Swans Commentary » swans.com March 28, 2011  



A Repository of Magnificence
Stendhal's The Red and The Black - Part I


by Raju Peddada


Monuments of Civilization: Analysis of Classics



"I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable"
—Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire


(Swans - March 28, 2011)   In the pantheon of "prose artists," none is a finer realist than Stendhal, yet none is obscurer than him. He was that comet of authenticity that made only two passes over us, over a hundred sixty years ago. For those who cannot ingest empyrean metaphors, Stendhal stands like a lone Baobab, covered in dust, on an eroded plain, drained of all literary originality. How is it that the father of the "unheroic hero" manages to remain under thick dust, when vacuous writing on unrequited romances proliferate in the landscape of fiction? This 21st century disquisition is an overdue canonic salutation for Stendhal, and also, to shake off that fine dust of our negligence and ignorance of an author that gave us a new narrative etiquette.

Why Stendhal? I will tell you why. I have read many books in my life, but the impact and the lingering effect after reading The Red and The Black remained with me the longest. I often queried myself on this strange barnacle-like melancholy that adhered to me for months after I had read this aphoristic pillar of realism. Over the last two years, from time to time, and without much inducement, I would instinctively pick up the pristine and beautifully wrought 1947 Heritage Classic edition, in black and red binding, and feast on many of the intellectual as well as the emotively magisterial parts I had underlined in pencil. The cryptic cadence, the inferential quality or the portents and the pregnant potential of his prose continued to give me the chills -- a book laden with epigrammatic sentences, utterly devoid of any torpidity, like these:

...he was betrayed by a sudden blaze of the fire that devoured his spirit.
...never had so charming an apparition come in the wake of more disturbing fears.
...she discovered an air of girlish shyness in this fatal tutor... [The word fatal is a bobbing iceberg that encapsulates infinitely more than it lets on to the reader, a vigilant reader will enjoy and comprehend the delicate placement of this word and its eventual meaning, as he reads on.]
The ruthless warfare which his sense of duty was waging with his natural timidity was too exhausting for him to be in a condition to observe anything outside of himself.
Their happiness assumed at times the aspect of crime.
The idea of most use to tyrants is that of god. [True today, as it was back then!]
...the pride that had been inculcated in her from her cradle began to fight against her virtue.

The answers surfaced slowly over time in different ways as to why The Red and The Black must be voluntarily mandated if we are to remain sensitive and civilized in a world gone awry, from the want of Chivalrousness, conscience, restraint, and good taste.

Many great writers we love were lucky to have family fortunes and estates that enabled them to be languorous and indolent, spending days just contemplating about issues they fancied. They could afford a wandering imagination. In fact, I doubt many of the writers we admire would have accomplished much if they had to make a living or were itinerant, unsettled without the large familial financial bases. Every writer that managed to leave behind copious amounts of writing obviously came from wealth -- Marcel Proust and Leo Tolstoy being the prime examples. The others in this sphere were Anton Chekhov, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Johnson, and Robert Burton. No such decadence for Stendhal, who was a workingman's writer. To many, the hedonistic indolence afforded them time to practice the craft of writing, but to Stendhal, life was an obstacle-filled grind. He wrote with unmatched exigency, as it was a luxurious solitude for him. In his short bursts, he delivered emotive palpability between his characters in this beacon of realism he managed to craft, while the burden of living weighed down on him, in stark contrast to the fortunate authors that followed in his wake.

How and why could Stendhal write the way he did? From where did it all emanate? Clues to his oeuvre reside in his turbulent and unfulfilled life. He had set out with some grand illusions to be a romanticist, but ended up becoming the auteur of realism. His own life provided the osmosis that arguably shaped the greatest purveyor of empiricist realism today. Stendhal was the Phoenix who rose from his own ashes every instance fate seemingly deprived or annihilated him. He was like that street fighter who kept getting up despite being knocked down at every turn since his childhood. After his birth in 1783, he lost his mother at an early age; an indifferent father sent him for education under a priest, which gave him a lifelong hatred of the church and the ecclesiastical dogmas. His boyhood was influenced by the Revolution, which excited and captivated him, but later disillusioned him. He escaped his birthplace, Grenoble, which was stiflingly provincial to him, but ironically, could not escape his circumstances.

Early in his career he operated as a jewel thief under many aliases, which devolved into literary aliases, as he got accused of plagiarizing and pilfering Joseph Carpini's and Lanzi's writings. In 1799, he reluctantly became a paper pusher at the ministry of war for an officer that reported directly to Napoléon, a short engagement. In 1802 he was back in Paris for further studies, but fell in love with an actress, Mélanie Guilbert. Again his dreams were dashed on two fronts, as his father refused financial help that would have set him up as a private banker, consequently his actress fiancée dumped him for a well-endowed Russian. He was reduced to clerking in a grocery store. Napoléon, the hero of his imagination, came calling, whom he followed in 1807 against the Prussians into Berlin, but lost on the eastern front near Moscow, and was involved in a harrowing retreat as a stoic soldier. All his romantic illusions of grandeur dissolved away, leaving brutal reality to contend with in his psyche.

