Stendhal’s The Red and the Black

When talking about Stendhal’s The Red and The Black, I suppose it wouldn’t be untoward to look first at the actual story. After all, it is a thoroughly developed and interesting story, packed with vivid and human seeming characters.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Jonathan Lethem, 8th for Norman Mailer, 6th for Joyce Carol Oates, 5th for Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and 4th for Elizabeth Spencer.)

In The Red and The Black, we have the poor but ambitious carpenter’s son, Julien Sorel. As the story progresses, Julien rises to become a tutor to a rich man’s children, falls in love, flees to study at a seminary, flees the intrigues of the seminary (and rises farther) to become another rich man’s secretary, falls in love again, and eventually falls from grace.

I don’t think I’m exactly giving away spoilers in saying the above. It isn’t like the basic plot of this book isn’t well known. Anyway, that quick summary is really far from giving away anything significant.

Regardless, impressed as I was with the overall story and characters, the most interesting aspect for me is how Stendhal twists human emotion and scheming together. The characters go about their passions in a scheming way at the same time that their passions drive their scheming thoughts.

For example, the wife of the provincial rich man who hired Julien to be his children’s tutor falls in love with Julien. Julien ends up falling desperately in love with her, but his first motivation is not love. Instead, he pursues Madam de Renal out of revenge:

When he went into the garden that evening, Julien was ready to listen
with interest to the thoughts of the fair cousins. They awaited his
coming with impatience. He took his accustomed seat, by Madame de
Renal's side. The darkness soon became intense. He attempted to clasp 
a white hand which for some time he had seen close beside him, resting 
on the back of a chair.  There was some hesitation shown, but finally 
the hand was withdrawn from him in a manner which betokened displeasure. 
Julien was prepared to regard this as final, and to continue the 
conversation in a light tone, when he heard M. de Renal approach.
The rude words of the morning still rang in Julien's ears. 'Would it
not,' he said to himself, 'be a good way of scoring off this creature,
so lavishly endowed with every material advantage, to take possession
of his wife's hand under his very eyes? Yes, I will do it, I, for whom
he has shown such contempt.'

Later, the daughter of the Parisian noble who hired Julien as his secretary decides she is in love with him. She eventually does become as passionate about Julien as she believes, but she initially goes after him out of boredom:

Suddenly an idea dawned upon her: 'I have the good fortune to be in
love,' she told herself one day, with an indescribable transport of
joy. 'I am in love, I am in love, it is quite clear! At my age, a
young girl, beautiful, clever, where can she find sensations, if not
in love? I may do what I like, I shall never feel any love for
Croisenois, Caylus, e tutti quanti.  They are perfect, too perfect
perhaps; in short, they bore me.'

She turned over in her mind all the descriptions of passion which she
had read in  Manon Lescaut, the Nouvelle Heloise, the Letters of a
Portuguese Nun, and so forth. There was no question, of course, of
anything but a grand passion; mere fleeting affection was unworthy of
a girl of her age and birth. She bestowed the name of love only upon
that heroic sentiment which was to be found in France in the days of
Henri IV and Bassompierre. That love never basely succumbed to
obstacles; far from it, it caused great deeds to be done. 'What a
misfortune for me that there is not a real Court like that of
Catherine de' Medici or Louis XIII! I feel that I am equal to
everything that is most daring and great. What should I not do with a
King who was a man of feeling, like Louis XII, sighing at my feet! I
should lead him to the Vendee, as Baron de Tolly is always saying, and 
from there he would reconquer his Kingdom; then no more talk of a 
Charter ...  and Julien would aid me. What is it that he lacks? A
name and a fortune. He would make a name for himself, he would acquire 
a fortune.

Usually writers seem to pick one of these to dominate, but in The Red and The Black all this scheming and passion seems hopelessly intertwined and completely inseparable. Are these people ruled by their scheming, or their passions? Perhaps they can’t stop scheming any more than they can prevent themselves from being ruled by their emotions.

Now, I don’t know if this was Stendhal’s intent. Regardless, this is what made the novel fascinating for me. It was substantially more complex than I had been expecting. The story and characters are wonderfully done, but the interplay between these themes entranced me. It easily kept me reading all the way through The Red and The Black.

Love in the Time of Cholera

A couple of weeks ago, I picked Love in The Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to read for this week’s blog entry.  I was unaware that there would be a run on Marquez books being done between Dave and myself.

For those of you following along, Love in the Time of Cholera was listed on the top ten by five authors; Peter Carey, Michael Chabon, G.D. Gearino, Donald Harington and Ronald Wilson.

Now, I had a really nice blog entry planned out, with like multiple text quotations and websites to link to.  However, because I thought it’d be a really nice touch to blog it in a certain way, I have ruined my ability to do the blog entry I dreamt of.  I also lost the ability to actually post it early in the day on Thursday.

