First published in 1830, The Red and the Black is the bildungsroman of Julien Sorel, an intelligent and ambitious young man from a working class family in a rural area of France. Highly romantic, Julien admires Napoleon Bonaparte and has dreamed of a military career: the "Black" in the title represents the colour of the military uniform. However, a distinguished military career is not something a young man of his class can aspire to and Julien turns his attention to the Church: the uniform of which is represented by the "Red" of the title. In addition to being a psychological portrait of Julien, the novel also satirises French society under the Bourbon Restoration, in particular the upper classes and the Church.
I listened to a French audibook edition of the novel, downloaded at no cost from www.literatureaudio.com. The narrator was competent, although not inspirational. However, listening to the book was still preferable to reading, because it forced me to understand unfamiliar words in context rather than interupt the story to check such words in the dictionary.
I wish that I'd enjoyed the novel more than I actually did. It certainly has its strengths. In particular, the concentration on Julien's psychology gives the novel a more modern feel than any English language novel of the same period with which I am familiar. The political and social context of the novel is also interesting, although my lack of knowledge about that period of French history put me at something of a disadvantage. However, in spite of the novel's strengths, I did not warm to the characters. I don't need to like the characters in a novel in order to like the novel itself. But I do want to feel strongly about them. Julien is intelligent, manipulative, selfish, egotistical and immature. I didn't like him, but I also didn't feel strongly enough about him to dislike him. I probably didn't even understand him as well as I should have, because I struggled to comprehend how two very different women could fall passionately in love with him. I didn't warm to the female characters either: one is naive but should have known better. The other is manipulated into falling in love with Julien by a variation on the "treat them mean and keep them keen" principle. She also should should have known better. I also didn't feel strongly about these characters either. Towards the end of the novel I started caring more about Julien's fate and about Stendhal's views on French society, but still not enough to lift the novel into four or five star territory.
Overall, I'm very glad I listened to the audiobook. Until tackling the novel as a group read for the Readers Review Group, all I knew about Stendhal was that there is a psychosomatic illness named after him. I know more about him now and I expect to read more of his work in the future. However, I don't think that the story of Julien Sorel will make it to my "must re-read" list.