The book of modern love

Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, thought of his novels as lottery tickets. Success, for him, meant finding readers in a more or less distant future. It is fair to say that Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black), published to mixed acclaim in 1830, ultimately proved a winning ticket. In recent years this novel about an ambitious carpenter’s son blessed with an alluring combination of hypocrisy and sincerity, robotic memory and natural charm was deemed feature illustrious enough to feature prominently in an official portrait of President Macron and has inspired both a rock opera and a recent ballet . This is not a bad outcome for a novel that called to mind, at least for Victor Hugo, the experience of having one’s teeth pulled.

Stendhal was born an affluent family in Grenoble in 1783. As a child he into witness the reverberations of the French Revolution, and as a young man he participated in Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaigns in Italy and Russia. From early adulthood he rarely stopped writing, publishing – along with his three completed novels and various short stories – books on art and love, volumes of travel writing, biographies, journalism and polemical works. Stendhal wrote primarily for himself, but also for an imagined group of kindred spirits. His other celebrated novel, La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma), concludes with the English dedication (adapted from either Shakespeare’s Henry V or Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield) “To the Happy Few”. Happiness, for Stendhal, was a key goal. A life that was lived well was a constant”chasse au bonheur(pursuit of happiness), and writing, like reading, good company and beauty, was central to this pursuit. During his life he was known as a companionable if somewhat provocative cynic; But after his death his private writings revealed the author to have been more sensitive, sincere and private than had been commonly understood.

So why does? The Red and the Black, in particular, continue to fascinate? The novel has well-drawn protagonists and a salacious story, but so do many long-forgotten books. Stendhal himself argued the case for his novel’s originality and appeal. Firstly, he noted, this was a book designed to appeal to two audiences at once: those who enjoy gripping love stories and those who prefer an accurate depiction of social reality. Secondly, in the tempestuous relationship between the plebeian Julien Sorel and the headstrong young noblewoman Mathilde de la Mole, the presented a completely new depiction of novel what Stendhal understood as “modern love”, founded on vanity and delusion. Finally, this was a work grounded in factual truth, as suggested by its famous comparison of a novel to a mirror ambling along a main road, an image that would come to define the emerging realist style.

The story owes a good part of its popular appeal, too, to the fact that its protagonist ends up at the sharp end of the guillotine, like his equally ambiguous and intriguing successor Meursault, the antihero of Albert Camus’s 1942 novel L’Étranger (The Outsider). However, when I first read Le Rouge et le Noir I was primarily struck by its startling portrait of Mathilde, a brilliant, madcap heroine who ultimately (and most unfairly to my mind) loses the hero’s love to an older woman, Madame de Rênal, but who arguably gets the last laugh at the novel’s conclusion .

Now that I am the age of Mathilde’s father, what I enjoy most is the novel’s wry humour: the absurdity of Julien falling for a barmaid in Besançon just hours after breaking up with his heartbroken mistress, the ageless comedy of the first bedroom between him and Mathilde, and the memorable account of his duel with a ringleted dandy. I also appreciate the sly narratorial putdowns and even slyer compliments. For example, outwardly positive adjectives such as “prudent” and ”sage“(wise) tend to conceal insults, while apparently negative terms such as”mauvaise tête(wrong-headed person) and ”folie” (madness) are often, in Stendhal’s lexicon, back-handed compliments.

This is a novel that is, in fact, so profoundly and gloriously ironic that it makes a mockery of the idea of ​​stable truth. Even the ambiguous title suggests the slipperiness of meaning in this book. Commentators have argued variously that the colors refer to the contrasting shades of a roulette board, to the antithesis of passion (embodied for Julien by the military) and pragmatism (the hero is clad in priestly black throughout) or to the tensions between revolutionary and reactionary politics. My own theory is that the colors in the title refer to a passage that occurs not long before Julien’s execution, when the hero compares himself to an ant trying to understand the sudden destruction of its forest home when all he can see is the black boot and reddish gunfire of the hunter who obliterates it.

Raymond N. MacKenzie’s Red and Black: A Chronicle of 1830 is the latest in a long line of English-language editions. MacKenzie notes that his aim was to find a “mid-Atlantic voice” somewhere between British and American English, “modern but not too modern, faithful but not slavish”. He captures much of the nimbleness and humour of the original text, as well as the experience of reading it in French: his decision to present most of the interior monologue without quotation marks means that a reader needs to be just as mentally agile as with Stendhal’s original. MacKenzie’s introduction and the ample dossier of end notes offer much help to readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of nineteenth-century French social and political history.

The translation itself, however, is somewhat less successful. While the literal meaning of Stendhal’s text is almost always entirely transparent, as befits an author who prided himself on his logical, flourish-free style – he claimed that he took the French Civil Code as a writing model – MacKenzie is at times needlessly opaque. For example, he opts for “The ambitious” as the title of one chapter, where “An ambitious man” is a much more straightforward and logical translation of “Unambitieux“. The translation also introduces occasional moments of incongruity: while dialogue feels fresh and authentic for the most part, sometimes MacKenzie’s updating jars, as when the haughty Marquise de la Mole berates her daughter for “acting moody”. Sometimes, too, the wit of the original is needlessly lost: a circling “épervier” (sparrowhawk), whose resemblance to an eagle prompts Julien’s self- comparison to Napoleon, but whose relative smallness makes us smile – is simply presented as a hawk. While this is a minor missed opportunity to capture Stendhalian iron, there are also occasional mistranslations. For example, when, in their comically awkward first bedroom scene, Julien tells Mathilde about the precautions he has taken in case her invitation was a trap, MacKenzie has her reply “in a tone almost wild with tenderness”. This is a remarkably incoherent detail in a scene explicitly devoid of affection, and in the mouth of this famously untender heroine. In fact, one of the episode’s key points is that Mathilde sleeps with Julien only because she considers it her duty to herself.

For now I will be sticking with Catherine Slater’s trusty Oxford World’s Classics edition of the novel. It is not perfect, but it has the merit of clarity. While MacKenzie’s translation explains a character’s joy at the death of one of Napoleon’s key allies by her “spirit of party” (for “l’esprit de parti”), for instance, Slater offers the much less ambiguous “partisan spirit”. Just as helpfully, the label of “mauvaise tête“,” used – ironically – to condemn eccentrics at two points, is observantly (though imperfectly) rendered by Slater in both instances using versions of “unsound”. In Raymond N. MacKenzie’s translation it is translated by “wrongheaded” in the first chapter and by “difficult” later on, suggesting a slight lack of close attention. When, if this lively edition finds Stendhal new English-language readers in 2022, I would be on his very happy acceptance of it.

Maria C. Scott lectures in French at the University of Exeter. Her books include Stendhal’s Less-Loved Heroines: Fiction, freedom, and the female2013, and Empathy and the Strangeness of Fiction: Readings in French realism2020

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