Friday, 25 May 2012

Audiobook Review: The Red and the Black by Stendhal

So for the past couple of weeks I haven’t been able to participate in Follow Friday. This is because last week I was in the UK with no access to a computer (we forgot the plugs are different in the UK, which is stupid considering I lived there for 13 years!) and this week I took my bike to work and didn’t get up in time to set up the post before I had to leave the house then we spent the evening putting the new fence up. A little bit more D.I.Y. and hopefully the bunny will have an outdoor run space!

Enough about personal life…

Instead, I’m going to backpost a review of the audiobook I recently finished.

The tale of social-climbing, arriviste Julien Sorel brilliantly captures the contradictions and hypocrisies permeating French society under the Bourbon Restoration. Using his formidable intellect, innate cunning and charm, Julien clambers his way to the top, manipulating and seducing those who have the power to give him the social status he desires. However, Julien's idealism and Napoleonic ambitions are always simmering just below the surface, threatening to erupt and jeopardise his designs. For how long will he be able to smother his true feelings? Bill Homewood's reading masterfully portrays the psychological tension and intrigue of this French classic.

The Red and the Black by Stendhal
Narrated by Bill Homewood

The Red and the Black is a French classic written in the first half of the 19th century. This makes it part of the romanticism movement. It does, however, also show certain characteristics that mark it as an early example of the turning point between romanticism and realism. The author, Stendhal, is one of the big names of French classic literature and this book in particular often ends up on the lists of 100 books to read before you die.

Stendhal himself participated in the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, something that gave him the necessary knowledge to write what is considered one of the best scenes about war in literature. This particular scene is in Stendhal’s other popular title, The Charterhouse of Parma, and in it the main character, Fabrice del Dongo, ends up on the field of battle at the Battle of Waterloo. The scene is completely chaotic but a very good portrait of what war really is.

The title, The Red and the Black, comes from Julien Sorel’s life caught between two extremes: the life he would have wanted as a general in Napoleon’s army (though he was born too late to have been able to participate in the glory of Napoleon’s battles) (the red) and the life he has been pushed into as a priest of the Church (the black). A career in the Church is the only way Julien has of advancement and glory in his life as the new regime in France would not have permitted military advancement to a country plebeian like himself. Julien, however, does not really understand the society that he moves in and in turn this leaves him as a peon in many other people’s political ploys.

Julien is a very passionate person and the story is in a large part a psychological examination of Julien’s character. At the same time, he’s not always a particularly appealing character. When he first sets out on his conquest of Mme de Rênal (the wife of his employer and the mother of his students), she really feels for him but the scene where he is daring himself to hold her hand shows that for him it was merely a conquest, a way of proving something to himself. His feelings for her do, in time, evolve but in the beginning it’s portrayed more as a military conquest than anything else.

In many ways Julien is a cruel character. He almost always allows his passions to dictate his actions, which of course land him in any number of sticky spots. His ambition and the way he tends to look down on those around him. He seems to live in this bubble that doesn’t really fit the societies he moves in. The way that he treats those around him often lead to him making powerful enemies, which is never displayed as prominently as at the end of the novel when he is on trial for attempted murder.

The novel is in two parts. The first is a chronicle of Julien’s life in provincial France, his affair with Mme de Rênal and his life in the Church. The second half is about Julien’s life in Paris where he works for M. de la Mole and eventually embarks on an affair with his daughter, Mathilde. This affair and the marriage that is to come of it bring to light Julien’s previous affair with the deeply religious Mme de Rênal who had confessed the whole to her confessor, who had then bullied her into passing the story on to Mathilde’s father. It had to be pointed out that Mme de Rênal is a very weak-minded character and often finds her actions dictated by the other characters around her.

I didn’t mind Julien’s affair with Mme de Rênal so much, but as things were getting going with Mathilde, I was getting very frustrated. The two of them are constantly in love then no longer in love then in love again, punishing each other with words, lack of words, actions, snubs… It’s a very complicated “courtship” that eventually got to the point where it was just ridiculous. I know that that was Stendhal’s intentions and that the book is a satire of French society after the fall of Napoleon, but it did get to be a tad too much for my tastes. Mathilde herself was fighting her feelings for Julien and the fact that these feelings were for someone socially inferior to her. To say that Mathilde is his wife, if I mention that the last line of the novel is about Mme de Rênal, I consider that that speaks volumes about Julien and his story as a whole.

Julien’s crime of passion is based on an event that actually took place and Stendhal created a whole chronicle about how our passions can be a powerful motivator in our actions. There’s no doubt that the novel is an incredibly advanced psychological look at the characters and it is, of course, one of the first examples of a novel where the characters’ thoughts and inner monologues are presented. It is without a doubt a masterpiece.

Bill Homewood does the novel justice as the narrator. All of the characters seem to speak in breathy whispers, but I’m willing to overlook that as Homewood’s diction was spot on!

I’ve read the book once in French and now listened to it in English. I have to say that the audio experience was the better of the two but that is mostly because Bill Homewood’s voice brought new volumes to the story for me. Also, while listening to it I was able to get a fair amount of work done on both my crochet blanket and my knitted one!

All in all, this was a very positive experience for me, even if Julien Sorrel (and Mathilde) drove me to distraction at times. 4.5 stars


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