When I was at university my best friend and I would regularly write to each other as, for the first time, we were at different ends of the country. These letters [yes, letters – we were not being pretentious; neither of us could afford a computer as kids and so didn’t know how to use email until later] would usually contain details of any, uh, girl-related activity, music recommendations and book recommendations. Parts of these letters have stayed with me – certain relationships [one in particular with a girl called Julie; my mate had issues with Wayne, her ex], certain records he urged on me and which I bought as soon as I was able, and certain books I sought out from the library. One of the books he once recommended was a French novel, about a young man trying to make his way in the world. I replied to my friend that it sounded interesting, or something of that sort, and a week later a package, rather than the expected letter, arrived. Inside was Le Rouge et la Noir by Stendhal. As I opened the book I noticed that my friend had written something on the reverse of the cover. “Julien Sorel is you!” it said.
What did he mean by that? Well, first of all, to call me, at that time, an arrogant boy with a chip on my shoulder about my upbringing is probably right on the money. Furthermore, I must admit, that I was, shall we say, a bit of a cad, and that, more specifically, I approached my relations with women almost as though they were a test of my daring or courage. I was, then, regularly getting myself embroiled in ridiculous situations, things like seeing how many girlfriends I could manage at the same time; or sleeping with my friend’s girlfriend, in the same halls of residence in which he also lived, only a couple of rooms away in fact, so that I had to hotfoot it out of there in the early hours of the morning, hoping that he wouldn’t be on the corridor and catch me. I also got up to various sordid things in photobooths, on trains and at concerts, and so on. Now, before anyone starts spamming me with negative comments, I am fully aware that this was not admirable, nor recommendable, behaviour; but, yes, it is fair to say that I was a little like Julien Sorel.
“An English traveller relates how he lived upon intimate terms with a tiger; he had reared it and used to play with it, but always kept a loaded pistol on the table.”
Julien is the poor son of a carpenter, who has ambitions to be a priest; he is, on the surface at least, a sensitive, bookish sort. In the early stages of the novel one might think that The Red and The Black is going to be a French version of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, a book that will focus on the exploits of a generally good boy as he struggles to better himself. However, when Julien moves in with the de Renal’s, in the capacity of tutor to their children, it quickly becomes clear that he is a rather haughty and self-obsessed sort, who considers the world something to bring under his heel, and often sees and uses people dispassionately. This dispassionate approach is particularly interesting in relation to the lady of the house, Louise de Renal, with whom he starts an affair. Julien, whose hero is Napoleon, conducts this relationship as though undertaking a military campaign. He makes notes for himself, writes plans; he doesn’t behave intuitively, or act on passionate impulse, but, rather, does what he thinks he ought to do in order to win the mayor’s wife, making bolder and bolder plays seemingly as a way of finding out what exactly he can get away with. Crucially, he doesn’t really want the woman, but thinks it fitting that he have her, and enjoys the idea that a rich lady will fall for the likes of him; it is, for him, the winning that counts, he has no great interest in drinking the victory champagne. As suggested in my opening paragraphs, Julien, just like my good self, is particularly sensitive regarding his background; and this colours the way that he sees the world. He appears to believe that everyone undervalues him, or disdains him, and so, in a kind of retaliation, or boon to his ego, he wants to conquer them.
“Yes I’ve won a battle, he said to himself, but one must profit by it.” “I ought to keep a diary of this siege, he said to himself on returning to the hotel; otherwise I will lose track of my assaults.” “The hand was very quickly withdrawn; but Julien conceived that it was his duty to ensure that it was not withdrawn when he touched it.”
Madame de Renal, on the other hand, genuinely loves Julien, although it is suggested that she loves him more for what he is not than what he is. I found her a fascinating character, both in terms of her personality and psychology and what she says about Stendhal as a writer. She is considered in Verrieres to be a chaste, proud and high-minded woman, who will not succumb to flirtation, having spurned the advances of Valenod. However, Stendhal portrays her as essentially artless; she is a woman who does not consider herself superior to men, but, rather, thinking them coarse and dull, she has no interest in them. There’s a really nice insight when it is said that she doesn’t find her husband boring simply because she finds other men more boring than him. I loved that; a really clever, subtle distinction. She falls for Julien, then, because he is not a man; he is, at seventeen, literally a boy; indeed, when she first sees him she likens him to, even suspects him of being, a girl dressed as a boy, and notes his fine pale complexion. Once she gets to know him a little, he also gives the impression of being cultured and well-read and in touch with his own finer feelings. Everything he is, her husband, and other provincial men, are not.
