Friday, March 14, 2014

The read and the stack

Most of my friends who are "readers"--that is, people who read regularly for the simple pleasure of it--have someplace a stack or a stash of unread books that were purchased with the intent that they would eventually be reached.

It is a melancholy fact that there are not enough years in one's life to read all the good and worthy books (not to mention the sensational, silly and trashy ones that can't be resisted).  So it is always noteworthy to decide to re-read a book, thereby necessarily consigning another to the Neverland of the never read.

These thoughts come to me, having recently completed Stendahl's Le rouge et le noir.  It was not a simple re-read.  Some twenty years ago I read it in an English translation, and didn't much like it.  I didn't care for Julian Sorel, the main character.  I thought the two liaisons around which the two parts of the book revolved were contrived.  I thought the great impulsive action that brought on the novel's crushing conclusion unconvincing.

But when I chanced on a French paperback edition I immediately bought it, and almost against every inclination began reading, with no intention of finishing the thing, and soon I was hooked in a way I never was the first time through.

What I wonder is whether the difference was the re-read, or the language.  Anytime I am reading something in a language other than English it's a slow, difficult process, but, for that very reason, it's almost always a more rewarding experience, perhaps because of the effort.  I have to think more about what I'm reading because part of what's going on is my having to figure out what I'm reading.

On the other hand, a simple re-read in English is almost always a revelation.  I'm frequently astonished about what I've forgotten (yes, I've re-read who-done-its by Raymond Chandler where I've entirely forgotten the identity of the culprit).  Familiarity, though, with the overall arch of the story, and, even generally, with the end-point of the narrative, makes the setting, the details, the characterizations more striking than the first time through.

This second time through Le rouge et le noir I found that I liked and sympathized with Julian.  His hypocrisy and ambition are little different from those of the less innocent characters he meets on his way up in the world.  Though he is contemptuous of others, he isn't cruel, nor does he hurt those he uses to rise (perhaps Madame Renal is an exception to this assertion, but the harm is considerably mitigated by the mighty, faithful love he has and retains for her--even when closing in on this marriage to Mathilde).  The post-revolutionary, post-Napoleonic, post-restoration society of France, with its strata, its intrigues and anxieties, is rendered beautifully, both the provincial world of the newly-wealthy manufacturing class, and the returned Parisian aristocracy personified in the Marquis de la Mole.

In between those episodes is Julian's sojourn at the seminary, where his talents win him nothing but the hatred of his fellows and his masters.  The corruption of Christian humility into a smarmy, studied mediocrity is painful to witness, and again makes Julian's own hypocrisy almost benign.

And though I certainly can't share Stendahl's (and Julian's) admiration of Napoleon, the novel reveals poignantly what the figure of Napoleon meant to the next generation, and how the Emperor's vices and virtues play out in a smaller, more squalid world (and in a considerably less ghastly manner than when applied by Raskalnikov in Crime and Punishment).   

No comments: