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THE RED AND THE BLACK by Stendhal (1830)

Plot: Julien Sorel hustles through the story with breathless energy. A carpenter's son cursed with intelligence and ambition, he longs to become a mini-Napoleon and conquer society. Growing up during the stuffy period of the French Restoration (1814-1830), he is scared of festering in the provincialism of his home town, Verrieres. Impressed by Sorel's Latin, the mayor M Renal hires the eager hypocrite to teach his children. Mme Renal, a sensuous prig, is attracted to the new tutor. The couple creep towards mutual seduction and, eventually, Mme Renal becomes Sorel's first territorial conquest. Sorel leaves for the seminary at Besancon: he now seeks power through the church. He dazzles the authorities and is whisked off to Paris, becoming secretary to the Marquis de la Mole. Paris proves a let down. Sorel's boredom begins to attract the interest of the Marquis's supra-romantic daughter Mathilde. The snobby Marquis is horrified. Sorel is promised a title and shoved into the army. Nevertheless the pair are to be married to protect Mathilde's reputation. Mme Renal sends a letter to the Marquis denouncing Sorel as a fortune-hunting rake. Furious, he decides to murder Mme Renal. While she is at Mass, he shoots her but misses. He is taken to prison and executed. Mme Renal dies three days later, heartbroken. Mathilde gets hold of Sorel's head and honours it with a sculptured grotto.

Theme: Stendhal challenges prevailing moral codes. Sorel is an ambiguous mixture: he is snobbish, vain, naive but also analytical, perceptive and burning with imagination. Human personality is shot through with contradiction as virtues and vices are presented as inseparable. Sorel's panache is set against the Restoration society which is glutinous with materialism and formality: the ascending bourgeoisie are no better than the arthritic aristocracy.

Style: Economical, dry. Stendhal claimed his prose model was the civil code. "One should not write unless one has important things to say, but then one must say them with the utmost simplicity...trying to get them by unnoticed."

Chief strengths: The novel quivers with nervy excitement. Written at white heat, the story seems capable of charging off in any direction. Yet all is controlled by the narrator's teasing, petulant and downright comic interjections.

Chief weaknesses: Dedicated to the "happy few" who would eventually understand it, the novel can become a self-referential game that revels in exclusivity.

What they thought of it then: Stendhal was seen as a cynical despoiler, believing in nothing but the slick paradox. Victor Hugo likened reading The Red and the Black to having teeth pulled. Henry James condemned its "air of unredeemed corruption''.

What we think of it now: No aspect of the work remains unmolested. Even the mysterious title provokes monographs.

Responsible for: By creating the first "authentic" (as opposed to "sincere") hero, Stendhal becomes proto-existentialist. Sorel is a forerunner of those drearily self absorbed figures who haunt the novels of Camus and Sartre.

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