The Pink and the Green by Stendhal

I came across The Pink and The Green, an unfinished novel by Stendhal. I’d never heard of it before–and the title, of course, echoes The Red and the Black. I was a bit hesitant to read an unfinished novel. Would I be left hanging? Was it unfinished for a reason? And of course there’s that bigger question looming in the background … should unfinished novels be published? Since I decided to read more Stendhal last year, I’ll answer a big yes to my last question. My copy of The Pink and the Green, a New Directions book and translated by Richard Howard contains the unfinished novel of the title and a complete short story Mina de Vanghel. Both are clearly connected and offer different versions of the same young woman. When I started reading this book, I thought that I’d probably prefer the short story simply because it was finished, but no, I much preferred the unfinished novel. No idea why Stendhal abandoned it, and it is a pity that this novel was not completed.

the pink and the greenMina Wanghen is the heroine of The Pink and The Green. A resident of Königsberg, and the only daughter of Pierre Wanghen, the city’s “richest banker,” Mina, as the sole heiress, is a highly desirable catch. We first meet her at a ball in the year 183_. It’s three in the morning, and Mina has no shortage of dance partners. In spite of this, she chooses to sit out some of the dances in order to listen to the stories of 45-year-old Major-General Count von Landek, recently returned from Paris:

The general was describing the magnificent fountain of Saint-Cloud as it soars skyward, those charming wooded hills of the Seine valley only an hour from the Opéra Comique. Can we say that it was this last image which caused Mina to forget everything else? In Prussia there are indeed great forests, very lovely and very picturesque, but one league from such forests there is only barbarism, poverty, and a vigilance indispensable if one is to avoid destruction. All things wretched, coarse, inconsolable–and which produce a love of gilded salons.

The general, who still smarts from the humiliations suffered by the Prussian army at the hands of the French, begins “abusing French society,” and he lists a few examples of the failings of “this frivolous people.” Mina, who is “intoxicated with France,” cannot stop listening to the general’s stories–although, of course, she believes that French society is greatly superior to that of Königsberg.

A few weeks after the ball, Mina’s father dies unexpectedly. Left with seven and a half million francs, Mina in the company of her still-young mother, is besieged by young men, and the two women are hounded by suitor’s for Mina’s hand. The Wanghen mansion is situated at the “northern end of the Friedrichstrasse,” and it’s a tradition for the young women to sit at the windows of their homes in the afternoons while they do needlework. From this vantage point, the young women can observe the males outside as they strut around on horseback, looking their best in their finest clothing. “Little romances” are created and are fed in this established courtship ritual, but Mina takes her needlework and flees to another room in the mansion as she is so tired of the men parading past her window. The poor girl can’t go outside without being waylaid by would-be suitors who even bribe the servants in order to get information about Mina’s schedule. The pressure is on….

In an aside in which Stendhal tells us that we may be “shocked,” we are told that in Prussia, the girls expect to marry for love:

Yes there are countries where on has the misfortune of not behaving precisely as we do in France.

There’s a lot to find amusing in The Pink and the Green. Mina, fed up with being pursued by the fortune hunters of Prussia, decides to move to Paris–after all, in her idealized view of all things French, she thinks that her life will be significantly improved, but the reality is far different.  Mina imagines that she’ll have peace from the Prussian fortune hunters–a rather naïve thought given her great wealth–all those novels have fed her imagination. For one thing, in Paris there’s a fresh set of French fortune hunters sniffing around, and then Mina’s idea of French society doesn’t match reality. Here’s Stendhal on the subject of Prussian vs. French marriages:

One terrible consequence of this honest freedom is that very often a rich young man will marry a poor girl on the absurd pretext that she is lovely and that he is madly in love with her, which casts a notable shadow on the respectable class of sullen young ladies possessing neither wit nor beauty. Whereas in France the basis of our unwritten legislation relative to marriage is to protect all rich and ugly young women.

And here’s poor Mina after a disappointing evening of French society:

“The coarseness of these people,” Mina sighed. “Have I been deceived?” she went on, her voice slow and pensive.
“Are these the amiable French? Does the agreeable society I have dreamed of exist on this earth?”

What a shame that Stendhal didn’t finish this novel. The introduction states that “Stendhal had no patience whatever, and his time seemed in short supply. He had waited too long before beginning fiction.” The novel may not have a conclusion but Stendhal left “several plans which suggest a possible ending.” These notes are included.

The short story Mina de Vanghel starts off in a similar fashion as The Pink and The Green. It’s still Königsberg–although there’s a different take on Mina’s father. Now instead of being a rich banker, he’s a disillusioned Prussian general “closely observed” by the Berlin police. After his death, Mina retreats to Paris–partially because she sees Prussia as “ungrateful” for her father’s service and partly due to the police surveillance. Of course, she too has an idealized view of French life thanks to novels. Part of this story just didn’t gel for me as something that Mina de Vanghel does seems out of character.

