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le rouge et le noir

11 january 2020

Stendhal is something of a miracle in the history of the novel: wonderfully genial, a terrific raconteur, a deeply sympathetic observer of human foibles, a sharp social commentator. There is nobody else exactly like him, though he shares qualities with many other masters from the long dominance of the realistic novel: Balzac, Dickens, Thackeray, Hugo, Eliot, Tolstoy, Proust.

Stendhal was a prolific man of letters in many a genre, but his reputation as a novelist rests on two of the three novels he published, La Chartreuse de Parme and Le rouge et le noir. The latter is better-known, and I've just finished reading it for the third time. I admired Le rouge et le noir when I was Julien Sorel's age, and in middle age, and now in my sixties I like it better than ever.

The French Wikipedia page on Le rouge et le noir says that the title of the novel remains obscure. Stendhal never authoritatively explained it. I always thought that "The Red and the Black" (or as the old Penguin edition insisted on calling it, "Scarlet and Black") symbolized the army and the clergy, and indeed Wikipedia says that that interpretation is most courant. But it's not inevitable, and it doesn't fit the novel very neatly. Julien Sorel wears black for most of the novel, as a wannabe clergyman, but he only serves as a military officer for a couple of pages late in the book. And at that, I don't think the French army wore red in 1830; redcoats were a British thing, of course, and old pictures show the French wearing mostly blue. It may be that Stendhal aimed at a sort of abstract suggestiveness in his title.

Le rouge et le noir is constructed as a diptych. Young Julien Sorel, verbally gifted son of a sawmill owner, is taken in by two wealthy men: first by M. Rênal, mayor of his town, to serve as tutor to the Rênal children; and later by the Marquis de la Mole, the all-powerful squire who brings Julien to Paris and installs him as his private secretary. In each house, Julien falls in love with a woman: first Mme. de Rênal, and afterwards Mlle. de la Mole.

Though it's important that Julien doesn't seduce his conquests, exactly. Each woman is as responsible for their affair as he is. He is not an intriguer, certainly not a fortune-hunter. Initially he treats each woman as a challenge to be grappled with, but he does truly fall in love with each, for a while anyway. Becoming the lover of beautiful women who are under the protection of powerful men appeals to Julien in a sort of pissing-contest way, but it also strikes a Romantic chord in him, in an odd way disinterested. More than money or fame or rank, Julien wants to be able to do something magnificent and magnanimous. Stendhal keeps suggesting that Julien's fallen century, the 19th, denies him the scope for such gestures. But even if it's only tossing coins to the multitude as they line his path on the way to the guillotine, he thinks, he wants to make an impressive appearance before he expires.

The two-part structure of Le rouge et le noir is so impressive that it belies the usual picture of Stendhal as a carefree writer who dashed stuff off without much forethought or correction. Resonances abound, and the whole novel makes a wonderfully coherent impact. But it's far from flawless, and wouldn't be as intriguing if it weren't flawed. The ending, in particular, seems rushed. Heavily foreshadowed, particularly in Julien's affair with Mlle. de la Mole, who can think of nothing more erotic than a lover under a death sentence, Julien's route to the guillotine becomes more than a metaphor. I hate to spoil a 190-year-old classic, but the young guy is doomed, and when it comes time to despatch him, Stendhal does so without a great deal of ceremony.

But Julien condemned comprises less than 10% of this great novel. The other 420 pages (in tiny font, in the 1960s paperback I own) is a story of ambition, love, misprision, social class, and of course hypocrisy, the great theme of Le rouge et le noir, which continually invokes Tartuffe. Stendhal's project, aside from just telling a good story and famously holding a mirror up to the highway of life, is to construct a sympathetic hypocrite. This task is complicated to the point of near-impossibility, but Stendhal brings it off by making Julien affectionate, loyal, talented, and naïve. If he's a hypocrite – and he's a consummate one – Julien is a hypocrite because society forces him to become one. You cannot say what you believe, in the perverse time and place that is Stendhal's France. So you must say what other people want to hear. We can't blame Julien for that, and indeed we don't.

Stendhal. Le rouge et le noir. 1830. Paris: Flammarion, 1964.