• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

Al Gore has announced to the whole wide world that his favorite novel
is Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” On page four of this 567-page
book, in the deeply significant concluding words of the first chapter,
appears the following declaration, published during the presidency of
Andrew Jackson: “The tyranny of public opinion is as stupid in the
small towns of France as in the United States of America.” Nor is there
anything in the novel that softens in any way this rather severe
judgment.

And the fact is that Stendhal was no friend of popular democracy,
which, one thinks, Mr. Gore might have noticed. Considered one of the
greatest novels in French literature, “The Red and the Black” is the
story of Julien Sorel, a wildly ambitious young Frenchman in the
provinces, who, ruthless and determined to rise to the top, has an
affair with his employer’s wife, then with a nobleman’s daughter. When
he is denounced by his first mistress, Sorel, enraged, attempts to shoot
her, for which he is publicly guillotined. After the execution, the
nobleman’s daughter, who still loves him passionately, carries away his
bloody head. It is, by the way, the only great French novel that ends
with the heroine making off with the guillotined head of her lover.
(Some years later, Alexandre Dumas made use of the same detail in “La
Reine Margot.”)

“The Red and the Black,” which evokes France in the period
immediately post-Napoleon, caused a sensation when it was published in
Paris and changed the course of the European novel. Positively
strangling in high passion, sex and violence, it is credited with
bringing French literature into the modern world.

Being carried away by “The Red and the Black” while in college is one
thing, of course. But of what could an adult Albert Gore have been
thinking when he told Oprah Winfrey on national television that this was
his favorite novel? What in the book attracted him? Sorel’s ambition?
His lack of scruple? His passion? The book’s consistent, deep-seated
contempt for democracy? In all honesty, Sorel seems to be a fairly
accurate picture of an early 19th century version of Al Gore. Julien
Sorel, dashing, fearless, deceitful, hypocritical, ready to sacrifice
everything and anyone for his ambition, could well have been a character
an adolescent Gore sincerely admired.

In France, shortly before the time of “Le Rouge et le Noir,” all the
essential elements of the novel’s plot were displayed in a public trial:
adultery, ambition, love of luxury. Although the novel was condemned by
the Church as a thoroughly immoral work, the courthouse where the
real-life Julien Sorel was tried and sentenced to death was packed
before dawn during the trial — and packed with women who palpitated at
the passions the novel would evoke.

My impression is that Gore either never read a word of “The Red and
the Black,” or that he read it in boyhood as an adventure tale and
remembers mainly its reputation as a “great novel.” In fact, I think
Gore’s whole “Red and the Black” statement was another electoral
flimflam, born of an ignorant desire to attach himself to high culture.
My own view, incidentally, is that the United States should absolutely
not have a Julian Sorel as president. With his predecessor, Mr.
Clinton, having failed so emphatically on moral grounds, I don’t think
we can afford another president of this moral type. (Although — for
the truth must be told — “The Red and the Black” was also one of the
favorite books of President John Kennedy.)

In Julien Sorel’s time, even in America men who disgraced the
conventional ethical code of their country were challenged to duels –
and not only Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson. The revival of
dueling during the Napoleonic period was entirely due to the influence
of France. But the reason Julien Sorel was not called upon to fight any
duels (a point Americans often miss) was because he wasn’t a nobleman.
In his period, a gentleman didn’t duel with his social inferiors. As
the non-noble Voltaire, who was beaten by a nobleman’s servants, could
bear witness.

In truth, Stendhal himself had no fear of military matters and was a
serving officer in Napoleon’s Grande Armee that invaded Russia (a boast
few literary men of his time could make). But, as author Stendhal
mentioned in his journal, a duel wouldn’t have felt “right” for Sorel.
The brash provincial should die because of some hyper-romantic affair
with the opposite sex. He would nonetheless have to die. What kind of
example would Sorel be to French readers if Stendhal allowed a lying,
unscrupulous rascal like him live?

I have no idea if Bill Clinton has ever read “The Red and the
Black.” But if he’s read it, and understood its intent, I’ll bet it
wasn’t exactly an enjoyable experience for him as the novel doesn’t
treat very favorably men of his characterological stripe. Moreover, if
Al Gore were honest with himself, it’s hard to see why he wouldn’t find
it most unwise to place the welfare of a country in the dangerously
romantic hands of a Julien Sorel.

If it’s of any interest, a family legend holds that a direct ancestor
of mine fought as an officer of Napoleon. My name is there, in any
case, with Napoleon’s other officers. I stare at it in disbelief but,
there it is, engraved on the Arch of Triumph in Paris.

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.