Observant, cynical but flawed…
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I wanted very much to like this book and indeed there was much in it to savour and enjoy. The author casts an observant if cynical eye over early nineteenth-century France, the post-Napoleonic era. Through his hero (or perhaps anti-hero), Julian Sorel, he shows us small town, provincial attitudes, takes us into the hierarchy of the Church and then, as Julian’s unusual talents allow him to rise, leads us into the top echelons of Paris political and social life. Throughout the author shows the hypocrisy and greed prevalent in every part of society, the jostling for power and social position and the precarious nature of social status in a society still quivering from the upheavals of its recent history.
However, I felt the book had some important flaws too. Julian is a cold, calculating hypocrite (though with occasional flashes of manic passion) and as such I found it hard to empathise with him at any point. His two great love affairs were on-off to such an extreme that it became tedious and repetitive. At least a quarter of the entire novel is taken up with descriptions of how Julien and Mathilde fell in and out of love with each other repeatedly and only once or twice at the same time. I found myself quietly chanting ‘she loves him, she loves him not’ each time I resumed reading. Unfortunately I also ‘loved him not’ but a good deal more constantly than the spoiled, haughty and frankly unstable Mathilde.
There is always an issue with translated novels in that the reader is not able to determine whether any flaws are with the original or the translation. I started to read the Moncrieff translation and while it may have been accurate it was so poorly written as to be almost unreadable. I then moved on to the translation by Burton Raffel, which flowed much more smoothly and had a more literary feel. Overall, though, the book came over as somewhat fragmented, with contradictions from chapter to chapter. How much to blame this on the original or the translator, I am unable to say.
There is sometimes a tendency to assume that in great literature, entertainment comes second to the insight the author gives us into humanity and society. I beg to disagree. If a book fails to engage the reader’s sympathies, then I think it is less likely that the author’s message will be heard. For me, that was ultimately the problem with this novel. I understand why it is called great; I admire the writing, the observations of a particular time in French history, the descriptions of the various levels of society and I am glad to have read it. But unfortunately, because of my antipathy to the main protagonists, I can’t say that I found reading the book a wholly enjoyable experience and, in the end, I was unmoved by Julien’s eventual fate.