Wednesday, July 04, 2007


I'm considering undertaking another book as a group reading project, tentatively to start in September. Again, something "big," and generally acknowledged as a classic.

Any ideas? Would you read along?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Novels, mirrors, and politics

(Rushing to catch up with the rest of the class...)

I had a good laugh at the lengthy parenthetical that Stendhal interjects into his narrative in Ch. 19 (Pt. II). Well-written irony is pure joy to read. He eventually came right out with his beef with those he offends:
(Ah, my dear sir: a novel is a mirror, talking a walk down a big road. Sometimes you'll see nothing but blue skies; sometimes you'll see the muck in the mud piles along the road. And you'll accuse the man carrying the mirror in his basket of being immoral! His mirror reflects muck, so you'll accuse the mirror, too! Why not also accuse the highway where the muck is piled, or, more strongly still, the street inspector who leaves water wallowing in the roads, so the mud piles can come into being.)
Later (in Ch. 22), he inserts another during the secret political meeting where Julien is the note-taker:
(The author would have preferred, at this point, to insert a page consisting of nothing but ellipses. "That would look awful," said the publisher, "and, for such a lightweight book, looking bad is, quite simply, death." -- "Politics," the author replied, "is a stone tied around literature's neck, and in less than six months, it sinks under the weight. Politics set among the imagination's concerns is like a pistol shot fired at a concert. The noise mangles without energizing. It does not harmonize with the sound of any instrument in the orchestra. Politics will mortally offend half your readers, and bore the other half, who would have found the discussion fascinating, and wonderfully lively, in the morning newspaper...." -- "If your characters don't talk politics," responded the publisher, "they'll cease to be the Frenchmen of 1830, and your book will no longer be a mirror as you claim it is....")
I love this. What do you think about Stenhal's argument here? His resistance to politicizing his narrative is certainly still an issue today.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Did you like it?

To borrow a question from The Modern Library Reading Guide: Why did the twentieth century see an enormous rise in Stendhal’s literary reputation and influence?

What do you interpret "the red" and "the black" as symbolizing?

Nessie has just posted a review of the book that touches on some major points but without going into too much detail.

The question that lingers with me is what were these characters' motivations — it starts with boredom, a let's-see-what-happens, but later? Do you think, in the end, Mme de Renal and Mathilde really love Julien — I mean REALLY love him? How sincere, or genuine, are Julien's words and actions? Has he achieved any kind of love or heroism?

Mathilde early on had said: "Nothing can so distinguish a man as a death sentence. It's the only thing one can't buy."


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Is this thing on?

I admit it: I fell behind, got distracted. But I'm back on schedule, slightly ahead even, and planning to finish in the next couple days.

I'd wanted to pick up on Rachel's comment that "Mme de Renal's handling of her husband was comical and ingenious and WAY cleverer than she should have been capable of." I completely agree! But where does the cleverness come from? Not books. It's something that arises from the force and purity of her love?

I'm thoroughly enjoying how Stendhal presents Paris society, the petty power games, the wars of words, how people fall in and out of favour (I'm reminded of the movie Ridicule — did anyone see it?).

(Mathilde is worshipful of Rousseau, while Julien calls Rousseau a fool and, essentially, a hypocrite (B2,ch8,p273). What's that all about?)

"We no longer have genuine passions, in the nineteenth century. That's why there's so much boredom, here in France. We do the most incredibly cruel things but without cruelty."

I did fall back on the Spark Notes, to make sure I wasn't missing anything. They did reinforce the sense that all actions are taken not for themselves but for their approval (eg, Julien considers Mathilde only after the respected academician sings her praises). Also, they did help make clear Julien's method, that all his actions are conceived as a military strategy (only without having much understanding of strategy), his whole life is a battle, and in this "small" way he continues to try to emulate his hero, Napoleon. ("It's clear that Julien had no experience of life; he had not even read novels.")

Mathilde, on the other hand, had read quite a lot, and things she shouldn't. Most descriptions of passion she dismisses as frivolous love. But she sees herself as Marguerite de Valois.

