I’ve always loved France.
Maybe it’s because it’s a country where its socially acceptable to drink red wine in the middle of the afternoon, maybe it’s because they can get away with being grumpy or maybe its just because in my self-loathing way I hate the English too. Whatever the reason, I have always excitedly lapped up French culture.
My family are all noted Francophiles and I have spent many summers in France eating French food, speaking the French language (relatively successfully in a stammering sort of way) and spending time in French hospitals (don’t ask).
However, in all that I’ve read very little French literature.
So this means The Red And The Black by Stendhal is a relative first for me. It’s certainly the first 19th century French novel I’ve ever read; the only Francophone book I can think of is L’Etranger by Albert Camus (who was Algerian not French as I frequently like to point out to people).
I was asked to read this as part of a module outside my main discipline (MOMD) that all first and second year students at my university are forced to take which was on European Literature.
However, even though I wrote the essay having read only half the book (something I was rather guilty of in this module yet somehow I still came out with a first) I decided to continue reading because I recognised parallels with Vanity Fair by William Thackeray which happens to one of my favourite novels.
The plot concerns Julien Sorel and his desperation to escape the humdrum conformity of his peasant upbringing in provincial France by advancing himself into high society in Restoration France (1820s-30s). He believes that French society has gone downhill since the days of his hero, Napoleon when almost anyone with talent to rise to the top of society but know it was only possible with manipulation and ‘hypocrisy’. With his unrivalled memory he is able to memorise almost everything he reads including knowing the Bible off by heart in Latin and gets a position as a tutor in the local nobleman’s house. He then embarks on an affair with the nobleman’s wife to gain her influence and patronage and through this he gets a job in Paris as a secretary to a Marquis. When he’s there he starts another affair with the Marquis’ daughter and is about achieve everything he set out to achieve at the start of the novel before he allows his passion to come before his ambition and it all starts to unravel…
I did enjoyed this book even though it took me several months to finish it (started in February, finished yesterday) although this is due in a large part to how busy I’ve been in past few months.
It’s a good story detailing the rise and fall of man who throw guile and sheer luck manages to almost get everything he wants until his self-control breaks at the crucial moment. It’s central message still has a lot of relevance in modern society when we look at how highly valued ‘connections’ are for students like myself to make it in the world? What really is the difference between ‘patronage’ in the 19th century and contacts in the 21st?
Some passages fly off the page; expertly written and exciting that make an hour’s reading feel like it’s passed by in a little more than a few minutes.
However, the majority of the writing drags. It may be that the text hasn’t aged well or it suffers from its translation from French to English. Whatever the reason, sometimes the text comes alive and there are passages where everything seems to be happening at a very quick pace and then there are passages where the characters emote and pontificate about their surroundings endlessly.
Furthermore the archaic style of the dialogue can be a bit confusing and over written so there are times when I found myself reading a page and looking back, having no idea what it said.
Overall I’d say however it is not the kind of page turner you’d take on holiday with you but is worth a look if you have infinite time and patience and our looking for something that digs a little deeper into the human psyche without getting to bogged down in philosophy.
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Price: £5.88 (from Amazon)