Le rouge et le noir

When I first read The Red and the Black by the pseudonymous Stendhal, I immediately wanted to form a Julien Sorel fan club.  Send me a few bucks, and you can join and receive a hand made button like the one shown above – I wear it proudly – for your lapel.

Julien is the child of a brutish and crafty peasant who runs a local saw mill, discussed in my recent post on peasants.  He idolizes Napoleon, and fumes at his inability to find a ladder out of the provincial pit of sloth and stupidity into which he has been born.  He is smart though, and is made tutor to the local bourgeois family of note, a family with a very beautiful mistress.  He promptly decides that seducing her is his only chance to advance himself.

Julien is cold, calculating, touchy, arrogant, insensitive and incredibly blockheaded.  He is also very good looking, but his deep sense of insecurity and inferiority, born of his low social station, prevent him from fully understanding or exploiting the effect he has on others, especially women.  He frequently appears to them as simply strange, unpredictable, even bizarre.  He is a strange sort of romantic hero.

Strange also in that his romantic nature is fixed on social climbing, even as he aches for love.  He can’t get love from Madame de Rênal, his employer, even though she is utterly infatuated by him, because he only uses people, as his father used him to make money.  He is passionate, and torn apart internally by his conflicts; he is the romantic hero of the superman – Napoleon – and the cursed burnout – Rimbaud or James Dean.

Eventually, he makes his way to Paris, where he works as a secretary to the Marquis de la Mole.  The Marquis’ young daughter, Mathilde, is a real piece of work herself.  Haughty, beautiful, intelligent, and suffering from the crushing boredom of post-1830 society in which nothing of interest can be said because it might be controversial, she is the natural aristocratic complement to Julien.  She is intrigued by this upstart plebeian – at least he is interesting. After considerable erotic knife-play, they become lovers.

Eric Auerbach, in his magisterial work of scholarship, MimesisThe Representation of Reality in Western Literature, devotes a chapter to the novel, naming it In the Hotel de la Mole after the title of chapter 34.  He dissects Stendhal’s brilliant depiction of the stifling and suffocating enforced conventionality, of manners, of dress, of thought, amongst the noble and bourgeois elite.  I practically gasp for air when I read the scenes of Julien suffering through an evening of chit chat in the de la Mole’s drawing room, the object of amused condescension of the more at-home guests.

Julien comes to a bad end, Mathilde is pregnant with his child, and she keeps his head as a keepsake.  There is so much in this novel, so many fantastic scenes, such crazy passion and psychological insight, such merciless realism, that I read it again and again with the passing years.

In 1996, Michiko Kakutani of the NYTimes published this clever parody and rap hommage to the novel:

THE RED AND THE BLACK (with apologies to L. L. Cool J and other rap artists):

Now I’ve got a tale I wanna tell.
It’s how I romanced these chicks and
got sent to hell.
My tag’s Sorel
And I’m one bad dude,
Master manipulator, young
Machiavelle.

Grew up in the sticks, where there ain’t no glory.
Had to make my name, no matter
how gory.
Got me a job as a kinda tutor.
Met the kids’ ma and became her suitor.
Mrs. R., she fell for me hard,
I made her my toy,
I’m one bad boy.

Got me a job in the far-off city.
Met a rich girl who was pretty pretty.
She was a doormat, I had a format.
We were gonna get hitched
I was gonna be rich.
Till old Mrs. R. played her
role as snitch.

She sold me out as a nasty cad.
So I tried to fade her, but I
got had.
They found me guilty and
now I’m dead.

Stupid Mathilde went and
buried my head.
Old Mrs. R. heard the news
and fell.
Now she’s off-line too,
as you can tell.
Like I said before, I’m a
master manipulator, the
new Machiavelle.

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8 Responses to Le rouge et le noir

  1. I read this a few years ago, and wished I’d read it when I was younger.

    There’s a French television version of this that’s not bad at all.

  2. Ducky's here says:

    Everyone thinks Napoleon was the Nietzschean ideal. I can’t square that with spending the last years of your life on one of the worst hell holes on earth.

    Bet he couldn’t even get a decent glass of wine.

    Aren’t the petit bourgeois always soft targets?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Oh, the warlike lads of Russia,
    They fought all in one mind;
    Made Bonaparte to run and
    Leave his troops behind.

    ——————

    Didn’t do all that well in Spain or Egypt either.

    What did he do, whack the Austrians and Italians a couple of times? Got John Milton all upset about the campaign in Piedmont to boot.

  4. Ducky's here says:

    Indeed Lichanos (anonymous was me)

    John Milton

    On the Late Massacre in Piedmont

    Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
    Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
    Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
    When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones,
    Forget not: in thy book record their groans
    Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
    Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that rolled
    Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
    The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
    To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
    O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
    The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
    A hundredfold, who, having learnt thy way,
    Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

  5. Ducky's here says:

    He just jumped the gun a little.

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