Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book 31-The Red and the Black (book 45)

Huh...I don't really know what to say about book 31-The Red and The Black by Stendhal. I have found that the more French Novels I read the more I am left feeling a piece of me is always left on the outside looking rationally in at myself reading the novel. Not sure if that makes any sense, but I never really lose myself in these novels. As a fan of Russian literature for its real-to -life portrayals of both the beauty and the darkness in the world I have always found French novels slightly more pretentious. This novel was no different. I have given it a middle of the road rating because it was not the world's worst book I've ever read, but it was by no means the best. Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised that it was not a book about war like I first suspected it was....so at least there's that.

The novel follows Julien Sore, the son of a poor carpenter who sets out to live his life like Napoleon. He chooses to follow one of two roads to glory open to a young man of the times: the red (the military) or the black (the church). Despite his love of Napoleon he feels that the church is a much better fit for his personality. Julien is ambitious and everything he does including his two love affairs follows a cold, rational decision about furthering himself and following his ambitions. I think that is the part of the book that left me the most upset. I have always loved people that have dreams and that come alive  when they talk about following their dreams, but with Julien's dreams I felt like he was too cold and rational.to enjoy the process. He had some beautiful moments at the beginning of the book where you can tell that his heart is truly alive. He has a moment where he spent the night nestled in the woods in an alcove and this scene is mirrored at the end of the book almost like a redemption where he comes back to his true self that got lost along the way. Julien also has some beautiful moments nestled in the trees hiding away with a good book. Those parts of Julien I connected with...his ambitious society climbing, just made me mad.

The book had a lot of interesting things to say about the corruption in the priesthood/church. Despite being a Christian I agree that there are definitely those who pursue religion for selfish reasons. It also has a lot to say about true faith though and that despite all the corruption and mess in the church that there can still be a real beauty in true faith and also the idea of a loving, caring God.

"the priesthood that fine profession that opens all doors"

"I shall fear for your salvation if you go into the priesthood"

(this is actually more a reflection that being a priest was not a good fit for Julien's personality and less about the fact that priests don't believe in God)

"Why do priest and their hypocrisies matter? Can they  in any way detract from the truth and sublimeness of the idea of God?"

"...I mean a real priest. Then tender souls would have a meeting point in this world...we wouldn't be isolated"

"But how , when two or three are gathered together can you believe in the great name of God, after the terrible abuse made of it by our priests?"

Although Julien is a flawed character, he is a hero amidst the backdrop of the 19th century social hierarchy.

The book is an honest look at some of the flaws that Stendhal's society has:

"The normal course of events in the nineteenth century is that when a powerful member of the nobility encounters a man of generosity, he kills him, exiles him, imprisons him, or humiliates him so much that the other man is foolish enough to die of grief"

Julien takes advice from a Casanova-type man on the fringes of his social circle. Julien was always frowned upon by people everywhere he went because he wore his heart on his sleeve. This Casanova had this to say about the way things worked in the salons of the day.

"If you're miserable, there must be something you're wanting, something that hasn't turned out right...if you are bored, on the contrary, it's what's tried in vain to please you that is inferior"

Lastly, the book focuses on dreams and the role they play in our life and identity. Julien is an interesting character in that he never realizes the full potential of his dream to live a life worthy of Napoleon. Despite pursuing it consistently most of his life,  in the end he is left with nothing to show for it. Here are some of the things this book has to say about dreams:

"At twenty, the thought of the wide world and the impact you can have on it overrides everything else"

"I am the only one who knows what I might have done...for everyone else, I'm nothing more than a QUESTION MARK"

If you are a person who does not like loose ends this book would probably drive you nuts because Julien goes off on various tangents and strategies to pursue his goal. He uses whatever comes across to further his ambition to advance himself in the world. I was very confused by what this book was trying to say about having dreams since none of them really came to fruition in Julien's life and the main thing that caused his distractio was falling in love. I toyed with several theories as to what the point of the book was  (don't have dreams because they are vain, don't have dreams because you are just going to fall in love and be distracted anyways, don't have dreams because it will make it hard to live in society). I have decided that Stendhal would say that we should follow our dreams, but that they don't define our character. It is what we do with successes and failures in this realm that make us who we are. Julien shines the most when he is living from his heart and not his head. I guess that is what I didn't like the most about this book. I found Julien disingenuous 90% of the time and my guess is it is because he was a rational thinker and not a heart thinker. As someone who thinks almost exclusively from the hear,t I didn't relate as closely to his character as to some of the other  characters I have in the past.

Onwards and upwards to the next list book: Tristram Shandy. I am excited to dive into this one.as I tried reading it in high school and gave up because it was "too weird" for me!We will see what I think of it now.

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