In the hands of many writers Louise de Renal would be unbearable. Dickens’ work features a number of these inexperienced, otherworldy women, and readers generally want to lynch them. Yet, while she does occasionally irritate, for the most part I found Madame thoroughly endearing. And this is because Stendhal doesn’t really judge his characters, or only in a gently satirical way, or try and tell you what to think of them; he allows them to breathe, and doesn’t make them ‘a type’ of one extreme or another. Louise, for example, is an adulteress, who adores her lover more than her own children, which is not particularly admirable, of course. Yet she is also sympathetic, primarily because she is clumsily dealing with the novel state of being in love, and because her husband is a boor. She is strangely noble, because her feelings are pure, but ignoble in her actions. Likewise, she is artless, but not dim; she is both strong and weak…she, as much as can be the case with any fictional character, like a real person.
I mentioned Dickens before, but it is particularly interesting to compare Stendhal to his contemporary Honore de Balzac, especially his novel Lost Illusions, which features another beautiful youngster with grand ambitions. The obsessive coffee-guzzler was a fan of operatic characterisation – almost everyone is one-dimensional, usually either wholly, ridiculously good [David Séchard], or demonically bad [his father]; everything with him is cranked up to ten…one imagines all his characters either sinisterly twirling a ‘tache or ringed with a halo. His women are particularly polarised, some are angels [Eve – yes, Eve] and others are snakes [Madame de Bargeton]. Furthermore, although I love Lost Illusions, Balzac comes across as a blowhard, taking cheap shots at his characters, and by extension certain elements of society, and constantly generalising and stereotyping; indeed, he does exactly what Stendhal does not do: he explicitly moralises, he demands that you view his characters in the way that he wants you to. The prose of the two authors is entirely different also; Balzac was prone to very long, complex sentences, full of clauses and classical allusions; Stendhal wrote very simply, almost conversationally. This isn’t a translation issue, it was an intentional style choice; and as a result his book fairly wallops along.
While Book One is a pretty standard, but very enjoyable, tale of a cheating milf and her young lover, featuring much roguery and melodrama, the second, which involves Julien’s relationship with Mathilde de La Mole, is something else entirely. Of course, it is different on the most literal, basic level, in that Mathilde is a younger woman, similar in age to Julien, and she is not married, but this is obviously not what makes Book Two so extraordinary. I was once in a relationship that simply would not settle down, would not work; it was, I think I have said elsewhere, an Israeli-Palestinian type deal. Anyway, after some time spent needling each other, my ex-girlfriend one day said to me, “we both want the power in the relationship; we’re too proud and bloody-minded to allow ourselves to submit, even for a moment, to the other. And so we are constantly trying to make the other submissive.” Or words to that effect. And I think she was right. What is so startling about Julien and Mathilde’s relationship is that it is just like this so modern a conflict. They are equals – not socially, but intellectually and emotionally – and they are both too proud to give in to the other; so they spend much of their time antagonising each other, butting heads; yes, they will occasionally call a truce, and so come together, but one or both will regret it almost immediately afterwards. The thing is, love can only flourish if one relinquishes one’s ego, one’s absolute power over oneself. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that, once again, Mathilde esteems Julien for what he is not, rather than what he is; he is not like the tiresome, predictable suitors she has previously attracted; she sees danger in him and reckless passion.
None of this, however, is the novel’s real selling point; I was very impressed by much of what Stendhal pulls off in The Red and The Black but there is one thing about it that had me in awe. Andre Gide said that the book was far ahead of its time, and Friedrich Nietzsche spoke glowingly of the Frenchman’s psychology, but neither, in my opinion, quite goes far enough in their praise. Ahead of its time? Reading it you’d think Sendhal had a DeLorean. The first psychological novel? It’s as though Henry James had looked at Dumas’ body of work and thought ‘I can do that – rascals, heroism, cheating women – a piece of piss!’ And, lo, he did do it, furnishing the adventure story with unrelenting, complex introspection. In all seriousness, I couldn’t believe what I was reading: there are pages and pages given over to the characters’ thought processes, so much so that for much of the second half there’s hardly any plot at all. For example, there’s a chapter in my translation called Dialogue With a Master, most of which is dedicated to de Renal’s interior monologue concerning his suspicions about Julien and his wife. Moreover, Mathilde’s presence in the text is almost entirely in her head and Julien’s. And this book was published in 1830! Truly, if Virginia Woolf is to be called a modernist, then what is Stendhal?