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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Julien Sorel's character flaws or lack of character (The Red and the Black)

But then - Julien seems to leave the right-wing conspiracy, which he'd aided as a courier, aside and resume his courtship of Mlle de la Mole. He does so in a comic, or I would say ridiculous, manner: Runs into a Russian prince whom he knows, confesses his love for the aristocratic beauty, and the prince gives him courtship instructions, essentially telling him to profess love to someone else and to "woo" her via letter - he gives Julien 100 or so letters, which J is to copy out and send. This strategy will supposedly win over Mlle by making her jealous. This whole set-up is out of a comedy or opera-buffo, and seems as if it's bound to fail, but strangely it works and J has Mlle de la Mole back in his arms again and, you know what, by this point I don't even care. Once again Julien seems like an insipid character w/ no values other than his own social advancement; he continues to imagine that he's brave and bold, but never shows evidence of this. He imagines he would have been a valiant soldier in Napoleon's army - easy to imagine, hard to have done. He idolizes Napoleon, yet does nothing to advance the cause of a Republic, in fact he does the opposite. Where is this long novel heading?

Saturday, July 14, 2018

A right-wing conspiracy and the plot thickens in The Red and the Black

At last the plot picks up about 3/4 of the way through Stendahl's The Red and the Black - I'd had enough by that time of Julien's up and down relationship w/ Mlle de la Mole - and was heartened when his employer (her father) assigned him to a top-secret mission. We get a really great scene of some of the top right-wing leaders in early 19th-century Paris gathering for an all-night conclave to plan, what we gradually learn, is a revolution to reinstall the monarchy (and of course to protect all the "rights" of the aristocracy); the plan involves getting the support of the Church, including from Rome, which will in effect ensure the support of the peasants - a cruel and sinister plot. Julien has to memorize the key points of the secret meeting, ride to London, repeat his lengthy message verbatim to a sympathetic British aristocrat, and return w/ a report regarding English support for this right-wing revolution. Stendahl gives us another great scene as Julien is waylaid at an inn, learns that the authorities have received word about a  courier (him), they break into his room at night, thinking he's drugged to sleep (somehow he has overcome the narcotics) and search his belongings - but let him pass as they find no messages, and he continues on his mission. The long build-up to this right-wing conspiracy was worth it; finally, we will see if Julien can do something courageous - and if so what will that be? Will he be brave enough to enlighten the authorities about the plot, which goes against the grain of his lifelong Republican beliefs? Or were his beliefs just a sham and a fantasy? Will he continue to act in support of M de la Mole and his reactionary cronies. Loyalty to employer, action true to his beliefs, or cowardice and rationales all around? 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Julien Sorel and Malvolio

Julien Sorel's long courtship, if you can call it that, of Mathile de la Mole (Stendahl's The Red and the Black, 1830) finally clicks when Mlle sends him a note asking him to use a ladder to climb to her bedroom window (he used the same means in his seduction of Mme Renal back in the provinces). All well and good, but he begins to suspect that he's the victim of a hoax, that her brother and his aristocratic buddies will be lying in wait to capture him climbing the ladder or to eavesdrop on his professions of love, catching him the act so to speak and humiliating him or worse - definitely causing the Marquis de la Mole to dismiss his private secretary. In short, Julien suspects that he's a Malvolio, being set up by a ne're do well aristocratic brother, his buddies, and some of the servants. It takes a long time for J to realize that in fact Mathile is in love with him - and they finally, and discretely - note Stendahl's funny use of asterisks! - have sex. And then of course Mlle has regrets, she refuses even to look at Julien, she's humiliated, he feels ashamed and rides his horse to exhaustion (nice way to treat and animal, btw), and makes a plan to leave Paris on business for the Marquis (Mathile's father) - but then the Marquis has a new and top-secret assignment for Julien, asking him to sit in on a mysterious business meeting, memorize the goings-on, and deliver a secret report to someone in London, at his great risk. Here the plot finally is getting good: What's the meeting about and what will be the cost to J for taking part? Red and Black is much less of a novel of intrigue that S's later work, Charterhouse of Parma, and much more a study of the personality of an ambitious young man who believes his was born too late for the military glory he deserves - and who as far as I can see as no morals, values, or ideals. If this intrigue about the secret meeting gives J new insight into the perverse beliefs of the French aristocrats, it will add some much-needed energy into the 2nd half of this novel.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Thoughts on Williams and Stevens

