Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Red, The Black, The Few, and The Proud

I was on the east coast most of this past week for a science conference, so I haven't been able to spend as much time as I would like with "The Red and the Black".  I'm now about 3/5 of the way through it.  The story so far: Julien Sorel is a French working class youth in a small provincial town, the son of a carpenter (and this is emphasized a few times...wasn't Jesus the son of a carpenter too??).  He's ambitious and proud.  His hero is Napoleon, who was born to the lower classes yet rose to rule France due to his abilities rather than his birthright.  Julien gets a job as a tutor for the children of the wealthy mayor of his town.  Antics ensue, culminating in Julien's seduction of the mayor's wife.  They have a passionate affair, until they are discovered.  They manage to convince the mayor that nothing is happening between them, but for the sake of appearances with the townsfolk, Julien must leave.  He goes to a monastery to become a priest, and is hated by all the fellow students...he's smart and he's proud and he doesn't fit in.  Through the head priest, who has come to respect him, he gets a position as the personal secretary to a real upper class French aristocrat, Monsieur de la Mole (love the name!) in Paris.  So Julien leaves the provinces and heads to Paris to seek his glory, but not before sneaking back into the mayor's house for one last quickie with his wife.  He is caught, and almost gets shot, but escapes.  In Paris, he lives in the de la Mole mansion, and becomes a favorite of his boss.  Lots more antics ensue...mostly antics of manners as Julien tries to fit in with the upper class salon society where he now finds himself.  His natural intelligence and his learning carry him far, but he's still pretty much of a rube in many ways.  And in the last few pages I've read, he's starting to develop a mutual attraction for Monsieur de la Mole's daughter, who is bored with her high society existence.  She is attracted to Julien's pride and intelligence, and to the fact that he's different from the well-bred society folk.  He is deeper, and has actual aspirations.  We'll see where it goes between the two, but I have a bad feeling about all this.

Julien is a fascinating character, although as I said before, there are many instances where he does and thinks and says things and I'll have no idea where he's coming from.  I'm not sure if he's odd, or if the writing is odd, or if it's just that people had different motivations back then.  Probably a combination.  Still, you can't help but like the guy...he's clearly very intelligent, and he's very ambitious, but he's also young and very reckless and doesn't really have a plan on how to get ahead in life as he'd like to.  In fact, while it's clear that he's ambitious, it's unclear as to what he's ambitious to do.  Does he want to be another Napoleon?  Seems unlikely, especially as one of his motivations for joining the church is to get ahead in life (he doesn't join it out of religious devotion, that's for sure).  Does he want money, or power?  No, I rather suspect that this is more of a youthful "I want to change the world" thing, and he has no idea how to change the world nor even what changes need to be made (except maybe bring back Napoleon or someone like him).

One fun aspect of this book is the description of the life in the court of Monsieur de la Mole.  The evenings are filled with aristocratic guests, many of whom are sycophants, and many of whom don't seem to be particularly bright or witty.  Everyone is unfailingly polite, even as they are putting one another down and cutting one another to pieces.  It sounds pretty awful.  I was impressed, though, that when a Parisian baron throws a ball, the guests don't arrive until midnight.  Reminds me of the New York club scene.  Some things never change, I suppose.  Seems surprising though, since they didn't have electric lights back then.  Maybe there's some gene in humans that makes partying seem better late at night.

Anyway, this book's not as easy a read as the previous ones, but it's quite interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out.  But the combination of Julien's inherent recklessness while inside the court of a powerful aristocratic family does not bode well.

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