Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Stendhal, Le Rouge et Le Noir (1830)

I’ve read the Red and the Black several times before, in English. What I had never realized is that it was published before any of Balzac’s great novels, which by my reckoning begin with La Peau de Chagrin (1831). The novel has a Byronic hero, yet is a satire, in the manner of Byron's own Don Juan (1824). It is also based d on a true-life scandal, set in nearby Dauphiné.

Some notes:

1. Julien, a prodigy of memorization and an autodidact, really only knows and loves three books, “son Coran” – Rousseau’s Confessions, the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, and the collection of Bulletins from Napoleon’s army. Like him, Rousseau and Napoleon are men of obscure birth, far from Paris, who become dominant figures. By contrast, the Bible, which he has memorized in what is a type of parlor trick, means nothing to him.

2. At a later point, Julien reads La Nouvelle Héloïse, the novel that Stendhal parallels and satirizes through the first half of the book Like Saint-Preux, the hero of La Nouvelle Heloïse, Julien is a tutor for a wealthy family who falls in love with a woman above his station. Like Saint-Preux, Julien flees the mountains (jura/Alps) to Paris. But it is the tone of the book that is so different. The sentimentality, the tears, that made the Rouseeau novel a best –seller in its time and is replace by a very objective, keen psychological analysis and no little humor in the Stendhal book – not a best-seller.

3. Julien imagines himself to be the hero of a work of fiction, one in which it will be discovered that, in the end, he is the bastard son of his noble patron. Or some other nobleman. No such luck.

4. Like so many striving figures of the period (most notably Rastignac), we has a vision of his conquest as he stands on the heights. Here on a mountain, as he warches a sparrow hawk circling above him.

L’œil de Julien suivait machinalement l’oiseau de proie. Ses mouvements tranquilles et puissants le frappaient, il enviait cette force, il enviait cet isolement.
C’était la destinée de Napoléon, serait-ce un jour la sienne ?

Julien's eye mechanically followed the bird of prey. Its quiet and powerful movements struck him, he envied this power, he envied this isolation. This was the fate of Napoleon, would that one day his own?
5. The second book of the novel sets a pattern for all the 19th century realistic novels about the provincial coming to conquer Paris with his charm and wit. He comes to the capital like an actor rehearsing a starring role/
Il allait enfin paraître sur le théâtre des grandes choses.
Finally he was going to appear on the great stage.
As with so many of his fellow heroes of realistic novels, early and dazzling success is followed by disaster.

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