Fifty years dissipated fast for Stendhal. When he sat down to write The Red and The Black, he was an embittered and frustrated man in tragic circumstances. He knew his time was dissolving quickly. Beset with maladies, he sequestered himself and took up the quill to put down what simply became a wondrous monument to fictive realism. He did it by extracting and pouring every ounce of his passion into his characters, especially his protagonist, Julien Sorel and his foils. He bled epistemological irony, betrayal, war, love, scheming, passion, romance, and tragedy, sustaining his exigent pace of writing, and living vicariously through his protagonist, before fate closed in on him. There have been many interpretations on the title of the book, but the author's intention and aim was to designate red for the passions in the story, as black represented the no-man's land between the Napoleonic era and the French social order under the Bourbon restoration.

What we are looking at is a double tragedy. The creation of The Red and The Black is as much a tragic endeavor, as the content of the book itself. And the only other literary work that even manages to skirt its shadows in terms of the grand vistas of human pride and follies, acrimony and affinities, and the diaphanous emotionalism in fluid and passionate prose is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The Red and The Black is like an ectoplasm that oozed from some esoteric spiritual medium, which happened to be the author himself at the end of his life.

In The Red and The Black we cannot help but feel Stendhal's proximity to his protagonist and other characters, urging them on in our anxious imagination. I cannot separate the "fiction" of Stendhal's life from the "reality" of his fiction in his redoubtable creation, as they seem to be the intertwined aspects and nuances in our lives. This essay is again a canonical affirmation of Stendhal's tragic realities and his imagined glories. There seems to be no boundary demarcating the real and imagined here, from his life to his writings. So, we traverse indistinctly from the landscape of his seemingly fictional life into the reality of his rich imagination, and explore his unconsummated passions and pride in an era of French cultural upheaval.

I slowly consumed The Red and The Black savoring every page, as if it were a series of large paintings. Henry James once claimed that a writer is akin to a painter in many respects. The atmosphere of reality in a painting is very much the essence of a good novel. Stendhal was a veritable painter with words, only that his finely chosen words were like alchemical hues with which he rendered the French and Italian countrysides in unforgettable images of peopled landscapes, in breathtaking nuances, that any impressionist painter would have been proud of. What made Stendhal even more effective was the pathos of realism despite his romantic vistas. And despite idolizing Shakespearean romanticism he laid down the footprint for realism that became the basis for Russian realism in the second half of the 19th century. As the French realists Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola followed in his wake and succeeded. Even the mid 20th century American realists like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Woolf acknowledged their debt to Stendhal.

I felt the "weight" of this book immediately after I had started it on September 2, 2009, and after a thorough immersion, I pensively put the book reluctantly aside on September 26, 2009, at exactly 11.05pm and sat there with my head in my hands for what seemed an eternity. I knew what was behind this. Stendhal had managed to pierce time and prick my contemporary conscience with his moral dilemmas -- prudence versus passions within the existential context. Every interaction between his irresistible characters presented a palpable emotive tangent. This teleportive quality in his pacing within the writing, his restraint and releases, depicting the base quality of possession versus the glory of sacrifice, and reticence against passionate declarations, scheming versus contrition -- all formed a coterminous emotional net that held you in for the duration, till you were released.

Here is a fluid example of Stendhal's verve in prose, from chapter 8, titled "Minor Events," where his sub-prefect, Father Chelan's emotions and openness embarrassed Julien, who in turn wept with joy over being loved by this man:

I am sorry to see underlying your character a smoldering ardor which does not suggest to my mind the moderation and complete renunciation of earthly advantages necessary in a priest; I auger well from your intelligence; but, allow me to tell you, the good curé went on, with tears in his eyes, "in the calling of a priest, I shall tremble for your salvation."

He also devised a new literary technique of starting the narrative inside the character's mind. Every paragraph and page is imbued with this liquid immediacy of thought before the action unfolds, which the reader, if he or she has the grasping faculty, will feel themselves dissolving in the vortex of nuanced passions between the characters of the book. Stendhal also created the prototypical protagonist, an urban social scaler, over the debris of the French aristocracy, with ambition, skill, and scheming. Julien Sorel became the first New Age character, who idealized Napoléon and who came from the plebeian class. What a balance between effusiveness and obscurantism, and what liquidity in prose!


[ed. Please read Part II of this essay.]


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/rajup25.html
Published March 28, 2011