Stendhal at his best : a “worthless” historian

by Micael Johnson Michael Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He is now based in Bordeaux, France, where he writes for the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine. In 1990 he was appointed chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique where he worked as Editorial Director for two years. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of four books and recently edited “24/7 Innovation” for an Accenture consultant and “Nokia: The Inside Story”, written by historian Martti Haikio, for the Nokia Corporation. A fluent French speaker, he also speaks Russian. 29.07.2008

When I was young and the world was different, I used to hide Stendhal's classic novel "The Red and the Black" in the dust jacket of a Bible and read it on Sunday mornings in church. Parishioners peered over my shoulder to try to see what was so gripping, but they understood nothing. It was the original French.

My behaviour may have been sacrilegious, even pretentious, but I derived a strange pleasure from it. I felt it was worthy of the book's hero Julien Sorel, himself a master of deception.

I didn't follow Julien into the military or the seminary or spend my life climbing the social ladder, but I have stayed with Julien's creator Marie-Henri Beyle - known better by his main nom de plume Stendhal - without interruption. I have just reread it in a new translation.

"The Red and the Black", Stendhal's most popular surviving novel, has been a staple of the educated classes in most of the Western world for more than 100 years. Today it is one of the rare novels that crosses cultural and generational gaps with ease. It remains a popular seller in France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Britain and of course the United States.

My neighbour in Bordeaux, a French academic, tells me his grandmother kept it on her night table to read and reread for many years, and her grandson is equally enthusiastic. It is taught in the French school system as an innovative psychological novel. Amazon websites in France, Britain and the United States offer dozens of titles by and about Stendhal including a 50-volume complete collection of his works in French.

Now "The Red and the Black" is getting a new lease on life with an updated English version by the renowned translator Burton Raffel. After a few years in circulation, this version has all but replaced the somewhat stuffy, often inaccurate translation produced in 1920s by Scottish-born writer C.K. Scott-Moncrieff.

In the new version, the archaic language of post-Victorian England is discarded and every sentence is retooled. Some random examples: "A thousand leagues" as metaphor becomes "a million miles", and "open-work stockings" becomes "fishnet stockings". "Fondling" of children and pets is replaced with "caressing".

In Moncrieff's old version, a key midnight tryst it is rendered as: "Some hours later, when Julien emerged from Madame de Rênal's room... there was nothing more left for him to wish."

In the new Modern Library edition, the writing is more suggestive: "Several hours later, when Julien left Madame de Rênal's room … he had nothing else to desire."

Obviously they had consummated their daring affair, although Stendhal left the sweaty details to the imagination.

I spoke with Prof. Raffel, emeritus professor of humanities and arts at the University of Louisiana, recently to see what he was hoping to accomplish with his painstaking update.

"Some people translate words," he said. "I translate what the word means." This meant a word-for-word tracking of the French original and Moncrieff's effort to achieve an edition better suited to modern English.

To bridge the culture gap with 19th century France, Prof. Raffel said he immersed himself in the history of the era and tried to "replicate" the personality of the writer. As a result, his prose brings an immediacy to Stendhal's story that Moncrieff's strangulated translation lacked.

"Stendhal wrote like a man in a fever," Raffel said. "His work is so intense." The new version brings this feeling to the surface. Raffel got so involved in the emotions of this book, he recalls, that at the end when Julien is decapitated on the guillotine he burst into tears.

To critics who have concocted long lists of Stendhal's historical errors, Prof. Raffel is somewhat dismissive: "As a historian, he was worthless - but he was not a historian." This book survives, he believes, because the story sweeps the reader into another era yet still seems current. "Stendhal has a contemporary air. He is alive today in ways that Dickens is not," Prof. Raffel says.

Julien Sorel climbs the social ladder rapidly in red (his army uniform) and black (as a seminarian) and amazes the provincials around him with his ability to recite from memory the entire Bible in Latin. But he is fundamentally unsure of himself and unable to enjoy his rising status or the love of the beautiful women he conquers.

Indeed the story moves him along at such a frantic pace that one prominent British Critic, Christopher Booker, calls him a cardboard character caught in an implausible series of events. Booker, author of "The Seven Basic Plots", classifies Julien's story as a standard "rags to riches" yarn topped of by tragedy - his decapitation. Most Stendhal fans would find that assessment off the mark.

Stendhal's other classic, "The Charterhouse of Parma", has also been updated recently and is considered by many to be Stendhal's most important book. His description of the battle scene at Waterloo is considered a model for Tolstoy's later rendering of Borodino in "War and Peace".

Both of Stendhal's big novels make maximum use of inner monologue as a way of getting inside the heads of the protagonists. Out of this technique emerged the psychological novel, winning the praise of Balzac and Zola. It was Zola who called Stendhal "the father of us all".

Stendhal has been called the French novelist with the German pen name and the Italian temperament. He spent 14 years in Italy as a tourist, a dilettantish writer and finally as a diplomat. These may have been his best years, highlighted by enduring friendships with Lord Byron and the composer Rossini.

Stendhal's novels portray life in the newly mobile society of Napoleonic France but he did not adopt political advocacy in the manner of Zola. He famously said that politics and fiction do not fit well onto the same page. "Politics, set among the imagination's concerns, is like a pistol shot fired at a concert," he famously wrote.

And yet with all his literary innovations, Stendhal suffered miserable physical disabilities in his final years as he continued to produce some of his best work. As he noted in his journal, he was taking iodide of potassium and quicksilver to treat his syphilis, resulting in swollen armpits, difficulty swallowing, pains in his shrunken testicles, sleeplessness, giddiness, roaring in the ears, racing pulse, and tremors so bad he could scarcely hold a fork or a pen. Indeed, he dictated ""Charterhouse" in this pitiable state.

Modern medicine has shown that his health problems were more attributable to his treatment than to his syphilis.

Marie-Henri Beyle, aka Stendhal, collapsed in a seizure on the streets of Paris on March 22, 1842. He died a few hours later without regaining consciousness. That nearly made me want to burst into tears.

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