These two lovers are so intent on conforming to their respective models, they're lacking for genuine passion. All their knowledge and ideas and ambitions seem bound to end in disappointment, and they keep upping the stakes to keep it exciting.

Mme de Renal certainly does look better when cast against the light of Paris. Julien often compares them, and Mme shines superiorly. And I wonder — is it because of her naivete, the convent-upbringing, the living in the provinces, that makes her seem a better — purer — person? Is it my age, that I sympathize with her, that I feel critical of the young adults, careless, fickle, without the strength of character they purport to admire?

Is anyone still reading? Where are you?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Some quick and general comments (thru ch 21)

I haven't had much time for reading while away (and I'm still away). I just wanted to comment on the show versus tell thing. I know this conversations been had in various forums, and some of you have been part of it, so this isn't exactly a new and stunning observation, but I'm finding that Stendhal's "show" is minimal and "tell" pretty extreme. Those events we traditionally think of as moving the plot forward happen in the blink of an eye, but the characters analyze them to death in their heads. For example, when one of the Renal sons is seriously ill and Mme freaks out, I had to review these pages to be sure precisely what happened.

Then there's the letters. Stendhal's treatment of the episode seems so opposite to what we (as a mature, postmodern reading audience) have come to expect.

Sorry for not going into more detail, but I'm short on time.

I'd love to hear from the rest of you on that last section before moving forward. Do you think the relationship between Julien and Mme has evolved any? What do you think of M de Renal's show of character in response to the letters?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Stendhal and Rousseau

When I came across this in Ch. 13, I began to wonder if Stendhal was poking fun at Rousseau:
He discovered a small cave in the almost perpendicular face of one of the rocks. He set his course for it, and presently was ensconced in this retreat. 'Here,' he said, his eyes sparkling with joy, 'men can do me no harm.' It occurred to him to indulge in the pleasure of writing down his thoughts, so dangerous to him in any other place. A smooth block of stone served as his table. His pen flew: he saw nothing of the scene round about him. At length he noticed that the sun was setting behind the distant mountains of Beaujolais.

'Why should I not spend the night here?' he asked himself; 'I have bread, and I am free!' At the sound of that great word his heart leaped, his hypocrisy meant that he was not free even with Fouque. His head supported on both his hands, Julien stayed in this cave happier than he had ever been in his life, engrossed in his dreams and in the joy of freedom. Without heeding it he saw fade and die, one after another, the last rays of evening light.
I haven't read much philosophy, but it seems that Julien fits the type of the Romantic-hero wannabe. Is Stendhal slyly criticizing this ideal, or is he demonstrating (through Julien) how the ideal can never by reached by someone of such shallow character?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What to make of Julien?

I mentioned previously in passing that Julien, in the opening chapters anyway, reminded me a little of Pierre in War and Peace. Obviously, I still have War and Peace on the brain — and with each passing chapter they're less alike. However, there are some superficial similarities: There's references to both of them as childlike. They're both ardent supporters of Napoleon. They've both been denied access to "society," and when finally admitted are rather enamoured of it (Julien not actually admitted, but at least allowed to see it up close).

I sympathize with these naifs. They're underdogs; I want to root for them.

Except, a few more chapters along, I don't really like Julien anymore. I still feel a little sorry for him, but I don't understand him.

I don't have any fully formed notions of his motivations — I'm just thinking out loud here and I have yet to go back and reread some of this section.

What's with this duty he feels toward Mme de Rênal? Or is it duty to himself to fulfill a role he's decided he's fit for. Or duty to his aspired-to station in society?

Mme is also naive; we know she didn't get any ideas about love (or much else) from books, indeed she has trouble recognizing it. As awkward or uninformed as her actions are, they seem to me to come purely of herself, her nature; it's natural.

