1001 Group Read for September: The Red and the Black

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1001 Group Read for September: The Red and the Black

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1george1295
sep 1, 2012, 3:50pm

This is one of our two group read books for September. The other is White Teeth.

2devone
sep 2, 2012, 12:29am

I started The Red and the Black over two weeks ago. It was originally (in 1830 France) sold as two volumes. The first volume has 30 chapters and the second has 45 chapters. I'm about to start Chapter 18 of volume two which, my Kindle tells me, means I am 68% through. I don't have that much time to read, so if you read a lot, it shouldn't take so long.

It took me a while to get the hang of Stendhal's style. Much time is spent inside the heads of the various characters. The style issue for me was that he jumped from one character's head to another's with little or no warning or transition. I would find myself befuddled when an inner dialogue that I was following with interest suddenly made no sense to me. Then I would realize that I was no longer inside the head I thought I was in.

Once I learned to watch for these abrupt head trips I started to enjoy this novel. Still, it's been a challenging read. I know next to nothing about French history and so took a time out to read some Wikipedia pages to give myself some frame of reference. There are also references to church history that I didn't understand and visited Wikipedia again. That helped a bit.

The main character is Julien Sorel, a peasant son of the owner of a small town's saw mill. Julien was abused by his father and brothers, intellectually gifted, socially unsophisticated, naive about relationships/love, vane, amoral, and incredibly ambitious. The rigid class structure of the time conspired against any chance of him fulfilling his ambitions. Normally I would feel compelled to cut someone like Julien at least a little slack (after all, the deck was so stacked against him) but I my heart is completely cold toward him. Julien is vane and selfish. His conscience is never troubled by hurting others, or even by putting those that love him in danger. He embraces hypocrisy as a practical method of advancement in career and in relationships. Everything is only, and always, about Julien.

There is not a single major character in this book that I like (at least so far) but Stendhal makes me spend so much time in their heads that I'm invested in trying to understand them.

This is a meaty book that is not only a coming of age story of a complicated protagonist, but a scathing indictment of the post-Napoleon aristocratic society and a mostly corrupt church.

3japaul22
sep 2, 2012, 7:41am

Thanks for the great intro/summary! I have a few pages left in my current book and then will be joining you. I've had this book on my shelves forever.

4Britt84
sep 2, 2012, 11:14am

I will be joining in as well... I've also had this one on my shelves for quite a while; I do have a lot of other stuff going on this month though, so I don't know how fast I'll be reading, but we'll see how far I get :)

5george1295
sep 2, 2012, 4:38pm

I read this about a year ago. . .maybe two. . .and I really enjoyed both the style and the story. I will also enjoy following along to read everyones' posts.

6The_Hibernator
sep 3, 2012, 7:11am

I'll be listening to an audiobook version.

7ALWINN
sep 3, 2012, 3:08pm

This one was in the plans for a re-read because I know I read it a couple of years ago and I gave it a 4 stars at the time, but for the life of me really cant remember to much about the book and that is very unlike me. So I will big the book out and also start reading along.

8Steven_VI
sep 4, 2012, 11:03am

I read this a few years ago, and will not be re-reading it; I'm glad I read it and found the book interesting, even brilliant at times. But the emotional landslides Julien goes through from time to time are too much for me - from crying like a baby to violent outbursts in 2 seconds, things like that. Stendhal was writing at the treshold of romanticism, but lacks the refinement of Goethe and (later) Hugo.

9japaul22
sep 4, 2012, 4:15pm

I've read the first 20 or so chapters now and am enjoying the book. It's not as hard to read as I remembered. Steven's observation of it being on the cusp of romanticism does help explain both Julien and Mme Renal's excessive emotional outbursts.

I'm glad I know a little bit about the politics of the early 1800s, but I'm definitely wishing I knew a little more. If I come to any specific questions, I'll ask here to see if anyone can enlighten me.

10japaul22
sep 6, 2012, 7:56pm

I've finished the first part of the book and I'm enjoying it, even without liking any of the main characters. I have to admit that I really don't understand what's going on politically in the book, though, and it's obviously important to the book. I think that there are those that support having a king (the current situation) and those that support more of a Republic. But then there is Julien who really admires the fallen Napoleon most so I suppose he doesn't fit into either political faction. I don't even know which political faction is "the red" and which is "the black".

And then there's the church. I would assume that the church backs royalty seeing as they were almost destroyed during the republican revolution, but I don't really understand the divisions that Stendahl is presenting or who is on which side.

Basically, I think this book would mean a lot more to me and obviously have been much more controversial if I'd actually read it in 19th cent France!