When reading The Pink and the Green, I was reminded of Turgenev’s The Nest of the Gentry and the main character, Lavretsky who is dragged off to Paris but feels out-of-place in the superficiality of its salons. Here’s Turgenev on Lavretsky’s wife, Varvara Pavlovna unleashed in Paris:

In Paris, Varvara Pavlovna bloomed like a rose and succeeded, just as swiftly and skillfully as she had done in St. Petersburg, in making a little nest for herself. She found an exceptionally pretty apartment in one of the quiet but fashionable streets of Paris, ran up a nightshirt for her husband the like of which he had never seen before; she engaged a chic maid, a superb cook and a nimble footman, and obtained an exquisite little carriage and a delightful piano. A week had not gone by before she was making her way across the street wearing a shawl, opening an umbrella or pulling on gloves no less expertly than the most pure-blooded native of Paris. And she had quickly acquired a circle of acquaintances. At first only Russians came to visit, but later came Frenchmen, extremely charming and courteous bachelors, with beautiful manners and euphonious names; all of them talked very fast and a great deal, bowed with easy familiarity and very pleasantly puckered their eyes; white teeth flashed behind their rosy lips.

That slightly predatory image comes right before Lavretsky discovers that his wife, who’s gone native, has sealed the deal by getting a young French lover.

So there are two examples of the foreigner in Paris; French Stendhal writing about a Francophile Prussian heiress fleeing from Prussian fortune hunters in Paris, and Russian Turgenev (who lived outside of Russia every chance he got) writing about poor cuckolded out-of-place Lavretsky–a native of a country whose nobility admires all thing French.  Finally, Stendhal’s most famous novel is The Red and the Black, published in 1830. Stendhal worked on The Pink and the Green in 1837 before abandoning it. Were they intended to be companion novels?  I know what The Red and the Black means, but as for The Pink and the Green…. The only meaning I can guess is love and youth. If anyone knows a different meaning, I’d like to know.



Filed under Fiction, Stendhal

16 responses to “The Pink and the Green by Stendhal

  1. I almost hated Le rouge et le noir and it has put me off Stendhal. This sounds different, more playful but I don’t like the title and think he would have changed it. As to the meaning, I have no idea and have forgotten what le rouge et le noir meant as well. One day I will read La Chartreuse de parme, I only hope it’s not as stuffy.

  2. I too am really hesitant to read unfinished works for many reasons. I think that a novel without a conclusion would frustrate me on multiple levels.

    As you mention, too bad that this was not finished.

  3. Do you see comparisons with The Red and The Black? It’s one of those “keep meaning to get to” novels for me — I’ll admit the idea of adding The Pink and the Green as an informal “part two” has appeal. And given that I have just finished Madame Solario (at your recommendation) you won’t be surprised that I found comparisons from both the unfinished novel and the short story to that work, even if it was written more than a century later than these two.
    As for unfinished novels, some are good and some not so good. Camus’ The First Man has always been my standard on the positive side — it is almost as impressive as his better completed works.

  4. For this reader, and that means it’s my opinion, I see The Pink and the Green as a companion novel to The Red and the Black (which represents the army and the church) because it’s about the journey of a young woman in society (as opposed to a young man’s journey in The Red and The Black). The Red and the Black is obviously a more polished, complex novel about an impoverished young man educated above his station. Education is an issue in the Pink and The Green too as the very wealthy Mina is on one hand too serious for most silly young men and finds society superficial, but then again she has read too many novels about Paris. I liked the humour and the irony of the Pink and the Green. In the afterword, BTW, there’s speculation about what the pink and the green mean but there doesn’t seem to be a clear idea and I like my version better.

  5. Fascinating – I’ve never heard of it, but will certainly track this down.

    Another great book about a foreigner falling prey to Paris’ seductions (almost a genre in itself) is The City and the Mountains, by Portuguese writer José Maria Eça de Queiroz.

  6. “The general was describing the magnificent fountain of Saint-Cloud as it soars skyward, those charming wooded hills of the Seine valley only an hour from the Opéra Comique.” I used to live near those gardens. They’re still wonderful. Saint-Cloud is were Napoleon became emperor. This might explain the general’s enthusiasm.

    I’m not a great fan of unfinished books, it’s frustrating. (It was with the Lermontov I read)

    The idea of using a foreign character to criticise France makes me think of Lettres Persanes by Montesquieu.

    I have no idea of what Pink and Green refer to. I’ve checked it on French sites and one suggests that Pink are for German women in opposition to Green for Italian women (green being the colour of Italy) It seems a bit stretched out to me.
    As the character is a woman, I wonder if it is related to clothes, pink being for a category of women (like young girls) and green for another category.
    This is going to stay in my mind for a while. I’d love to know.
    Anyway, just to say that nothing obvious comes to my mind, linked with mores, history or whatever.

    • The afterword speculates that Green is for jealousy, but I’ll still stick with Pink for love and Green for youth. That’s just the way it strikes me. I found it rather funny that Stendhal uses Prussians as a way of knocking Paris–especially since Mina started off worshipping the place until she moved there.

  7. Count me in among those who tend to avoid unfinished books. Which is a shame, as this sounds promising.

    On a slightly separate note, I loved the Turgenev quote (I loved the Stendhal quotes too, but the Turgenev is finished…).

  8. I admire your commitment – to start a book knowing it won’t finish properly . . . but I did this with Zweig’s Post Office Girl and probably others too. Heinemann’s new edition of A Farewell to Arms goes the other way and publishes 39 alternative endings which is perhaps going a little too far!

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