Having only just discovered Stendhal (aka Henri Beyle) through my ‘Year of European Reading’ I was delighted when this little book turned up out of the blue in my letterbox. I still don’t know enough of them, but I’m beginning to really like the French classics, and I think I’m going to end up liking Stendhal best of all.
I loved the awesome power of Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables, but it has to be said that his characterisation is secondary to the theme of redemption and the style of the book places it firmly in the 19th century. In the case of Jean Valjean and Cosette, both are a bit too good to be true, and their interior lives remain a mystery to the reader. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is splendid, but you have to be in the mood for pages and pages of delving into memories of strange obsessions. Volume 4 (Sodom and Gomorrah) was very strange indeed (and I really ought to re-read again to make proper sense of it before long).
Stendhal, on the other hand, explores in The Red and the Black the psychological development of his character Julien Sorel as a modern author might, and there’s plenty of action. Stendhal’s rapier-like wit and satirical intent, (not to mention its shorter length) also helps the book weather better into the 21st century.
It seems extraordinary that some of Stendhal’s works hadn’t been translated into English until now. You’d think that he’d have been done to death by PhD students, but in fact Simon Leys (an Australian scholar and academic) is the first to translate the two pieces in this book. The first is a memoir of Stendhal written by his friend Prosper Mérimée. The other is a short piece by Stendhal, a whimsy in which he explores a wish-list of supernatural powers he’d like to have. Neither of these get a mention on Wikipedia, something I might try to rectify in due course.
Mérimée’s memoir, written in restitution for having failed to honour his friend sufficiently at his funeral, is a curious creation. At times it’s tactlessly honest about Beyle’s failings, and at other times it’s warm, affectionate and funny. I was especially amused by his recollection of Beyle’s advice about how to survive one’s first duel, which I reproduce here in case any of my readers should ever need it.
While your opponent is taking aim at you, look at a tree and apply yourself to counting its leaves. Concentrating the mind on one thing will help you not to worry about the other matter – the more serious one. When it is your turn to aim at your opponent, recite two Latin verses; this will prevent you from shooting too soon and will counteract the excessive emotion that usually sends the shot twenty feet above the target. (p22)
I don’t recommend that anyone take what Mérimée records as Beyle’s advice about how to get on with women. He was an absurd romantic who fell in love passionately and often. Too often, perhaps, because Wikipedia tells me that he ended up with syphilis.
Alas for Mérimée, his remarks about Beyle’s writing seem a bit pathetic given that his own fame did not survive into the 20th century much less the 21st. He snipes about Beyle’s failure to proof-read and revise, and patronisingly hopes that he will be rediscovered in the 20th century. I don’t think he would be forgiven for this were it not for the amusing anecdotes which reveal Beyle as a fascinating eccentric of interesting contradictions. (And Mérimée also redeems himself by having (in his role as inspector of architectural treasures) rescued many French medieval monuments from ruin.)
Beyle was brave in his military career, loyal and trustworthy. He was opinionated perhaps, scorning contemporary French writers, the clergy and the law – but he was prudent too, keeping his opinions about Napoleon to himself. He enjoyed his career as a writer, and read widely, including Shakespeare. This portrait of Beyle suggests that there are some aspects of The Red and the Black that are autobiographical, such as Julian Sorel’s poor relationship with his father and his contempt for the clergy.
By way of contrast, Ley also includes a brief piece by George Sand where she recollects meeting Beyle on a voyage from Lyon to Avignon. She liked him, but his cynicism and crazy behaviour wore a bit thin after a while and she was glad to see the back of him.
Part II of this little book is a mere eleven pages long. It’s a fanciful list of ‘privileges’ that Stendhal wrote in his old age. These privileges that he would like to have granted to him include having a painless death, enjoying supernatural powers to transform himself into any animal or man of his choice, and miracles that enable him to win at cards and be a perfect shot. He would like to do a little philanthropy, kill an occasional ten people a year, get his money back from thieves and do some mind-reading. Since I’m allergic to mosquito bites, I’d like to share one particular privilege with him:
Article 15: Within a radius of six metres from the finger-ring of the privileged person, all insects will instantly drop dead if the privileged person holding the ring says the following prayer: ‘I pray that all noxious insects be annihilated….’ (p67)
This is a charming little book, poignant in places and laugh-out-loud funny in others. I don’t think you need to have read Stendhal to enjoy it at all.