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The Red and the Black, Book II: wicked games

November 24, 2010 19 comments

Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal. The translation I used for the quotes is by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

Do you like The Sorrows of Young Werther? Wuthering Heights? Romantic literature? I don’t. Every time I read a book from that movement I yawn, no matter how good it is supposed to be. So finishing The Red and the Black was sheer literary torture.

 Julien Sorel is now in Paris, working as a private secretary for the Marquis de la Mole, who has two children, Norbert and Mathilde. Both children are about the same age as Julien. The de la Mole are described as ancient nobility. Mme de la Mole values birth above all, no personal quality can surpass that of a high birth.

Julien has this particular position devoted to governesses, tutors and secretaries. They are above servants because they work with the house’s children and their education can make of them valuable companions for their masters but they remain servants. This ambiguous position is put forward by Stendhal in the Marquis’ attitude toward Julien. When Julien wears the black suit of the secretary, his relationship with the Marquis is that of a servant. When he wears the blue suit the Marquis gave him, he is his equal and they converse freely as the Marquis would with one of his peers. The clothe may not make the man but sure makes the gentleman.

Somewhere else in the mansion, Mathilde de la Mole is bored. She worships her ancestor Boniface de la Mole, who was Marguerite de Navarre’s lover and was beheaded on the Place de Grève on April 30th 1574. She thinks men during the reign of Henry the Third were braver than her contemporaries. Why does she admire this period of the Ancient Regime? The time of religion wars, massacres in the name of God and secession of the nobility from the king? In my vision, the reign of Louis the 14th was more flamboyant. Does she identifies to these troubled times as her time is troubled too and also requires to pick a side?

Her boredom reminds me of Musset describing le mal du siècle at the same period (1). Musset writes that love affairs were the only passionate things that remained. 19-year-old Mathilde is led to the same conclusion and starts fancying Julien because she wants to be in love and because he is different from the gentlemen she usually meets. Moreover, the potential scandal associated to having an affair with a plebeian increases the thrill of the relationship.  

Une idée l’illumina tout à coup : J’ai le bonheur d’aimer, se dit-elle un jour, avec un transport de joie incroyable. J’aime, j’aime, c’est clair! A mon âge, une fille jeune, belle, spirituelle, où peut-elle trouver des sensations, si ce n’est dans l’amour? J’ai beau faire, je n’aurai jamais d’amour pour Croisenois, Caylus, et tutti quanti. Ils sont parfaits, trop parfaits peut-être ; enfin, ils m’ennuient.

Suddenly an idea dawned upon her: ‘I have the good fortune to be in love,’ she told herself one day, with an indescribable transport of joy. ‘I am in love, I am in love, it is quite clear! At my age, a young girl, beautiful, clever, where can she find sensations, if not in love? I may do what I like, I shall never feel any love for Croisenois, Caylus, e tutti quanti. They are perfect, too perfect perhaps; in short, they bore me.’

 This street, Rue de l’Humilité (Humility Street) is certainly not where the Hôtel de la Mole was located. Neither Julien or Mathilde could have lived on such a street, for this concept is totally foreign to their minds. The beginning of their relationship is theatrical. They drop each other letters, they meet at night in dangerous conditions. Their affair is poisoned by second thoughts from the start and Julien knows it:

Mlle de la Mole me regarde d’une façon singulière. Mais, même quand ses beaux yeux bleus fixés sur moi sont ouverts avec le plus d’abandon, j’y lis toujours un fond d’examen, de sang-froid et de méchanceté. Est-ce possible que ce soit là de l’amour? Quelle différence avec les regards de Mme de Rênal!

‘Mademoiselle de La Mole keeps looking at me in a strange fashion. But, even when her beautiful blue eyes seem to gaze at me with least restraint, I can always read in them a cold, malevolent scrutiny. Is it possible that this is love? How different from the look in Madame de Renal’s eyes.’

Their relationship starts as a wicked game, like in a play by Marivaux. It makes the whoooole second book. That’s where I gave up the first time and I struggled to finish it, not to be tempted to try it again later. I found the story implausible. I won’t give more details to avoid spoilers but what a tedious reading! This book contains everything I dislike in romantic romance: fabricated pain, whims, big words, despair, violent actions supposed to show off deep feelings. To me, Mathilde and Julien are only two haughty and obnoxious people deserving the fate they made up for themselves. I felt no compassion for either of them and I thought Mme de Rênal beyond silly.

I suspect the romance between Julien and Mathilde inspired Proust for Swann’s Way on the aspect of a love created by mind delusion more than a genuine love feeling. Julien could say the same thing about Mathilde as Swann about Odette:

Dire que j’ai gâché des années de ma vie, que j’ai voulu mourir, que j’ai eu mon plus grand amour, pour une femme qui ne me plaisait pas, qui n’était pas mon genre!

To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style!” (translation C.K. Scott Moncrieff)

The second book is also full of political intrigues that totally escaped me. I have the kindle version and a help from a foreword would have been welcomed on that part. Or maybe Stendhal was standing in the middle of the way: a lot of details about Julien attending mysterious meetings and passing secret notes but not relevant enough for the reader to make something out of it. In addition to my lack of knowledge of the political context, it may also be a flaw of the novel.

If I try to set aside my distaste for this love story and my not-understanding the political issues, I liked Stendhal’s innovative style. He varies the narrative points of views, switching between Mathilde and Julien. He intervenes in the story, calling out to the reader. There are many spoken or unspoken dialogues. The reader sees situations through the characters’ partial and limited point of views. He avoids heavy literary and cultural references and uses simple but efficient words. There are very few descriptions of settings, homes, clothes. The whole book is centred on dialogues and workings of inner minds. About writing a novel, Stendhal states:  

Un roman est un miroir qui se promène sur une grande route. Tantôt il reflète à vos yeux l’azur des cieu, tantôt la fange des bourbiers de la route. Et l’homme qui porte le miroir dans sa hotte sera par vous accusé d’être immoral! Son miroir montre la fange et vous accusez le miroir! Accusez bient plutôt le grand chemin où est le bourbier, et plus encore l’inspecteur des routes qui laisse l’eau croupir et le bourbier se former.

A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shows the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.

Whatever. The problem for me was not the mirror or the man carrying it but indeed the road he chose to show us. I did not like it and I blame the road as a creation of the writer. 

  (1) The Confession of a Child of the Century was published in 1836.

 

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