admire greatly.

An advantage The Red and the Black possesses compared to other political thrillers and similar novels is that there is no effort given to the impression of invulnerability or omniscience of the protagonist. Julien Sorel is a brusque, impetuous hothead, and part of the entertainment stems from a kind of opposite quality you can get from reading a Sherlock Holmes story. He is in fact, less intelligent than readers, or at least, there are so many situations in which you and I have the vantage points to see a great deal more with clarity. Many novels of this kind choose to show a tenacity or an intellect that is inspiring (I will not say inhuman as that rather undersells other people), but Stendhal encourages the reader to use their own critical thinking to enhance their own wit, while the able but emotionally undisciplined novice pushes his way past obstacles to acclaim, all the while wading into chaotic situations that make one wince at the lack of awareness or common sense.

The medium of literature allows the processing of more thought, and access to vantage points, perceptions, and points of view in a detail that others cannot match of yet. So, while we pursue Julien’s thoughts and the immediate area around him, the encouragement to speculate, to guess ahead, to find things funny or tragic has great appeal.  From my admittedly limited reading, I think that a sharp wit, enjoyment of ironies, and mockery of the absurd state we can get in personally and politically is a root of French literature, as one can see from the works of Voltaire or Molière, and definitely when reading Stendhal.

A literary highlight that stands out for this book is how it conveys passion and emotion viscerally. Julien’s forceful, aggressive nature is unlikeable –which has karmic or amusing payoff throughout- but in more impressionable ways than being told he is angry, or in physical displays. The sense of frustration, confusion, hypocrisy, and the accidental offence of others are not merely themes for an essay. They are sharp, conveyed to a point where empathetically you can wince at another’s circumstance, and feel encouraged to continue reading the false priest progress because both he and his world are a tinderbox of seething emotions waiting to explode.

A quick, amusing touch are the small quote epigraphs, witty ones at times entirely fabricated by the author. A kind of classic parallel to the later epigraphs of Dune, or the modern Horus Heresy, even something we see in the opening of films as a kind of teasing statement to provoke audience interest. The nature of canny sayings, witticisms, seeming conviction under outright fable and lies keeps the audience in a particular state of mind, pondering what is true, but quickly wondering whom works for what end, how words are power but also the confidence and speech with which they are delivered; very apt in a novel of wives, politicians and priests.

Stendhal builds his story around a fledgling protagonist, but the world surrounding him is so developed that we can relate to the climb. 19th century France is old enough that it has the touch of something fantastical to us, yet is steeped in the same religious and political hierarchies that dominate a lot of our media landscape and our lives, as we strive for successes, wrestle our passions, and navigate the bureaucracy in our own ways.

From the perspective of a reader, the novel is not too long in terms of pages. But the deliberate nature of the writing makes it take a degree of effort to read -I do with a lot of classic French fiction- where it’s a good week or so to finish. Ideal for a long bus ride, or when you want to chew something over in the afternoon sun.

If you would like a French classic that leaves an impression, not too long, with its appeal and themes clear from the start, The Red and The Black may very well be worth your time. In some ways, this is the shorter, more cynical and darkly romantic mirror to Les Misérables, and personally I consider the two novels a pair (although this may be due to the sentiment I have for both these novels, and the time in which I read them both).

All the best, thanks very much for reading.

J.W.H. Hobbs

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