Stendhal is exhausting and bracing because his energy is relentless and directed relentlessly to one end: the refusal of “style.” It is sometimes said that was painfully aware that he was incapable of style; I think it likely he realized it to be an achievement.
To say Stendhal has no style might seem to echo Arnold’s remark about Wordsworth. It is vastly different in meaning. To have “style” in French literature has no equivalent in English. Whereas Milton dominates later poets, his presence is idiosyncratic and individual. French literature, and realism, is dominated by the memory of the society of authors under Louis XIV. For these authors, Saint-Simon, Madame de Sevigne, La Bruyere, La Rochefoucauld, La Fontaine, Moliere, Racine, and Pascal, style was an achievement central to their identity, not as writers but as moralists: intense observers of customs (mores), behaviors, motives, and the mysteries of the heart. Language was a tool for making distinctions that only the trained eye could register and express, and for acknowledging the distinction that language could honor and also win.
Andre Gide, asked to rank the ten greatest French novels, remarked that France was not properly a nation of novelists, but instead of moralists. Truer perhaps to say that many of its novelists aspired to the stature of moralists. Realism in France is not representation of routine so much as observation of what men and women do and a scrutiny of why they do it; the observation is active. (Hence the earliest ‘great’ French novel, Madame de La Lafayette’s Princesse de Cleves).
Stendhal accepts the intensity of observation, but rejects the style that must accompany it. His reaction is extreme, but it serves to affirm the ethos of the moralists of Louis XIV even by seeming to deny their legacy. Refusing style, affirming observation, the scenes in The Red and the Black are not constructed as scenes; they are made to feel like gossip, reports in a letter, the memoirs of Saint-Simon, granular, abrupt, with plot constructed as a byproduct of seeing the characters interact, with wondering at their hypocrisies, their duplicities, their naïve self-dramatizations and self-reflections.
The plot of The Red and the Black draws Sorel towards the reactionary politics and reactionary conservatism of post-Napoleonic Paris; there the tension is greatest between divergent receptions of the first century of Bourbon France. On the one hand, there is the earnest, cultish, and mystifying sentimentality of the de la Mole household; against it, there is Stendhal, observing Julien, as well as others, and preserving the essence of its moralism, and claiming even to improve on it. Detached from the burden of “style,” Stendhal’s narrator can devote itself to perspicuity, to rapidity, and to allegiance only to a scene it witnesses, rather than the care for applause, demurral; in the age of public opinion, what good what those be? And so Stendhal, ironically, is liberated from the constraints of the salon, brought nearer to its end, by a public for whom not only style, but the strength of observation it was once intended to cultivate (but which it no longer can, does, or need to), matters little if it is not profitable and useful.