Anyone able to enlighten me on any of this, or are we all in the dark?

11Steven_VI
sep 9, 2012, 5:04pm

I'm not sure if you really need to know the political background - the novel isn't about two political parties fighting, it's about people trying to survive and climbing to a higher position in society, by any means possible. Most of the characters in the book, and especially Julien, are not ideologists but pragmatists (or worse).

BTW. The Red and the Black don't refer to political parties, but to costumes: the red costume of soldiers and the black costume of the clergy.

12devone
sep 9, 2012, 9:59pm

#11 Even though understanding the political climate isn't strictly necessary, I find not understanding to be disorienting. Likewise, it would be a more satisfying read for me if I knew more about the church intrigues. I wish I was reading from an edition that included that kind of background info. However, I'm sure it's a personal preference and some people aren't bothered at all by not knowing the background.

#10 The book's Wikipedia entry has some background info. Watch out for spoilers.

13japaul22
Redigeret: sep 9, 2012, 10:09pm

I agree that it's not necessary to know the politics, but I think it would change my enjoyment of the book. It might also make it more controversial to read.

I've got about a hundred pages to go and then I'll do a little background reading to avoid spoilers now.

I'll tell you one thing - I'm not enjoying Julien's pathetic relationships! What a mess!

Somehow, even with not understanding the politics and not liking most of the characters, I'm still enjoying the book.

14amerynth
sep 10, 2012, 7:23am

I've been really struggling with this one... and I'm only a hundred pages in. I keep picking up and reading about five pages and then putting it down again. I guess it's just that I don't particularly like the characters and am having trouble connecting with the story. Hoping it will get better some time soon!

15japaul22
sep 10, 2012, 8:31am

Amerynth, this is the third time I've tried to read this book and the first time I've gotten past the first hundred pages! I think I was just in the mood to be patient with it, but even though I'm liking it, I can guarantee it won't end up a favorite!

16japaul22
Redigeret: sep 12, 2012, 7:53pm

I finished the book yesterday. Just a light at the end of the tunnel - most of the action takes place in the last 50 pages or so!

I liked it, but felt too removed from the characters and setting to say I loved it.

I'll be checking in on this thread if anyone wants to discuss anything as they go.

17amerynth
sep 13, 2012, 8:08am

Last fifty pages?!? Ugh... At the rate I'm going, I'll get that far by December!

18ccookie
sep 13, 2012, 8:33am

I'm still working on The Mysteries of Udolpho from May!

19japaul22
sep 13, 2012, 8:51am

>17 amerynth: yep! I read the back cover of my book before I started and was seriously wondering what in the world it was talking about since I hadn't gotten to any of the plot they mentioned with 100 pages left. I guess it's supposed to be a "slow burn" til you get to the climax.

Actually, since finishing it, the more I think about it the more I'm appreciating it. It is a well-crafted book for sure.

20puckers
sep 14, 2012, 8:35am

Finished the book this evening. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this. Julien Sorel is a self-centred, ambitious hot-head, but his naivety in dealing with the society he finds himself in led me to have sympathy with him. The writing style is good, and the bite-sized chapters make the reading easy. My version (Margaret Shaw's 1953 translation) had some introductory notes to explain the historical background which helped to put the novel in context. Overall a good read 4/5

21devone
sep 22, 2012, 7:24pm

I finished the book last week and have been trying to figure out 1) why I thoroughly enjoyed it when I disliked the main characters so much, 2) why I had so little sympathy for Julien, Matilda, and even Madame de Rênal. Their behaviors & personal philosophies were not surprising given their circumstances and the societal rules under which they lived, so I mustered a little sympathy for them - but not much.

I did, however, like the book a lot and wouldn't mind rereading it sometime (if time permits - ha!) to try to see what the abbés Chénal & Pirard saw in Julien that I just couldn't see.

I still wish I understood more of French history. It would have given an added dimension that I would have enjoyed. I found the insights into the intrigues going on in the Catholic church at that time to be really interesting.

I appreciated Stendhal's style, once I got used to it, and definitely plan to read The Charterhouse of Parma (also on the 1001 list).

22Steven_VI
sep 23, 2012, 5:24pm

As I announced earlier, I haven't re-read the book, but following this thread brought back more memories than I thought possible - now I may want to re-read it anyway! It's satisfying to find that so many of your impressions mirror my own memories, including the ambiguous feelings towards the book and the main characters.

>21 devone: and anyone else thinking about reading The Charterhouse of Parma, be aware that it is not only longer than The Red and the Black, it is also more unlike the romantic novels that we know. The story is not at all straightforward, it reminded me more of Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy or even soap series.