26 November 2009

Characters in Search of a Reader, or ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’

In the 1954 film adaptation of Le Rouge et le Noir,
Gérard Philipe and Antonella Lualdi as Julien and Mathilde

Seldom have I encountered a novel so entertaining as Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. Seizing upon Denise Boutrit’s paperback copy, I galloped through the chapters, and each time I set down the book, I did so reluctantly, so eager was I to see what would happen next. The question is why it took me so long to finish, for the intervals between my multi-chapter gulps were long indeed.

When we’re kids, most of us have the Toy Story fantasy, that when we leave the playroom, our toys get up and play without us, in adventures of their own devising. With Le Rouge et le Noir, I imagined something different, particularly during the long pause I took, just when Stendhal’s hero, Julien Sorel, had stolen into the bedroom of his employer’s daughter, Mathilde de La Mole, for the first time. I pictured them waiting for me.

JULIEN: He said he’d be right back.

MATHILDE (stifling a yawn): I know.

JULIEN: Do you want to play cards, or something?

MATHILDE: We could always make out.

JULIEN: No, that might advance the plot.

MATHILDE (sighing): I guess we’d better wait, then.

At long last, I returned to them, and they enjoyed their first tryst. Oh, yes, they did.

Ciel! Mon mari!
Danielle Darrieux as Mme de Rênal, with Philipe.
Though older at the time of filming than Julien’s 19 years, Philipe was so much the right physical type for the rôle that it’s hard to believe Stendhal never saw him.

Indeed, as with so many great French novels, Le Rouge et le Noir is very, very sexy, especially by the British and American standards of the time — 1830. Julien is low-born and scrawny, but he dreams of Napoleonic glory for himself. This puts him in conflict with both his wealthy employers — first, the provincial Monsieur de Rênal and, later, the Parisian Marquis de La Mole — as well as with the priests at the seminary where he studies for a time. Julien judges that, without a noble title, he has no options but the military (the Red) or the church (the Black). Yet most of the time, his conquests are limited to the bedroom.

Stendhal picks apart his characters’ social and sexual politics with undisguised glee. The shifting emotions of Madame de Rênal, especially, touch on high satirical comedy, and as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Stendhal has spent most of his life observing the peccadilloes of men and women, while enjoying himself thoroughly.

Of course, literature professors are unlikely to tell you that one of the great monuments of French fiction is a laugh-aloud sexcapade that frequently borders on farce; they will not tell you this about Zola’s Nana and Pot-Bouille, either, or about the huge chunk of Proust’s account of Charlus’ misadventures that is in fact quite funny.

This is why we must read these books for ourselves: because the experts are keeping all the good bits a secret.

Being French, and being based on a real-life character besides, Julien Sorel must give over to philosophy at the end of the book; I suppose it’s for that reason that Le Rouge et le Noir is required reading in French high schools. Honestly, I don’t think it would be possible to fail to comprehend Julien’s gist as it plays out in the narrative, but his final monologues are very beautiful. I do know that the version we were given to read in Texas high schools was so heavily expurgated that it bore no relation whatever to the full-length novel, apart from a couple of characters’ names.*

Now of course I intend to check out La Chartreuse de Parme and — holy of holies — Stendhal’s life of Rossini, preferably while listening to Joyce DiDonato’s new recording of arias for Isabella Colbran.

*NOTE: There’s some satisfaction in the realization that I finished reading Stendhal’s novel on a day when I met for lunch with my high-school French teacher, Carlene Klein Ginsburg. At long last, I have fulfilled the assignment from 1978.

1 comment:

Bree T Donovan said...

If you have not done so yet, I urge you to watch the BBC's (1993) version, "The Scarlet and the Black) with Ewan McGregor as Julien Sorel. He IS Julien, hands down! It seems a bit strange since the characters speak in English, but the acting is so superb, you soon forget that and become entranced.

It's on Netflicks if you have access. I hope you enjoy! :-)