Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Red and the Black, Stendhal

I've just finished reading Stendhal's The Red and the Black. I enjoyed it. I don't pretend to have any deep insights into the book, but here are some general thoughts.

Sometime last year, I'd found a used hardcover of the recent Burton Raffel translation, published by the Modern Library. (Inexplicably, the book's jacket cover features a bizarre photograph of a naked torso, with a hand on the right side of it, which may or may not belong to the same body, and to the top, what may be the under-side of a breast. Anyone have any idea what that's about?) I'm happy to read Stendhal, one way or another, but the typical questions about translations again come to mind. How accurate is it? How well does it capture the spirit of the original? What kind of liberties have been taken? Unfortunately, my French is woeful, so I'm in no position to judge for myself directly. When trying to decide among translations, then, I must weigh assessments made by others. With a translator like Raffel, it's interesting that his detractors and supporters cite the same evidence: he renders Stendhal's French in a highly "readable", Americanized, colloquial style. And readable it certainly is. The novel in his translation is incredibly easy to read, and there are more than a few expressions that feel overly modern. I could give some examples, but it's hard for me to be certain whether a given expression was in currency at that time (for example, characters said to be yelling "at the top of [their] lungs"), but in the main, aside from the setting, the book did not feel terribly, well, foreign. I know it's been hailed as a "modern" novel, but I didn't expect it to this extent. Published in 1830, as rendered in English by Raffel it could almost have been written at any time since then.

In fact, I notice that similar criticisms are made of his translations generally. Back when I was deciding among the many translations of Don Quixote, I was leaning toward Raffel's translation--in part because it's published as a Norton critical edition, but also because I found the first few pages more, uh, readable than those of the other versions. (In the event, soon thereafter Edith Grossman's much-lauded translation appeared, and I ended up buying hers. Naturally, I have yet to read it.) Anyway, Raffel's version of the Quixote received the same kinds of criticism: often brilliant, but excessive instances of modern usages (Sancho Panza's references to his "kids", for one), etc. Since then I've started to wonder about "readability" as a value when assessing a translation.

To the novel, then. I said I enjoyed it, and I did, though the closing 40 pages or so are rather excitedly melodramatic. I'm not going to bother recounting in any detail the events of the story, or discuss its theme--other than to say that it follows the life of Julien Sorel, a provincial son of a carpenter who finds himself amidst aristocratic society (of which he is largely contemptuous) and at the center of two romantic scandals. He is "ambitious", we're repeatedly told, though it's not entirely clear what exactly his ambition is. He daydreams about what it might have been like 20 years earlier, when he could have served under Napoleon (who he secretly admires--an unpopular opinion among the "well-born"), and achieved some sense of nobility, despite his low origins. He and the other characters are forever worried about concealing their true thoughts on a matter, often because of societal expectations or political or class reasons. Julien is obsessed with hypocrisy--his own, as well as that of the aristocracy and the clergy, especially. The story is told by a third-person narrator, who seems at times amused, at times dismayed, at times bored, by the proceedings. The narrator appears to be nearly omniscient, while also shifting among the perceptions of the many characters, usually Julien and whoever he may be most engaged with at any given moment in the novel. As such, the novel is an early refinement of the psychological novel, or "psychological realism". Indeed, this is another reason why the novel did not seem especially alien: it's quite compatible with current-day fiction, perhaps underscoring the extent to which the so-called psychological realist approach has become the expected, default mode of fiction-writing.

1 comment:

Broadsheet said...

Well thank goodness for you. I read Stendahl ages ago and only recently revisited it.

Stendahl is someone I struggle with periodically, and yet, is one of my unsung favorites. You summarized precisely this work and the way nriwilwcI felt about it, and if you are brave enough to read (or have read) others, you will no doubt come away with a similar perspective.

Although, practically speaking, I don't agree with the myth of romantic love any more than he does.