Stendhal at his best: A 'worthless' historian





I didn't follow Julien Sorel into the military or the seminary but I have stayed with his creator, Henri Beyle - better known by his nom de plume, Stendhal - throughout my life. I have just rediscovered his novel "The Red and the Black" in a pungent new translation.

"R&B," as it is known to fans, has been regarded as a classic for 150 years and still crosses cultural boundaries with ease. I first read it in church, holding it concealed in the dust jacket of a Bible, arguably a gambit worthy of the adventurous rascal Julien himself.

It does not bother me that Stendhal is highly unreliable as a chronicler of 19th century Europe, even though his stories take place amid much of that period's chaos. Nor did it bother him. "I make no claim to veracity except in matters that touched my feelings," he once wrote. He had no patience with place names or dates.

The Austrian novelist and critic Stefan Zweig is more direct. "Few writers have lied as much or taken such pleasure in mystifying the world as Stendhal," he asserted in an essay on the French author. Paradoxically, he added, "few writers have spoken the truth better and more profoundly than he."

What mattered to Stendhal were the private thoughts and telling details of his colorful characters, such as a woman's furtive gesture or tone of voice. His lovers' hand-squeezes and withdrawals go on for paragraphs.

All of Stendhal's big novels make use of inner monologue to get inside the heads of the protagonists. Out of this technique emerged the psychological novel as we know it, winning the praise of Balzac and Zola, and influencing such masters as Dostoevsky. It was Zola who called Stendhal "the father of us all."

Now "The Red and the Black" is getting a new lease on life with an updated English-language version by the renowned translator Burton Raffel. His version has all but replaced the decorous text produced in the 1920s by the Scottish-born writer-translator C.K. Scott-Moncrieff....


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