I took Stendhal’s The Red and the Black along on a recent trip to Paris. It’s only now though that I’m back in Philadelphia that young Julien Sorel has finally arrived in La Ville-Lumiere.
It took me awhile to get into the book. I began it hoping for the same pleasures I recently found in Middlemarch, but it quickly became apparently that it’s for different reasons that Stendhal’s classic is still read today. It lacks, or does not even attempt, Eliot’s perspicaciously drawn characters and lyrical insights. Sorel, though by turns beguiling and irritating, is drawn more as a cipher than a real person. Instead, The Red and the Black is a determinedly political novel, engaged in direct and often obscure conversation with the 19th-century French society to which it was submitted.
Nevertheless, halfway through, The Red and the Black has me gripped. It is exhilarating to read a novel so urgently engaged with the culture and society of which it’s a part. The Red and the Black feels like an act of revolution, and it is not hard to imagine the discomfiture it must have caused among the King’s court and clergy. At the same time, it is just this potency that gives The Red and the Black the quality of an artifact. It is nearly impossible to imagine a novel having anything approaching Stendhal’s intended effect on contemporary society, French or American. All polemical notes have already been sounded and absorbed and we’re too inured to blush much anymore.