Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Le Rouge et le Noir

     Although only a few people responded to my original posts, I have decided to go ahead and post my thoughts about Le Rouge et le Noir anyway.  Should you now come across this page, please read the earlier posts and comment if you want to participate in an ongoing discussion.  And perhaps one or two of those who did respond will have something to say, as well.


 Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir,  or The Red and the Black, was published and set in 1830--as it turned out, a fortuitous event for the author, as we shall see.  The first half of the book is set in a medium-size town in eastern France, the second half in Paris.  The hero is Julien Sorel, the son of a carpenter who owns a sawmill, who by dint of his extraordinary intellect is given entrance first into the home of M. de Rénal, the mayor of the town, and then in the second half of the book into the mansion of the Marquis de la Mole, one of the leading noblemen of Paris.  In each case, he proves a very disruptive element indeed—a symbol of the passion and ambition still burning among the lower classes of Restoration France, and a portent of things to come.

Restoration France began in 1814 after Napoleon’s defeat.  (The Restoration was interrupted for 100 days after Napoleon’s return from Elba the next year, but quickly resumed after Waterloo.)   Le Rouge et le Noir is a portrait of the nobility, the restored ruling class, many of whom were guillotined in the early 1790s during the revolutionary terror, and many more who had to flee the country and spent the years of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire abroad.   They were restored to power both in the government—an almost absolute monarchy, although it included a legislature elected by a very limited suffrage—and in the Church, which became a pillar and ally of the new state.  The new government also restored their fortunes with a large appropriation, although it did not try to give back the land the revolutionary government had seized and sold to peasants and bourgeois.  The only parallel to the restoration in the history of the United States, it seems to me, is the former Confederate states in the years after Reconstruction.  In both cases, a defeated ruling class had re-established itself, and both were ruled in large part by fear of the lower classes, who might once again rise up at any moment.  Stendhal portrays a society ruled by money and social intrigue.  Every character’s annual income, based upon either his wealth or the position he holds from the government or church, is given down to the last franc, just as in Jane Austen and Balzac.  There are no industrialists or financiers in the Parisian upper crust.  

Julien Sorel comes from one step above the peasantry, and he is too young—about 20 when the book begins—to remember Napoleon.  Because he is relatively weak and an intellectual, his father and brothers despise him and beat him.  But he is brilliant, and he has been inspired by two relics of France’s recent past: an old retired military surgeon who took part in Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy, and Napoleon’s own memoirs.  He is fired by the knowledge that had he been twenty or thirty years older, he might have risen to be a Marshal in Napoleon’s army.  He has been instructed by a very old local priest, a man born in 1850, and so brilliant is his intellect that he has learned the entire Bible, in Latin, by heart, and can quote any chapter if given the first line.  Although Stendhal, who obviously has nothing but contempt for the new leadership class, is generally hostile to the Church, the local priest is one of two men of real integrity who have a profound influence on Julien’s life.  Thanks in part to him, M. de Rénal, the mayor of Julien’s home town of Verrières, takes Julien into his home to tutor his three sons in Latin.  They are captivated by him, and so is there mother.  Julien, like his creator, is more a man of the freethinking 18th century than of the 19th, and he has no sincere religious beliefs.  The Church for him is a means to advance and a source of intellectual stimulation, nothing more.

Mdme. de Rénal is beautiful and religiously devout.  She and her husband married for fortune and position, and she has never, apparently, been in love.  She is seduced by Julien’s frankness, his independence of mind, and his daring.  When he makes a pass at her she cannot resist, and soon finds herself torn between love and Catholic guilt. Their affair seems relatively easy to conduct under the circumstances, because the Rénals have separate bedrooms, quite widely separated.  They are nearly discovered in flagrante more than once, however, lending a great deal of drama to the book. Thanks to Élise, a maid in the household who had hoped to marry Julien herself, the affair becomes known in the town, and M. de  Rénal receives an anonymous letter about it from a political rival.  Julien’s presence in the household cannot continue, and he is eventually packed off to the seminary at the larger town of Besançon to finish his apprenticeship for the priesthood.  Here Julien meets a second ecclesiastical mentor, the Abbé Picard, another man of integrity indifferent to worldly advancement.  Picard has a business relationship with the Marquis de la Mole, a leading landowner in the region who lives in Paris, and he eventually places Julien in the Marquis’s household as a secretary.  Thus begins the second half of the book, which takes place mostly in Paris.
The conversation in the Hotel de la Mole, the family town house, is as vapid as that of Verrières, for the simple reason that serious questions of politics and history are out of bounds.  (One easily imagines that the situation among the aristocracy of the late nineteenth century South might have been similar.)  They have a daughter, Mathilde, who is being courted by some of the leading young men of Paris.  And she, too, is seduced by Julien, beginning with a conversation she overhears in which he complains to his patron, the Abbé Picard, that dining with the Marquis and his friends is so boring that he regards it as the most onerous of his duties.  “That one wasn’t born on his knees,” Mathilde says to herself, and she and Julien begin a fascinating, surreptitious courtship which ends with him literally climbing a ladder to reach her bedroom window.  Once they are alone, they are both so stunned by what they are doing that for some time than can hardly talk, much less act, but eventually nature takes its course.

