Reading Beauvoir’s The Mandarins reminded me why I fell in love with French literature and what a fine novel can do. This huge 1,000-page chunkster is like an intellectual blockbuster, full of affairs and intrigues both personal and political. It captures the spirit of a lost era, when the world trembled on the brink of a much-feared third war; it bristles with ideas, offers some fine character portraits, and for those who may be interested in such things, is a profoundly autobiographical rewriting of the relationships between Beauvoir, Camus and Sartre. What I loved this novel for essentially is that it is really about something important, and although its particular historical era may have passed, its political concerns still seem vital to me today.
The novel opens at the end of the Occupation in 1944 with a New Year’s Eve party. Paris has been liberated and the mood is one of jubilation and hope. The friends joined together to celebrate have all been involved in the Resistance, and dreadful as the war has been, it has firmed up their sense of the kind of world they need to create in the aftermath. These are intellectuals, writers and thinkers, and they believe that they have the means at their disposal to reach and affect public opinion. It’s time for the rebirth of a nation, and at the outset it seems as if reason will prevail, but the characters have not taken into account how fractured politics will become, how complicated their own personal lives will be, nor how scarred the war will have left them all.
Henri Perron (Camus) is the editor of an important literary journal and a novelist. He is living with Paule, a one-time singer who has invested excessively in the relationship but whom he no longer loves. He is a good man and a creative talent, but emotionally weak and compliant. His best friend, Robert Dubreuil (Sartre) is also a writer and a political animal; in him politics comes first and writing second. He is a figure of some intellectual authority, a leader of men. He is married to Anne (Beauvoir) who is a psychotherapist, and they have a daughter, Nadine, who is an emmerdeuse, or in other words, quite the most irritating character ever created. The narrative will alternate between chapters in which Henri takes centre stage, albeit in the third person, and Ann writing a first-person account of her life. Beauvoir wrote this novel shortly after The Second Sex, and it begins a series of books in which she explores the problems women encounter when their primary role is that of significant other to a man. Anne and Robert’s marriage has been platonic for some time. When she travels to America for a conference, she meets the Chicago-based writer, Lewis Brogan (Nelson Algren in real life) and her story is bound up with this passionate love affair that eventually turns sour because Ann will not uproot and live in America with him. Readers often comment on how wretched Beauvoir’s female characters are, and both Paule and Anne will suffer intolerably for love. This is in the era before anyone ever thought that there might be such things as role models for women, and in any case, Beauvoir wouldn’t have known what they looked like. But she knew what was wrong in heterosexual relations and in a society that made women second-class citizens, and she was never less than stark in her representations of their fate.
So there is a distinct gender political line to this novel, not least in the way the female characters carry the storylines concerning love, and the male characters slug it out in the political arena. In the late 40s, early 50s, the start of the cold war, France felt sandwiched between the superpowers of America and Russia, and politics was in a bitter struggle between Capitalism and Communism. The characters in the novel are determinedly on the left and edging towards Communism, firm in the belief that while there are people starving and helpless across the globe, there must be a socialist doctrine in place to eradicate poverty. Dubreuil has begun a new political party, one that is on the left but which is independent from Communism. The position of this party is fraught and delicate, and Dubreuil leans on Henri Perron to affiliate his popular journal to Dubreuil’s cause. Reluctantly, Henri does so, becoming far more enmeshed in politics than he wants to be. And then, reports start to filter in of the Soviet work camps. Whilst both Dubreuil and Henri are horrified, Henri is determined to speak out against this atrocity, whilst Dubreuil refuses to do the same, believing that it would constitute a body blow against the fragile popularity of Communism in France. The two friends fall out bitterly, and Henri finds himself on the end of a hate campaign. All the while, the left is fracturing around them, the Communists are becoming ever more stringent in their demands of their followers, and violent retribution for collaborators begins in the épuration. The clarity of the war, where one knew friend from foe, is far away.
The underlying structure of the novel is influenced by Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition: that truly to possess something, one must have lost and found it again. The 1,000 pages of The Mandarins chart this arc at the level of personal relationships and political beliefs. But what it’s really about for me is the possibility of intervention in the world, when so much is at stake, so much that needs to be changed, and whether any of us can act in a way that is politically effective. Robert Dubreuil is the force of political change in this novel, and he is a bulldozer, always trying to persuade others to think the way he does, quick to find political justifications for his own moods and desires. For him, the ends justify the means mostly, and his astute political brain makes him look honest and transparent when he is often not clearly in the right. Henri, after his damaging engagement with politics wants to back out of it all, having lost faith in the possibility of change. But Dubreuil argues with him, insisting that in politics, all personal feelings have to be set aside. By the end, Dubreuil believes that idealism is at the basis of most political failures, and that one must take reality as it is, recognising that most choices are poor ones, and most intervention a messy, uncertain business. But this is preferable to doing nothing at all.
How to engage politically, how to drum up and keep support for causes, and the place of intelligence in political activity seem to me to be issues as vexed and problematic as they were fifty-odd years ago when this novel was written. Les Mandarins makes one case consistently – that the egocentrism of individualism, of protecting ourselves first and foremost from difficult, awkward tasks, is wrong and selfish, and that we should have our community interests at the forefronts of our hearts and minds. It felt refreshing to read that, even if both the novel, and the actual path of history after its publication, faltered over the possibility of keeping that belief in place.