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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: The Red and The Black by Stendahl

The Red and The Black
a new translation by Catherine Slater
with an introduction by Roger Pearson
Oxford World's Classics
p.  2009

   Published in 1831, Stendahl's, The Red And The Black was very much a novel "of the moment."  Upon it's original publication it even carried the subtitle "A Novel of 1830."  The Red and The Black is peppered with references to social and current events that were specific to the year 1830, and it is hard for a modern reader to grasp the shock that The Red and The Black was greeted with upon publication.

   Stendahl tells the story of Julien: A carpenter's son from the provinces of France who rises and falls from prominence in a series of events that should ring a bell with any fan of Romanticism.  Julien starts out as a tutor to the children of the local Mayor, bangs the Mayor's wife, goes off to a seminary, finds favor with the head Monk, gets a gig as the personal secretary to an aristocrat, bangs the daughter of his boss, and (spoiler alert) shoots the Mayor's wife after she exposes him to his boss as Julien is on the cusp of marrying the (pregnant) daughter of his boss, is tried for attempted murder, convicted and executed.

   That's the plot, and it comes off to the modern reader a tad melodramatic, but what sticks is the style of the writing.  Zola called The Red and the Black the first "modern novel" because of the way Stendahl was able to write from the perspective of all the main characters.  Stendahl also deploys a kind of floating narrator in a manner that is totally at odds with the showy, ostentatious "master narrators" of 18th century fiction.

   The Red and The Black is also notable in the way that Stendahl advances the narrative- he is closer to modern novelistic technique then any who come before him.  Stendahl writes as an author who is not merely familiar with novelistic convention (as it stood in the mid 1820s) but an author who is trying to introduce reader friendly improvements.  It makes for a pleasant and enjoyable read- far superior to other novels from the period.

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