Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Book #6 - "The Red and the Black" (Stendhal)

I've now finished five books from The List of 105...down to the last 100!  I'm currently working on Stendhal's "The Red and the Black".  And yes, I mean "working on" rather than "reading".  For while it's an entertaining book so far (I'm about 80 pages into it), it's a whole different nut to crack than the first five books.  For one thing it's the first book from The List that was not originally written in English.  And while I'm not one to judge translations, not being able to read the original French (and my two years of high school French have long since vaporized), there are some phrases now and then that seem clunky or awkward.  Is it Stendhal or is it the translation?  I don't know.

The other thing that makes the book challenging is that it was written around 1830, and it talks a lot about the French politics of post-Napoleonic France.  That made me go and brush up on my early 19th century French history,, which was a fun diversion.  The main character, Julien Sorel, is obsessed with Napoleon, and has a great ambition to rise up from his common origins and be a great man, like Napoleon.  But it's unclear exactly what his talents are, aside from being able to recite Bible passages in latin.  The character is also hard to understand, at least for me.  Stendhal goes into great detail about his actions and motivations, but a lot of times they seem, well, odd to me.  And I don't know if that's intended, or if I just don't get the character, or if his behavior is rooted in early 19th century French norms that I haven't been exposed to.  We'll see if I am able to understand him better as the novel goes along.  Stay tuned...


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Amateur Reader said...

You're instincts about Stendahl are correct:
1. Sometimes his writing is very awkward. A translator may exaggerate it, or try to smooth it out. But the clumsiness may be Stendahl's.
2. Julien Sorel is defintitely odd. Stendahl himself was odd. See his "On Love" or "The Life of Henry Brulard" for more oddness. Netiher of these books would make it anywhere near a Top 105 list, but they're good.

Enjoying your writing.

James said...

I just finished rereading The Red and the Black and found your comments interesting. Regarding Julien's talents, in addition to intelligence, I think he has a form of charisma evidenced by his effect on older women and even the Priests who assist him. On the other hand his judgement is lacking, perhaps due to his youth.

Young French Lady said...


I should read Stendhal in English...I want to know how the translator manages to get you into thinking Stendhal's writing might get awkward... because he's considered as one of the best French writer, I mean, in style. He masters French as only a very few writers do/did.
It reminds me Kundera's struggles to get a fair translation of his works : the French versions was "baroque"...Kundera, baroque...? haha
About the history of the 1830, well, us, Frenchs of the 2000' don't understand that much either... ;o) and yet I've studied the 19 century for one year in high school!

I just discovered your blog, love it and love the idea.

Robby Virus said...

I wish I knew French well enough to read Stendhal in the original. It would indeed be interesting to see definitively if his writing style is awkward in the original language or if it's due to the translation. I always wonder when reading literature in translation how much of the original author's writing style can really come through.