I have to confess I found Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black quite heavy going. Maybe it was because the story took a long time to develop to the point at which the book developed a pace that carried you along with it. But principally the reasons for the problems with engagement come from the lack of feeling you have for the hero Julien Sorel. His craven ambition combined with an ignorance born of a peasant upbringing does not make an attractive combination.
The main focus of the tale is a young man who has managed to attract the sympathy of the village priest who has helped him in learning Latin to escape from the clutches of his uncaring father and two brothers who are the village carpenters. Set in 1825-30, with the ripples from Napoleon’s all conquering domination to his post-Waterloo demise into exile and death on St. Helena, this is a very political book. Bearing in mind the different factions, royalist and Napoleon, the differences between rich and poor and ignorant and learned this is a minefield that Sorel is landed in. he almost navigates his way successfully through it because he is handsome but a couple of affairs and an inability to control his emotions eventually lead to his ruin after he tries to kill a former lover then demands the jury find him guilty and guillotine him, which they duly do.
Is it well written?
The book is split into two parts, a total of 45 chapters, with each chapter starting with an aphorism that is often directly incorporated into the text or sums up what is about to happen. This is a clever technique but most authors stick to using it at the start of a book and leaving it at that and it does tire after 45 chapters. The other problem is that you are kept waiting a little bit too long for the collapse of arrogance and there is equally not as much repentance as you would expect leaving you with an unsatisfactory ending. It cannot be accused of not being well written but the problem with Scarlet and Black is that the pressure of the politics of the time have not translates well into the 21st century.
Should it be read?
It is on all the classics lists and my edition was deliberately designed for Open University students to use – as someone who had underlined it here there and everywhere obviously had done. As a guide to what was happening in rural France after Napoleon had been defeated it is a very good scene setter. But it is hard not to compare it from the view point of a man who is overly ambitious and falls down with Gogol’s Dead Souls and from a Napoleonic political view with War and Peace and for my money this book sadly can not match either of those works.
If you like the idea of someone getting their comeuppance then Gogol’s Dead Souls is another powerful read. Otherwise it is onto more classic French literature or into Napoleonic/post 1815 French history
Version read – Penguin paperback