But Julien?! As I understand it: he picked up these notions of how a young man ought to conduct himself quite recently and suddenly, while in the employ of de Rênal? Does he think this will advance his career? How stupid is he? Or is he in fact acting on a natural impulse that he now regards through a distorted lens?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Pollarded trees

I was struck in Chapter 2 by Stendhal's description of some trees because it strikes me as emblematic of one of the central themes:
...what I object to in the Cours de la Fidelite is the barbarous manner in which the authorities keep those sturdy plane trees trimmed and clipped short. Instead of looking, with their low, rounded, flattened heads, like the commonest of vegetables, they would like nothing better than to take on the magnificent form they develop in England. But the mayor's will is despotic, and twice a year the branches of all trees belonging to the commune are mercilessly amputated. ...

"I like shade," replied Monsieur de Renal... "I have my trees trimmed to make them give more shade, and I can't imagine what else a tree is made for if, unlike the useful walnut tree, it doesn't bring in money."
This specific kind of tree-trimming is called pollarding. It isn't seen much in North America, but is pretty common in European cities. It's an ancient practice, a way of making a tree that would otherwise be very large into a manageable street-tree. As you can see from the picture, the tree forms big bulging nodes on the end of its branches (my Dad used to call these "cat-heads", but I'm not finding a confirmation of that term on the web). These nodes don't get any higher, year after year, because a tree only grows bigger around, not taller, except at the very ends of its branches. Slender shoots spring up from the nodes, and when they start getting too big, they are trimmed back.

(My father's a plant pathologist. While your dad was teaching you to juggle or play pool, this is what mine was teaching me.)

Anyway, the trees in the story suggest something I'm seeing throughout: conformity and how much it hurts. How we bend over backwards and mutilate ourselves to meet ridiculous standards of behaviour, success, decency. These are disingenuous, hypocritical trees. They will provide the shade they are required to provide, no matter how ugly it makes them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Stendhal is light on the irony at the start of things, but then I came upon this in Ch. 5 and could not keep from laughing:
This horror of feeding with the servants was not natural to Julien; he would, in seeking his fortune, have done other things far more disagreeable. He derived this repugnance from Rousseau's _Confessions_. It was the one book that helped his imagination to form any idea of the world.
It goes on:
The collection of reports of the Grand Army and the _Memorial de Sainte-Helene_ completed his Koran. He would have gone to the stake for those three books. Never did he believe in any other. Remembering a saying of the old Surgeon-Major, he regarded all the other books in the world as liars, written by rogues in order to obtain advancement.

With his fiery nature Julien had one of those astonishing memories so often found in foolish people.
Ok, I'm definitely in for the long-haul--this is going to be fun. (The epigraph by "ENNIUS" made me smile as well.)

P.S. I'm reading the Moncrieff e-text since I have no bookstore access.

Monday, November 06, 2006

"The cage less gay"

"The little town of Verrières might be one of the prettiest in all Franche-Comté."

The town of Verrières is fictional, but its geography and description suggests Besançon. It's not a stand-in, however, as characters refer to this other town in their comings and goings (as a centre of learning and of fashion, or at least shopping).

It's pretty, pretty, pretty, we're told repeatedly. With a horizon "for the purpose of pleasing the eye." Rênal's wall offers "one of the most picturesques views in all France.


"Nowhere in France can you hope to find the picturesque gardens surrounding Germany's manufacturing towns — Leipzig, Frankfurt, Nuremburg, etc. In Franch-Comté, the more walls you put up, the more your property bristles with rocks heaped one on top of another, the more claim you have on your neighbours' respect."

The trees are "like the most vulgar of garden vegetables."

Add to this the roar and frightful appearance of the mill's operation, "visibly harsh and violent," and the stench of financial transactions, and I have to wonder:

How pretty is it really?

I get the feeling we may get a look at some ugly undersides, including of the good-looking (if delicate) Julien and the pretty-for-her-age Mme Rênal.

And what is it that makes them ugly? For the town, it's the concessions to commerce, the idiotic "tyranny of opinion" (any idea what to make of this reference to the United States?), the call to a kind of conformity. The epigraph suggests it's not a happy place, and Julien is desperate to escape. (I knew a town like that once.)

