I have owned a copy of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black for about three years now. I finally picked it up as the first book I would read in 2016. I get worried when starting a ‘classic’ because I don’t know how fast I will be engaged by the book (if at all) and particularly, for a translated classic, how good is the translation quality. Upon reading the first couple of chapters, I was intrigue with the character of ambitious Julien Sorel, the son of a carpenter, navigating his way up through high society, manipulating and using his extensive knowledge of Biblical and scholarly texts to his advantage. As Julien is pressured by opposing forces in his life, the book climaxes in one final act, altering his and the people in his life’s future.
Standhal has a way of blending inner dialogue about emotions and exterior conflict with interactions of his characters. This provides the reader with the depth to know the psychological development and state of the each character in each interaction. The Red and the Black is often described as “ahead of its time” for this very reason. I was also presently surprised with the translation. Sometimes, classic novels and certain translations feel clunky. Stendhal and the translator of my edition did a good job with the flow of the novel, breaking up the story into many chapters (~75 in total) to provide easy breaks, change of sceneries, and time to reflect on the time period and significance of the political references. This book was one of the smoothest classic novels I have ever read.
Overall, I enjoyed the story, how the plot unfolded, and the climax of the book. Young Julien Sorel is caught between his own ambition, the Church, and his caste, lusting for power within 19th century France. At times I did feel a bit lost in conversations with many references the French history, politics, and religious sects; however, my translation had an appendix, including many references from the book. Not every reference was covered in the appendix and to get a full understanding of certain scenes, the reader will either have prior knowledge of French history in the 1800s or pause to look up quick references online. In my opinion, this does not damper the book. I know some folks might not be too keen with pausing and taking extra time to learn about French history, but I think it adds depth and flavor into the entire experience.
WOW. This is the first book in a while where I was blown away with the character development. The progression of Julien Sorel through the end of the book was transformative. The closest character development I can compare this to is that of Walter White from Breaking Bad. Walter and Julien both start out as innocent characters living a rather normal and mundane life, Walter a high school chemistry teacher and Julien the son of a carpenter. Over the course of the stories, both character get a taste of power and through their ambition takes steps to rise to power through manipulation while their personal life pulls the characters in multiple directions. I will not spoil the ending to either here!
Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. To those of you that enjoy classic works of literature, I think you would appreciate what Stendhal does with his composition of the story and character development. If you tend to stay away from classics, I think this will be a hard entry point for you, but a worthy challenge. Do I think everyone needs to read this book in their lifetime? No. However, reading The Red and the Black is a rich experience I do not think with you will be disappointed.
Final Rating: 4/5