Fascinating for its Examination of Character

The Red and the Black - Roger Gard, Stendhal

I didn't think I'd wind up liking this book much reading the first dozens of pages. The book is centered on Julian Sorel, the brilliant and ambitious son of a peasant in post-Napoleon France. The "red" and the "black" of the title refer to the two routes to power for someone of humble birth in the France of the era--the military and the clergy. I admit it--I tend to want to spend time with characters I can root for, feel sympathy for. And Julian is about the most unsympathetic character I've followed closely through hundreds of pages. I can't say that even at the end I cared much about Julian or had much liking for him. There's something so calculating about him that left me cold, in spite of an impulsive side that nears too-stupid-to-live territory. And the whole sensibility of the book is one I usually feel out of step with--one of those focusing on, yet disdaining, provincial France and its supposed "money grubbing" spirit.

And yet the book after an initial hump held me tightly in its grip--even fascinated me. I think that's because this is one of those books that completely convinces you these are flesh and blood people, closely and intimately--and convincingly--following the thoughts and feelings of the characters. And Julian did have a redeeming feature as a character--he made me laugh, or at least smile. Despite his success with women, he often displays a spectacular social ineptitude and awkwardness. Ultimately he reminded me a bit of that other very famous fictional French provincial--Madame Bovary. Like her, he has aspirations beyond the station he was born into--one sustained by books, even if they're dreams of glory inspired by Napoleon rather than dreams of a grand passion born of too many romance novels. And the women in this book don't come across as porcelain dolls, the way too many of Dickens' heroines have to me. Madame de Renal and Mathilde de la Mole are complex and fascinating characters in their own right. The second a bit larger than life (or unbalanced?) but both are resourceful and intelligent--arguably more so than anyone else in the book.

The further I read into the book, the more I fell under its spell. Stendahl is a master of the omniscient point of view--a way of narrative associated with and much more popular in the nineteenth century--and yet the novel feels very contemporary in its sophisticated treatment of the psychology of the characters. Not light, happy reading--no. But ultimately satisfying.