All you need to know about the books you meant to read

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders