Romanticism remains a literary football, its detractors, on different teams, digging leather-bound products from dust-filmed closets and kicking them all over their studies. The excesses of confessionalism are sometimes traced back to earnest lyrics by Wordsworth. Soft-lens adventure yarns are damned as low-middlebrow James Fenimore Cooper excitations. But Romantics – even those in the first-wave of 1789-1824 – developed specific obsessions that were faithfully adhered to, even throughout Realism, until the great artistic tumults of 1913. One of those obsessions, of course, was a worshipper’s belief in the power and value of intense feeling. And when the hyper-rational George Bernard Shaw calls Shelley’s The Cenci one of the great tragedies in English drama, one can only imagine how passionate must have been the views of its adherents back in the day when Napoleon was busting heads.
Stendhal’s masterpiece, the novel Scarlet and Black (most often translated as The Red and the Black), came out in 1830 when the first onrush of Romanticism’s emotional and individual force had lessened somewhat, though its aesthetic dominance, while not monolithic, was unchallenged. Stendhal’s genius was a combination of a unique style – wildly at odds with the descriptive flourishes the dominant movement required – with Romantic passion bordering, at times, on melodrama. That emotional drive, though, was pestered by an ironic view, finely placed, on the proceedings. (Romantics – Byron and maybe a few others excepted – hate satire.) And that style must have been a brave approach: plain and without immersive symbolism, but set in complex subordinate clauses mellifluously rendered, and with a psychological acuity both brilliant and detailed among variously motivated class-positioned characters.
Well before this point, it’s traditional for the reviewer to give a plot synopsis, but I hate those kinds of reviews. The biggest reason is that it destroys narrative surprise (though if it’s a postmodern novel, that’s usually unimportant, even encouraged). Another reason is that even in plot-heavy novels, the story is just a framework to hold more important features of the work. It’s here I smile, because the preceding few sentences of meta-commentary is a lead-in to Stendhal – that trailblazing out-of-time realist – as whispering Lawrence Sterne, the French author sneaking in one paragraph, a now famous one, which operates as a shocking narrative interruption, an l’art du roman. I include it here, prefaced by most of the preceding paragraph:
“[T]hese attach themselves with obstinate tenacity to some particular set, and if that set ‘makes good’ all the best things society can give are showered upon them. Woe to the studious man who does not belong to any set; even his minor doubtful successes will be held against him, and superior virtue will triumph over him by robbing him of these.
Why, my good sir, a novel is a mirror journeying down the high road. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure blue of heaven, sometimes the mire in the puddles on the road below. And the man who carries the mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror reflects the mire, and you blame the mirror! Blame rather the high road on which the puddle lies, and still more the inspector of roads and highways who lets the water stand there and the puddle form.”
The novel’s long chronicle reaches its exquisite finalé in the drawn-out prison scene, Julien a presursor for Camus’ Merseault in L’Etranger. As much as I love the latter novel, and realizing that Camus’ first-person anti-hero was neutrally positioned, Stendhal’s protagonist’s clash with the cleric, his father, and the exchanges with his two visiting loves, is elemental, frenetic, yet almost documentarily conceived, pitiless yet moving, eerie, funereal. It makes the similarly-plotted L’Etranger climax seem desiccated and didactic by contrast.
(My edition was wonderfully, painstakingly, translated by Margaret R.B. Shaw.)