Over the past few weeks/months I've been reading from time to time in an anthology of American poetry, particularly looking at some of the poets who I read a lot in college and grad school and have seldom read since then. I may at some point post in more detail about some of these poets and some of their most famous poems, but at this point I have some overall notes and observations. Taking 3 of the great modernist poets: In college I loved W.C. Williams, found his poems open and insightful and inviting, loved his commitment to American landscapes, lingo, and people. Coming back to Williams, the bloom has faded (my bloom, possibly). I think what drew me to WCW was in part the desire to imitate, and his poems were the easiest to imitate, superficially anyway. For every great Red Wheelbarrow or "Saw the Number 5 in Gold" I'm afraid there are plenty of his poems that are just notes - and even so that was an important step in American letters, a step that led on to the Beats and many fine lyric poets throughout the 20th century - couldn't have done it without his laying the course. But to read his poems now? They feel somehow antique. I'm always struck by the oddity that his two most atypical poems - Tract and The Yachts - are the two most often anthologized, so what does that tell us, if anything? Contrast with Wallace Stevens. Yes, I read him in college but in a totally ignorant way, just reading through the verse as if it were prose and emerging totally bewildered and unmoved. Looking back now at some of his longer poems (not the late poems, however -that's a challenge of a different order, and the same could be said of Williams for that matter) I found some pleasure in parsing the most difficult passages in some of the chestnuts that, though I didn't know this, I'd never read carefully enough in my youth. Odd that both Stevens and Williams were poets who lived a complete professional life (today, that's almost unimaginable for a poet!) - and Williams drew often on his experiences as a doctor while Stevens never wrote (at least directly) about his work in the insurance industry. Score one for Williams there - great to se a poet drawing on life and not solely on his facility with language. Whereas Williams lead on to an open and accessible form of poetry, Stevens led on to what I consider the dead end of "language poetry," the kind of stuff that wins prizes and New Yorker publication and nobody gives a damn about. Still, Stevens's best poems merit studious reading - they will pay you back. As to Williams, you probably have to read widely in his work and take it as a whole rather than parse some of the relatively, and intentionally, straightforward gems such as Danse Russe.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Stendhal's cynicism

Getting to the point where you have to say, Really?, is there no character in Stendahl's The Red and the Black who has an iota of morality, responsibility, altruism, or even a momentary thought about values or other people or anything but his or her own advancement in the world? Stendahl is the most cynical or writers, more so than the materialistic Balzac. French intellectuals scoff at the sentimentality of 19th-century British writers - the sentimentality of Dickens, the earnestness of Eliot, the fatalism of Hardy, the gentle narrative asides of Trollope, to name a few so-called faulted writers - but the hard-heartedness and relentless opportunism of Stendahl tops, or bottoms, them all. Why am I reading this novel? I know that the novel comes to a dramatic conclusion and that, at the end, Julien Sorel, the arriviste, reflects on the course of his life, and I'm far enough in that I'll keep reading to see (or to recall - I have read R&B before, many years ago, though little remains in my conscious memory of that first reading) how Stendahl brings the novel around. But at this point, 2/3 of the way through this long novel, I could almost quit: Julien has won the heart, or at least the attention, of the beautiful daughter, Mlle de la Mole, of his employer - she's really interested in him even though, or perhaps because, he is not of her social class, and he sees in her sudden attentions an opportunity continue his social ascension - even though he recognizes her superficiality and egotism and even compares her, unfavorbly, with the honesty and openness of the woman he had an affair with (Mm de Renal) back in the provinces. No good for either can come of this.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Salons in Stendahl and Proust

Stendahl (The Red and the Black, 1830) and Proust (almost a century later) build much of their great novels on encounters and conversations that the hero/protagonist (Julien Sorel/"Marcel") participates in and closely observes in Paris salons. Both writers present characters who aspire to be part of the intellectual/political discussions at these salons, while also sitting back as a contemptuous observer and chronicler. Stendehl's Julien is more of a climber and arriviste, a carpenter's son from the country newly arrived in Paris and clearly a social inferior to those w/ whom he converses - at least until he proves his worthiness (in their view) through his intelligence, acuity, and foolish bravado (getting wounded in a pistol duel to avenge a trivial insult). Proust's Marcel is nearly part of the smartest social set - from a wealthy family and Paris native - but he just barely makes the cut at the Guermantes salon. Proust's salonistes are witty, in a particularly testy and circumspect manner, and artistic; although there is much salon talk of the contemporary Dreyfus case and its implications, particularly for French Jews (such as Proust), the salons are primarily literary and artistic gatherings, with writers, critics, artists, and musicians as the most highly esteemed guests. Stendahl's people are trivial and gossips, by comparison - and they are not fully developed characters with their own secrets and idiosyncrasies, as is for ex the Baron de Charlus, with his loosely kept secret of homosexuality and SM practices. It takes 7 volumes but in the end Marcel recognizes the sordid snobbery of the salons to which he'd once aspired. In Stendahl, Julien recognizes from the start the insipid nature of the salon at the Hotel de la Mole, but he sees his attendance, participation, and acceptance as necessary rungs on the social ladder that he believes he must (is destined to) ascend.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Red and Black: Is there nobody in this novel who cares for anyone but himself?

The second half of Stendahl's Red and the Black brings "hero" Julien Sorel to Paris, where he believes that last he will achieve the fame to which he believes he is destined and entitled. He has left the provinces behind him, w/ a final tryst with Mme de Renal (in a fine, Stendahlian scene he uses a ladder he has "borrowed" from a peasant to climb into Mmes' bedroom window: a whole lot of drama and subterfuge, but their love, on his side, amounts to nothing - just another opportunity for grandiose behavior). He will do fine in Paris, where he will serve as private secretary to the Marquis de la Mole; en rout to his new position he overhears fellow coach-travelers discuss French political gossip at great length, which gives us a window on the world that Julien will inhabit. And as we see from the first dinner parties at the Hotel de la Mole, there's lot of stylish but pointless conversation, and all anyone seems to care about is rank and status. Is there nobody in this novel who has concern for anyone but himself. Nobody with money or power trying to change society or even help the poor or even support the arts? Julien is extremely intelligent, at least when it comes to reading and memorization, but he is unable to see that he is wasting his life and talents, that he will never measure up to the people around him, at least by their measure, because he is the son of a sawmill owner. But he can't see through them; he's too intent on his spurious goals, to attain the greatness of Napoleon without Napoleon's bravery or genius.