Here’s my story.  Last night at 10 p.m. we boarded a bus in Omaha, a Megabus (  We were not excited to be pushed out of the way repeatedly at the baggage check by a high school wrestling team that apparently were looking to save a few dollars by taking over a megabus.  Anyway, megabus offers free wi-fi.  So I figured between the overnight bus trip to Chicago and then the 5 hour bus trip to Ann Arbor MI, I would have plenty of time to write a blog entry, and that I could then say I was writing it from a bus, in the middle of some random midwestern state.  You can see the temptation I’m sure.  Or maybe not, and I’m just odd.  Anyway, on neither bus did the wireless internet work.  Or it might have, at 4 a.m. on the overnight bus when I finally gave up and went to sleep.

You would think, well that’s okay Kim, just blog it when you get to your location.  Well.  I am at my 83 year old grandma’s house, and she has never hopped on the internet, much less invested in even an dial up modem connection.  I have corralled my husband into posting this blog from his blackberry.  So in the interest of his typing it on a phone, I have decided to make this as bare bones as possible.  (Though apparently I have already failed by my 5 paragraph entry so far that doesn’t even really cover the book).

Love in the Time of Cholera is a love story.  It’s a story of a man’s 50 year old devotion to a lover who spurned him and married another.  It’s a story of the lengths people will go to forget those loves.  It’s a story of a love triangle, where two of the parties are unaware they are even in this love triangle.  It’s a story of the physical aspect of love, not just sexual but also how love can cause a physical effect on the body.  Not just the typical heart racing and blushing, but the physical illness that new love awakes in some, unrequited love awakes and rejected love causes physical ailment.

The story is set in Columbia at the turn of the century.  There are separate cholera epidemics, but they take place almost as a backdrop to the remainder of the story, but also as the proponent for two of the three main characters to meet.

Marquez is brilliant.  I have not read any of his other work, but in this alone, I found him amazing.  His use of detail is lush.  His turn of phrasing makes certain feelings and sentiments come to life in a way I have rarely seen another author reach (except Pablo Neruda, but he’s a poet).  Also, so many things he writes about love and people’s reactions to it ring true not just 100 years since the setting of the novel but also in the 35 some years since he wrote the book.  Dave has informed me that Love in the Time of Cholera isn’t his favorite Marquez books, so I am excited to read more of his, as if they just get better from this, I expect a lot from them.

Unfortunately Dave sent me a link last week about Marquez’s brother informing the general public that Marquez will be unable to write any further novels due to encroaching dementia.  It’s sad how a disease as insidious as dementia can take a person’s history and ability away from them so completely.  (I did have the link for the article, but see above for why it’s not here).

I hope you have enjoyed this entry.  Please join us next Thursday for our next book.


“Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel García Márquez

I’m not usually much for murder mysteries. They are cool and all, and I’m sure I’d have fun reading one, but the standard ones just don’t pull me very much. Introduce a murder, find some clues, figure out who did it, and wrap things up. Case closed. However, those who would call Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold a murder mystery (and they validly might) would have to throw all that out the window.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for T.C. Boyle.)

How to begin? Well, the story centers on the murder of Santiago Nasar. Pedro and Pablo Vicario stab Santiago to death for supposedly dishonoring their sister, causing her to be returned to her home by her groom on her wedding night.

Am I giving out spoilers? No, this is all pretty much known right from the beginning, if not from the summary on the back of the book. Consider the opening passage:

            On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit. “He was always dreaming about trees,” Plácida Linero, his mother, told me twenty-seven years later, recalling the details of that distressing Monday. “The week before, he’d dreamed that he was alone in a tinfoil airplane and flying through the almond trees without bumping into anything,” she said to me. She had a well-earned reputation as an accurate interpreter of other people’s dreams, provided they were told to her before eating, but she hadn’t noticed any ominous augury in those two dreams of her son’s, or in the other dreams of trees he’d described to her on the mornings preceding his death.

So, if the reader knows right away who kills Santiago Nasar as well as the how and why, where’s the mystery? Well, the mystery is in how everyone in the town behaves and why they do so.

After all, everyone in the town knows that Santiago is going to be killed. Some do a little to try to stop it, but no one does very much…certainly nothing that actually stops it from happening. Some think he should be (though it is far from clear that he actually slept with the young miss Vicario), some are too afraid to get involved, some don’t think it is going to happen, and some just think it’s fate:

            Victoria Guzmán, for her part, had been categorical with her answer that neither she nor her daughter knew that the men were waiting for Santiago Nasar to kill him. But in the course of her years she admitted that both knew it when he came into the kitchen to have his coffee. They had been told it by a woman who passed by after five o’clock to beg a bit of milk, and who in addition had revealed the motives and the place where they were waiting. “I didn’t warn him because I thought it was drunkards’ talk,” she told me. Nevertheless, Divina Flor confessed to me on a later visit, after her mother had died, that the latter hadn’t said anything to Santiago Nasar because in the depths of her heart she wanted them to kill him. She, on the other hand, didn’t warn him because she was nothing but a frightened child at the time, incapable of a decision of her own[.]

Stranger, Pedro and Pablo Vicario don’t even appear to really want to kill Santiago Nasar, though they go through with it. They keep going where Santiago is not and telling everyone what they are going to do, creating as many chances as possible for someone to stop them. Really, no one does. Eventually, after the mayor takes away their knives and sends them home, the brothers get new knives and go out again.  Pablo tells his brother: “There’s no way out of this…It’s as if it had already happened.”