In Julien we already see hypocrisy regarding his public stance on Napoleon, a conformity to his new crowd. Madame is "an artless soul," bored and not giving much thought (or care?) to anything (a kind of passionless conformity to her station?). But they'll make a handsome couple, no?

Some preliminaries

I've had neither much time to search out any interesting or relevant background material nor luck in finding anything that goes beyond the introductory notes to most editions and which doesn't include spoilers.

The main events of The Red and the Black are based on a real-life incident, but to share any details of it seems to give away the book's ending. Warning: the introduction to the Raffel translation contains spoilers, as does the biographical note.

To warm up to a discussion about the book proper, maybe we could talk a bit about reading the book...

What translation are you reading?
Have you read the introduction?

Why are you reading TR&TB? Have you read it before?

Diane Johnson in her introduction to the Raffel translation notes that "An American reader is most likely to have encountered The Red and the Black at about the age of its protagonists, Julien Sorel and Mathilde de la Mole, who are eighteen or nineteen when we meet them. [...] As with many novels, to take it up again at an older age is to experience a different book." Stendhal saw it published when he was 47. I feel a peculiar pleasure in being of an age somewhere between Stendhal's and that of the other, older (about thirty) protagonist, as if I'm well-poised to get it.

Do you have a reading plan, or method? I've noted elsewhere that I'm having a hard time pacing myself, not reading ahead, but I'm trying to set aside blocks of time as well as trying to read in French.

Most important: are you liking it so far?

I'll be posting a couple more specific thoughts later in the day (1. my impressions of the town; 2. how Julien reminds me of Pierre in War and Peace).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


I've posted a schedule in the sidebar, its main purpose being to focus discussion on specific sections and prevent spoiling plot and character developments for your fellow readers.

The date cited is the day on which posting and discussion opens for the indicated chapters.

I've used my French edition as a cue for a few of the breaks, as some academics have deemed it appropriate to interrupt the text in these places with scholarly articles and other supplementary material. The remainder of the breaks I've determined solely on the basis of page count.

I will be away November 22–29 and may or may not have internet access during that time, but I certainly intend to read while away. Section discussions now open on Mondays (a change from previous discussions, to accommodate my little vacation so I won't miss a full section). Also, I've stretched one section over 2 weeks at the end of December as I expect both reading and discussion may slow a little around Christmas.

I'll be digging around for some background material to post over the next couple weeks. Feel free to do same, introduce yourselves, post some initial thoughts on Stendhal or The Red and the Black, why you're reading it or what you've heard about it.

Happy reading!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Introducing Stendhal's The Red and the Black

A novel is a mirror that strolls along a highway. Now it reflects the blue of the skies, now the mud puddles underfoot. [The Red and the Black, ch 49]

According to The Modern Library:
The Red and the Black, Stendhal’s masterpiece, is the story of Julien Sorel, a young dreamer from the provinces, fueled by Napoleonic ideals, whose desire to make his fortune sets in motion events both mesmerizing and tragic. Sorel’s quest to find himself, and the doomed love he encounters along the way, are delineated with an unprecedented psychological depth and realism. At the same time, Stendhal weaves together the social life and fraught political intrigues of post–Napoleonic France, bringing that world to unforgettable, full-color life. His portrait of Julien and early-nineteenth-century France remains an unsurpassed creation, one that brilliantly anticipates modern literature.

Published in 1830, the novel's events span the years 1827-1829. Both Middlemarch and War and Peace are historical novels, written many decades after the events they describe. I'm curious how Stendhal then will present "history" — I expect a sense of immediacy, without the benefit of hindsight nor the filters of historians.

Coincidentally (or this may account in part for why I'm drawn to this book), it covers post-Napoleonic France, picking up not long after where War and Peace left off and occurring just a few years before the political reforms and other goings on discussed in Middlemarch.

Politics in a literary work, is like a gun shot in the middle of a concert, something vulgar, and however, something which is impossible to ignore. [The Charterhouse of Parma, ch 23]

Tolstoy was enormously influenced by Stendhal.