The book is among other things a study of romance, and Julien gradually learns, in various ways, that the easiest way to seduce a woman is to pay her no attention.  In both of his great affairs his attraction is mainly his pride and independent spirit, which his lovers cannot resist.  He represents an irrepressible spirit and an authenticity which are compelling because they have been so unfashionable—and which were about to break out in real life, as well.  Stendhal could not have known this, but in 1830, the year that his book appeared, the Restoration monarchy was overthrown and replaced by the somewhat more liberal monarchy of Louis Philippe, which began by restoring the Tricolor flag of the Revolution.  And although music plays no part in le Rouge et le Noir, I cannot help noting that it was also in 1830 that Frederic Chopin, who appears to have been exactly the age of Julien Sorel, arrived in Paris from Poland and began his career as a pianist and composer.  Chopin’s music was as revolutionary in the 1830s as rock ‘n roll was in the 1950s, and it expresses the same undiluted passion as Julien’s love affairs.

I shall not go into the details of the dénouement of the book.  It ends badly for Julien, because Restoration society cannot absorb such a disruptive influence, and the Church plays a big role in his downfall.  Stendhal, born Marie-Henri Beyle in 1783, knew where he stood in the great political struggles of his lifetime, and he had no doubt when he was writing Le Rouge et le Noir that history had been moving in the wrong direction for the last 15 years.  He clearly believed that the values of the eighteenth century—its rationalism and egalitarianism—would eventually triumph, and he was right.  Perhaps I am drawn to the book because I too think that history has been moving in the wrong direction for some time.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Progress Report

    In the week since I put this blog up, about 500 people have seen it, about four people have expressed interest in participating, and it has received a little attention on Twitter.  Meanwhile, I have finished Le Rouge et le Noir,. and I am ready to contribute my commentary, as soon as three other people announce that they are ready to contribute as well.  Please keep spreading the word. I look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, July 11, 2014

WANTED: Lovers of French Literature

This blog is designed to help a vital part of western culture survive and flourish.  Please take a minute to let me explain my goals in starting it.

I have spent the last half-century of my life in higher education, specifically as a professional historian.  I have written seven books, including Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler(1990), and most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. (A full list of my books is available here.)  The history of international politics, however, has never been my only intellectual interest.

When I was fourteen my father's career took our family overseas, and I spent the next two years in a French lycée and learned the language.  I took several French history and French literature courses in college, and I have continued to read French classics from time to time for pleasure.   My college courses dealt mostly with twentieth century authors, but my more recent reading has come from the 19th century, mostly from Zola, Balzac, and most recently, Stendhal. (See below.)  I am fascinated by these writers' historical sense, and by their attempts to relate their characters to French history more broadly.  In my opinion, they are a critical part of our western cultural heritage, one from which anyone can still learn a great deal.  Recently the French economist Thomas Piketty, in his sensational new work Capital, drew heavily on Balzac to make the inegalitarian nature of 19th-century French society clear.  My knowledge of these works is anything but exhaustive, and in fact, some of the greatest classics, including Madame Bovary, are still on my to do list.

I am also very concerned that this part of our cultural heritage is dying--not, perhaps in France, but certainly in the United States.  The study of foreign languages and literatures has become much less popular, and literature departments have been badly hurt by postmodernism, which shamelessly lifts these works out of context and re-interprets them according to very narrow new ideologies. (I am sure there are still a few exceptions within French departments, but I suspect that there are fewer every year.)  I have started this blog to provide a forum to keep these works alive with the help of interested readers all over the world, whom I hope will discover it with the help of google and word of mouth.  

I am looking for a group of volunteers who already love nineteenth-century French literature or who would like to explore it. Knowledge of French is not necessary.  Those who choose to participate in an ongoing discussion may read the books in any language, and contribute in any language.  (TThis page already has a translator built into it, above.)  I am hoping to find participants from all over the world--especially France--and participants from a number of different generations.  Here is what I have in mind.

Every month, or perhaps every two months, one member of the group would select a 19th-century novel to discuss, and become the leader for that particular discussion.  We would then need a minimum of three people to volunteer to join the discussion.  The leader would contribute an essay of approximately 1000 words, explaining what he or she found most interesting about the book, what it has meant to them, how it seems to address more contemporary concerns, etc., etc., etc.--in short, anything the leader thinks the book has to offer.   Then the designated commentators, and anyone else who wants to take the time, would weigh in with their own thoughts.  Anyone who submits a commentary will be added as an author.

The first book, which I am now about two-thirds of the way through in the original, will be Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) by Stendhal.  Set in the Restoration, and specifically in 1830, it tells the story of Julien Sorel, a brilliant young man of modest origins who finds himself in the midst of Parisian high society.  I received a copy as a present more than half a century ago, and I finally got around to starting it on a recent trip to France.  It has been difficult to put it down ever since. 

Most of those who initially see this  will be regular readers of historyunfolding.com.  Please pass it on to any friends, anywhere, whom you think might be interested in it.  When we have a critical mass of about 10 participants, we will set a date for our first discussion. I am hoping to find participants of all ages.  I can also promise that my own analyses of the book will have, among other things, a generational angle.

Please simply post a comment here if you want to participate. I look forward to hearing from you!