Thus, there is the mystery of Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Was it fate? Did the people of the town want this murder to happen? Was it a combination of all different kinds of things? Why did everyone know and no one stop it?

Man, hell if I know. You’ll have to read and try to figure it out yourself.

Having finished reading, I have to say that Chronicle of a Death Foretold is one of the strangest works of Márquez I’ve read yet, and that is really saying something. It’s definitely his shortest work I’ve looked at, if not his most perplexing. I really have to hand it to him. I mean, how can you make something so baffling when you provide all the answers? I’ll be thinking about this one for a while. Anyone else who reads Chronicle of a Death Foretold will probably end up thinking about it for a while afterward as well.

Grimms Fairy Tales Continued

I know, technically today is supposed to be Dave’s book, but as I was unable to complete my task of reading the fairy tales last week, I am continuing for this week.

So, last week, I know I promised to tell you the tales that Disney didn’t want you to know, but there were really no other Disney tales left, only Rapunzel was left.  As some of you may know, a few years ago the movie Tangled came out, which was a retelling of the Rapunzel story.  The woman that kept Rapunzel locked up was painted as a  selfish, vain woman who wickedly keeps Rapunzel to herself, lying etc etc.  In the original, Rapunzel’s parents are not kings and queens as in Tangled, but just simple folk.  They live next door to a witch, who grows a garden behind her wall.  The pregnant woman, gazing into the garden, sees rapunzel (a type of plant) and desires and craves it so much and will die without it.  Her husband sneaks in and steals some.  The wife eats it and then craves it again.  When the husband sneaks back in to steal more, the witch catches him.  She agrees to give him the rapunzel but only if she can have the child if it’s a girl.  It is a girl, the witch takes her, and to keep her safe from the world puts her in the tower.  Years pass, and a prince going by hears her singing (Rapunzel not the witch) and figures out how to climb her hair.  They fall in love and he comes in the night since the witch comes during the day.  Here’s where the story has a couple of different versions before Disney changed it more…in one, Rapunzel complains about her dress getting tight and the witch realizes she is pregnant.  In the other, she says something one day about how the prince gets up there so quick and the witch so slow.  The witch then casts her out to wander the world, and cuts her hair.  She lures the prince up and shoves him out the window, where he pokes out his eyes with brambles and is blind.  Then Rapunzel & he find one another and her tears give his sight back and she had twins during the interim.  Cue the happily live ever after.

I think it is interesting how stories do change over the years, as evidenced by the cleaning up of the too tight dress to the remark about climbing speed.  In Grimms, many stories have same elements, some having the same character with similiar events, but still fairly different.  I assume it’s because over the years different regions developed the same story different.  I like to imagine someone moving from one village or town to another, then telling the tale and as the decades pass the tale changes, thereby creating two very different tales.
Three of the major types I found as I read through them were the animal ones, where animals were all the main characters or where the animals are the ones that save the hero or heroine (the human is often kind to an animal and then later given a heroic quest that must be achieved to either win the princess or to keep their life) and the animal returns to assist.  These ones also follow into the next subset, the hero quest stories, which the hero, usually some young guy who doesn’t want to be at home anymore, wanders off, and hearing of a task a king has set for anyone to achieve and marry his daughter, goes and takes the task.  They complete the task, but the king actually doesn’t want said commoner to marry his precious daughter so continues to give tasks.  The clever lad completes all and wins the girl.  There are also the ones where the girl is the clever one.  Another set is the one where one girl or one boy is unselfish and giving and because of that gains untold riches and gifts.   Their sister, friend, brother, father or mother are not unselfish and attempt to obtain the same riches, only to be killed, forced to have frogs fall out of their mouth every word they say or their eyes pecked out (the Germans must have been very afraid of eyes being pecked out).  There was also the religious category where tales sprang up around the apostles, God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  They were often morality tales.

As I was reading through, I often felt like I was listening to someone tell a tale.  Like getting a whiff of old campfire smoke or old fireplace smoke, I seemed to get a whiff of the old times, where there was no tv and these tales were the tv of the night.  Or the tv of the day while people did their work.  That right there made it worth my time to read them all, I felt a sense of history.  However, they are also entertaining.

I read my two favorites from when I was little, that I had forgotten until I read them again.  One is Rose Red and Snow White, in which two beautiful daughters of a simple woman are close as close can be.  There is such a playful humor to the tale that I think that is partly what captivated me as a child.  I still loved it when I reread it.  The other one was Six Swans (which I could find nowhere to link to for it), which shows a youngest sister of 6 brothers sacrificing her voice and her ability to defend herself for six years, until such a time as she was about to be burnt alive and the years ended and she was able to defend herself.  It is a lyrical almost haunting tale to me.  I recommend if you have a copy of them look this one up.

I would definitely recommend to anyone reading this, irregardless of whether they have children or not.  But these also would make a great gift for a young child, girl or boy above the age of 6 (it’s not illustrated so with whatever reading skill they are at).