The Russians imitate French ways, but always at a distance of fifty years. [The Red and the Black, ch 54]

According to Wikipedia, "André Gide felt that The Red and the Black was a novel far ahead of its time, and called it a novel for readers in the 20th century."

"We should never be finished with Stendhal," said Paul Valéry. "I can think of no greater praise than that."

In The Red and the Black Czeslaw Milosz "perceives the "legend of the will": that a lone individual can apprehend the complexity of society as hypocrisy and assert his authenticity by rebelling against it."

In our calling, we have to choose; we must make our fortune either in this world or in the next, there is no middle way. [The Red and the Black, ch 8]


Excerpt (translated by Burton Raffel).
One review favourable, another not so much.

Etext (translated by CK Scott-Moncrieff).
Etext (translated by Charles Tergie).

I've been rather enthusiastic for some months now regarding the prospect of reading this book, and even promised myself I'd try reading it in French. Don't worry: in addition to having a great number of dictionaries at my disposal, as well as a resident French speaker (everyone should have one), I have on hand Burton Raffel's English translation of the novel for reference.

Register your interest in reading along in the comments or by email. (If you've previously emailed me regarding joining in on the next book, I'll be in touch with you shortly.) Any suggestions on how to tackle this masterpiece, all comments, and any resources are welcome.

I'll be posting a schedule in the next week or so. I'd like discussion to open in the first bit of November. The schedule will take into account my late-November vacation, as well as Christmas preparations and festivities. Reading will go into the new year.

A novel is like a bow, and the violin that produces the sound is the reader's soul.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The end of Tolstoy

We may as well call it a day and consider discussion on War and Peace closed.

I'm still thinking about War and Peace, I'm just having great difficulty saying anything about it. I've determined that perhaps it lends itself better to introspection; any discussion of it (that isn't in the flesh and involving music and vodka) is bound to be superficial.

I may post some further thoughts, as I intend to watch Sergei Bondarchuk's 1968 epic Soviet production (years in the making! cast of thousands! a record-setting cost of $100 million), as soon as I can get my hands on it (there's a waiting list at the library!). It's considered to be the most faithful adaptation.

Still, I'd appreciate your thoughts (in the comments below, or by email) on where the difficulties lie: the timing, the pace, the size of the book, the bigness of its themes, the historic detail? Maybe it'll help in planning the next group reading project.

Yes, I do have another group reading project in mind. (Hint: Stendhal's The Red and the Black.) More information in the days to come.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A little discussion

I say this is a "little" discussion, because I'm not looking at larger themes or underlying philosophies. I'm just going to write about one of the characters I enjoy--Pierre. I liked him at the very beginning, and although he sometimes acts foolishly, he remains likable.

I'm still in the middle of the Battle of Borodino (trying to remember if, in history, Napolean ever did take Moscow or not--can't remember!), and I've just been marveling over Pierre. Who rides out into the middle of a battle just to see what's going on? It reminds me of the first few chapters in Anna Pavlovna's drawing room. Pierre was a naive young man, charging into the group and sharing his opinions without the least idea that he was ridiculous or unwelcome. And now he's doing the same thing on the battlefield! He chats with the officers or the soldiers without the faintest idea of what's really going on.

I don't think Pierre sees things as they are. I think he sees them as he is. And because he is generous, big-hearted, and open, he casts everything in his own mold, imagining that everyone is as happy to see him as he is to see them. He's not stupid, though. I'm curious to see whether he will remain so enchanted with the Masons. I suppose it depends on what Tolstoy thought about them, and that I don't know.

The further into the book we go, the more complex I find the battles. I know nothing about military maneuvers. The only "battlefields" I've been on are historic (like Gettysburg). I have been at a few re-enactments, though, and they are so loud! If you added to the noise of the guns and cannons the sounds of men and horses screaming...I can't even imagine. How can Pierre be so oblivious????

Well, I'm hoping to finish reading about this battle today or tomorrow. Where is everyone else? I know Isabella finished on time, but surely not everyone else?