Culture Magazine


By Jaac
One of the few benefits of reading a free download copy of Stendhal's The Red and the Black on my Ipod Touch -- in fact there are several benefits, including the saving of space on my bookshelves or in my bag and the way, via the white on black view in Stanza, I can read in bed at night without an external light or being dazzled by the screen, all of which are outweighed by not having a book to flick through in any natural way or to represent, idolatrously, the much loved book that I would always want within reach of this desk -- one of these several benefits is that I am able to do a word search through the entire document (I cannot write book), and so, after I had finished it, when I wanted to find once more that famous passage about a novel being 'a mirror carried along a high road' that is so often used to justify a simplistically realist approach to writing, I searched for mirror. Predictably, perhaps, I found more than I'd noticed in the first reading.
The first reference to a mirror in The Red and the Black occurs in Part 1, Chapter 18, in the scene where the protagonist, Julien Sorel, in great irritation at being rebuffed, goes in search of the young Bishop of Agde on behalf of the abbe Chelan, and finds him in 'an immense gothic chamber', before 'a portable mirror framed in mahogany', 'gravely giving benedictions' in practice for the arrival of the king.  When Julien approaches, the 'costliness of his lace-bordered surplice brought Julian to a standstill some distance away from the magnificent mirror.' Once Julien realises that this young man in the lace-bordered surplice is the Bishop of Agde, his dreams of 'Napoleon and martial glory' are supplanted by speculations on the wealth of the Agde bishop's living. Then, just before the king arrives:
Outside the door were gathered on their knees four and twenty girls, belonging to the most distinguished families of Verrieres. Before opening the door, the Bishop sank on his knees in the midst of these girls, who were all pretty. While he was praying aloud, it seemed as though they could not sufficiently admire his fine lace, his charm, his young and pleasant face. This spectacle made our hero lose all that remained of his reason. At that moment, he would have fought for the Inquisition, and in earnest.

A moment that recalls, in advance, the transports of Madame Bovary.
The second reference to a mirror occurs in a dialogue that Julien overhears in Part 2, Chapter 1, where a middle aged man, disillusioned by the political complications of living in the countryside, is returning to Paris. 'The history of England,' he says to his companion, 'serves as a mirror to show me our future'  -- a metaphor not so different to the one in the famous passage that I was looking for.
The third reference to a mirror is in the chapter that follows. Here a pair of mirrors combine with the general opulence of the the household of M. de La Mole to intimidate Julien:

He would have enjoyed perfect self-possession, had the dining-room been furnished with less magnificence. It was, as a matter of fact, a pair of mirrors, each of them eight feet high, in which he caught sight now and then of his challenger as he spoke of Horace, that still continued to overawe him.

Then, in chapter 19 of Part 2, in an extended parenthesis on the amorous deliberations of young Mathilde de La Mole, which begins with, 'This page will damage the author in more ways than one', comes the section I was looking for:
Ah, Sir, a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shows the mire, and you blame the mirror!
A similar reference occurs later on, in chapter 22, in another extended, tongue-in-cheek parenthesis:
'If your characters do not talk politics,' the publisher retorts, ' they are no longer Frenchmen of 1830, and your book ceases to hold a mirror, as you claim...'
The last mirror is in the following chapter, in which a minister of government frequently studies Julien's face where he sits in a clandestine royalist meeting -- for whose cause he is about to risk his life even though he detests everything that it represents.
The mirror as an apparently expedient investigative tool, but embedded in ironic parentheses; the mirror as an image of dazzlement.
This brought me to rereading the section 'Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet' in W. G. Sebald's Vertigo (book, not ebook this time). It was impossible not to notice the mirrors: first the mirror in which the young Beyle (Stendhal):
now observed the figure he cut in his mirror. He felt transformed... once fully apparelled in the uniform of a dragoon, this seventeen-and-a-half-year-old went around for days on end with an erection, before he finally dared disburden himself of the virginity he had brought with him from Paris. Afterwards, he could no longer recall the name or face of the donna cattiva who had assisted him in this task. The overpowering sensation, he wrote, blotted out the memory entirely. So thoroughly did Beyle serve his apprenticeship in the weeks that followed that in retrospect his entry into the world became a blur of the city's brothels, and before the year was out he was suffering the pains of venereal infection...
And so, the second mirror:
Late autumn, however, had brought dejection with it. Garrison duties increasingly oppressed him, Angela seemed to have little time for him, his disease recurred, and over and over again, with the aid of a mirror, he examined the inflammations and ulcers in his mouth and at the back of his throat and the blotches on his inner thigh.
Sebald's last reference to a mirror in this section on Beyle occurs on the very next page, after he is greatly disappointed by seeing Il Matrimonto Segreto for the second time since 'although the theatrical setting was perfect and the actress playing Caroline a great beauty' unlike the Caroline with the missing tooth and squint in the first production, 'he was unable to imagine himself among the protagonists as he had in Ivrea.'
In his dejection:
He was one of the last to quite the cloakroom, and in leaving he gave a parting glance at his reflection in the mirror and, thus confronting himself, posed for the first time the question that was to occupy him over the ensuing decades: what is it that undoes a writer?

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