It was just coincidence that Black Inc sent me a copy of Simon Leys’ new book With Stendahl when I had just started reading Stendahl’s The Red and Black (first published in 1830). For the best part of 30 years I had had a rather dingy paperback copy of Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma (1839) languishing on the shelves – but had no idea of its significance and never got round to reading it. It finally made its way onto the list of books to read for my ‘Year of European Reading’ this year, only to be supplanted by The Red and the Black when I read a recommendation somewhere online that it was better to start with the earlier book. It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die too.
The edition I’m reading was translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff in 1925, and it bears this intriguing dedication:
To O.H.H. who had every word of both volumes read to her when she was powerless to resist.
Who was ‘she’, and why was she ‘powerless to resist’ ? Love, presumably. It makes us do the strangest things, does it not? Twenty years ago when we were courting, I read through The Spouse’s entire library of Bertrand Russell’s books and 3-volume autobiography while The Spouse demonstrated his prowess in the kitchen, (a talent which serves us well to this day). Russell churned out his popular philosophy books like McDonald’s churns out hamburgers, and The Spouse, who was then (and probably still is) the only Australian member of the Bertrand Russell Society, had shelves and shelves of them. It was wanting to share an interest that made me read them – was that what motivated this anonymous woman too? I digress, I know, but I’d love to know who ‘she’ was. Wikipedia’s bio of Moncrieff (who also translated Proust) doesn’t suggest girlfriends, not at all…
Wikipedia tells me that The Red and the Black was the first realist novel, and both its themes and its style do seem ‘modern’ for 1830. It’s the coming-of-age story of Julien Sorel, a rather priggish young man whose intellectual and social pretensions don’t include working in his father’s timber mill. With the downfall of his hero Napoleon, a career in the army is not an option, and so he goes into the church, but he has no vocation, only an ambition to escape his plebeian background.
BEWARE: MINOR SPOILERS
The story follows Sorel’s psychological journey as he moves through various states: pride when his talent and hard work are admired; anger and jealousy when he moves in social circles above him; hypocrisy in his dealings with the church; and a dawning capacity for love and affection – always doomed because his lovers are beyond him socially and he never understands their conflicted feelings about him. (Nor did I). Sorel is alternately completely confused by events or passionately convinced that he has detected the infamy or shallowness of some other character. He is never able to reconcile his twin states of resentment and envy because he despises the society which he also desires to join.
This flaw in his character is at its most interesting in his response to overtures from Mathilde de la Mole – and I bet that many a young lady in Stendahl’s time was shocked by his vacillating responses to her charms, from cynical repudiation to irresponsible enthusiasm. Charm after all, was all that young ladies had to trade with then, and Mathilde had gone out on a limb in pursuit of love, scandalously writing to a man of humble origin, and writing to him first. (Read Jane Austen if you don’t know why women initiating a correspondence was so scandalous.)
At the same time Stendahl satirises the church, its wealth and corruption and its internal politics. His portrait of vacuous Parisian society is acerbic, and at its most droll in the duel – though I was also amused by the strategy by which Sorel is made acceptable to dine at the Marquise’s table. The Marquise likes his employee’s intelligence, you see, but that’s not enough: table companions must be of the right class. A rumour is therefore started which reveals that Sorel is the ‘natural’ i.e. illegitimate son of an aristocrat – and even when Mathilde de la Mole taxes Sorel’s critics with their snobbery (which she shares) and everyone knows this rumour is fake, it is still the means by which he is able to mix with his ‘betters’.
It is when Sorel is an unwitting participant in a royalist plot that things get really ugly. He is so naive that he doesn’t realise he is putting his life at risk when his prodigious memory is put to use – and that in a cause he despises! This part of the story is a bit confusing for those of us not familiar with the ins-and-outs of French revolutionary history – Stendhal often refers to characters and events that require a quick Google search. (The most amusing instance of this is when Sorel, earlier in the story, hesitates over whether to seduce Mathilde and is inspired by a statue of Cardinal Richelieu. I had to read the whole Wikipedia article to discover in the sub-section Legacy that it was because the cardinal was power-hungry, unscrupulous, and avaricious that Sorel admired him.
Is Susan Howatch indebted to Stendahl for her Starbridge (also known as the Church of England) series with its goings-on within a fictional ecclesiastical hierarchy? I read Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes and Scandalous Risks so long ago I can’t quite remember the plots but they did seem to cover familiar territory. It’s Jacobinism and Jesuitism which animates Stendhal’s church politics, and it was extreme monasticism in hers, I think, but the ambitious scheming is the same.)
Red and Black is a fascinating portrait of a strange young man. Its flawed hero initially alienates the reader because he is such an unlikeable fellow, but before long I felt sorry for him. Although obviously clever and industrious he had no real hope of transcending the stratified society of his time and was completely out of his depth with the machinations of the churchmen and royalists who controlled his fate.
I wonder if The Red and the Black is the first example of ‘political correctness’ in a novel? Sorel has to suppress his nostalgic admiration for Napoleon because it is ‘just not done’ to talk about him during the Bourbon Restoration from 1814 to 30. But he’s not the only one to have to mind his Ps and Qs. At the home of the Marquise, Stendhal’s irony is unconstrained:
So long as you did not speak lightly of God, or of the clergy, or of the King, or of the men in power, or of the artists patronised by the court, or of anything established; so long as you did not say anything good of Beranger, or of the opposition press, or of Voltaire, or of Rousseau, or anything that allowed itself the liberty of a little freedom of speech; so long, above all, as you did not talk politics, you could discuss anything you pleased with freedom. (Kindle location 3911-16, Bk 2 Ch 4: The Hotel de La Mole)
I’m expecting to enjoy following up my belated discovery of this fine author with Simon Ley’s portrait of Stendahl. Not a conventional biography, With Stendahl is a small book, consisting of two parts:
The first piece is a set of impressions and memories written by Stendhal’s famous friend Prosper Mérimée. Several vignettes reveal Stendhal’s character – charismatic, engaging, frenetic, hyper-romantic – accompanied by amusing anecdotes of him duelling, falling in love, and holding forth in the company of friends. The second is by Stendhal himself, a fantasy composed one idle afternoon, near the end of his life and for his own pleasure: a whimsical list of the supernatural powers he wished he possessed. (Black Inc blurb)
More about Ley’s book when I’ve read it…There’s a lovely tribute site to Stendhal at stendahlforever.com and a Reading Group Guide at Penguin but don’t visit it if you haven’t read the book first because it has critical spoilers in the introduction. The Moncrieff translation is readily available online including at eBooks Adelaide.
Update 29/12/15 Click here to see my review of Simon Ley’s book, With Stendhal.
Author: Simon Leys
Title: With Stendahl
Publisher: Black Inc, June 2010
Source: review copy courtesy of Black Inc. RRP $19.95.