Scarlet letters

Al Gore's favorite novel, Stendhal's classic "The Red and the Black," is just the kind of art his wife and running mate want to squelch.

Published September 14, 2000 8:31AM (EDT)

Al Gore's recent announcement on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that his favorite novel is Stendhal's 1830 classic "The Red and the Black" comes as a gratifying vindication for aficionados of high literature and for amoral sociopaths everywhere. The former, after all, have had little cause to find the present campaign of interest: Although George W. Bush's spoken English continues to improve at an impressive rate, so far his literary ambitions seem limited to stylistic tours de force that rarely exceed two syllables -- "rats," say, or "asshole." And yet if Gore's enthusiasm for one of the great classics of Western lit seems of a piece with his and his wife's much-touted cultural high-mindedness, a quick look at the book -- a sex- and violence-filled potboiler about an affectless social climber who schemes and sleeps his way to the top of Parisian society -- suggests that it would never pass the presidential candidate's "not till after prime time" criterion for clean art.

"The Red and the Black" follows the career of one Julien Sorel, a French peasant boy who has a sharp mind, a cute face and a talent for worming his way into the affections of powerful men and into the boudoirs of their voluptuous female relatives. In the novel's first part, Julien manages to get away from his crude woodcutter father and insinuate his way into the affections of the local bigwig, M. de Rjnal, whose children he has been hired to tutor; for Julien, it's a big opportunity to bury his low past, and he seizes it with an alacrity that is, typically, unalloyed with warm and/or fuzzy emotions. ("The children adored him, but he didn't like them at all; his mind was elsewhere.")

It goes without saying that the voluptuous and rather naive Mme. de Rjnal soon falls for the pretty young peasant, who plots his passive-aggressive seduction with the sang-froid of his idol, Napoleon, on the eve of a battle. After a good deal of furtive hand squeezing and sudden high fevers, Julien is soon happily cuckolding his benefactor, occasionally with the help of tall ladders. The first part of the book ends soon after M. de Rjnal discovers his ill fortune: Wearing little more than his gottkes, Julien flees the household as bullets whiz past him.

In the second half of the book, there's more betrayal and erotic shenanigans. After a brief stint in a monastery, where he buzzes away with his dour companions in Latin, Julien gets the early-19th century equivalent of the ultimate temping job -- as the secretary of the immensely rich Marquis de la Mole. M. de la Mole is one of the most charming characters in the 19th century French novel: an intelligent, indulgent, shrewd, fond old man whom Al Gore's hero betrays and destroys. For Julien soon proves irresistible to the marquis' beautiful teenage daughter, Mathilde, a moody, romantic girl who makes the Winona Ryder character in "Beetlejuice" look like Mary Poppins. Among other things, Mathilde fetishizes the legend of an ancestor of hers who was the lover of Marguerite de Navarre: After the ancestor was decapitated, Marguerite carried around the severed head, kissing it. (Later events in the novel suggest the extent to which Marguerite is not a good, um, role model for impressionable teenagers such as Mathilde.)

Naturally, Julien soon finds himself between Mathilde's sheets, to say nothing of other of her possessions, and she gets pregnant. To his credit, her papa allows them to marry, finagling a noble name for his soon-to-be son-in-law. But at the very moment that things are looking good for the erstwhile peasant, disaster strikes: Mme. de Rjnal (remember her?) gets religion, and denounces Julien to the marquis on the eve of Julien's marriage to Mathilde. This proves to be the dernier straw for the old man, who forbids the marriage. Julien does the only logical thing -- which is to zoom off to find Mme. de Rjnal and shoot her in church. Although the wounds prove not to be fatal, Julien is tried, imprisoned and sentenced to death by guillotine. You can imagine what happens next. (See above under "Marguerite de Navarre.")

Adultery, betrayal, necrophilia, illegitimacy, attempted murder, hypocrisy, moral vacuity, social climbing -- who wouldn't love this book? As a book critic, I'm delighted to find a candidate who can read complex and juicy classics; as a Stendhal enthusiast, I'm thrilled that Gore loves "The Red and the Black"; as an American voter, I'm relieved to find a candidate who can wrestle polysyllables to the ground. The only thing about Gore's enthusiasm for Stendhal that worries me is how he's going to explain it all to his wife.

By Daniel Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn, the author of a memoir, "The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity," is the book critic for New York magazine.

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