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).