Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Paris, 1944: How Shall We Live?

The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir

The dead are dead; for them there are no more problems. But after this night of festivity, we, the living, will awaken again. And then how shall we live?

                                                                           Simone de Beauvoir

When I was young my mother moved her study to the empty milk house on the old farm where we lived on a bluff above the Susquehanna. She had moved her books and papers and electric typewriter there in order to finish her dissertation, a task that had proven too much for her in a house with six kids. Always close to my mother, I used to visit her there while she worked, sitting quietly in the canvas chair beside her and studying the books on the shelves, the pictures on the walls. I remember there were prints by Ben Shahn (one of which I have above my desk right now) and the large, now-iconic image of the young Black Panther, Huey Newton, in a basket-backed chair armed with spear and rifle, the poster given her as a gift from her late friend and admirer (and the subject of her dissertation), the radical historian, militant, and suicide, Robert Starobin. I remember the pictures and I remember the books, can recall trying in vain to decipher their content from their titles alone. There was The Feminine Mystique, Fear of Flying, The Wretched of the Earth, Women, Race & Class, and by the door a thick paperback  copy of The Second Sex, a book I wouldn’t read for many years to come.

Even then, The Second Sex was not my first exposure to Simone de Beauvoir.  The first thing I read of hers was her short and sterling work, An Easy Death, a brave, nearly day-by-day accounting of her mother’s death. While I knew that de Beauvoir had written fiction as well I’d simply never read any, that is, until recently, when I picked up a copy of her prize-winning, semi-autobiographical  novel, The Mandarins.   

Opening in Paris in 1944, at the end of the Nazi Occupation, the novel follows a group of intellectuals--writers, philosophers, newspapermen, and activists--as they struggle to salvage the future from the ashes and rubble of war. Based in part on de Beauvoir’s own experience of that period in Paris in the restless company of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, and her one-time lover, Nelson Algren (to whom she dedicates the novel), the story is more than merely anecdotal, more than a just paean to these brilliant, headstrong men. After all the author calls them mandarins (no doubt including herself), after the ancient Chinese order of bureaucrats, meaning also “esoteric” and “consciously superior”, if not pretentious, pedantic, effete. As much as the author clearly admired these men, as much as we all admire them today, she doesn’t pull any punches in telling this tale. For if these men, her characters, are brave, even visionary, they are also arrogant, chauvinistic, and vain.

The particular brilliance of this novel stems from the fact that we, the readers, are never locked too long inside the minds of these men, smart, prophetic as they are, but asked to see the story, first and foremost, through the eyes of a seemingly lesser player in the drama of Paris at the time, the psychiatrist, Anne Debreuilh, who serves as the novel’s governing intelligence and emotional keel. It is to her perspective, and to her own trials and tribulations--her relationship with her husband, an imperious Communist party leader; her work with her war-traumatized patients; and her affair with an American writer--that the reader is most closely, most poignantly wed. 

Yet what the author achieves with this novel, finally, is much more than that. Thanks to de Beauvoir’s extraordinary skill as a writer, to her exceptionally fine ear for dialogue, the reader is transported to Paris itself, in 1944, to sit amidst the crowded tables with these men and women and eavesdrop upon their heady, ever-provocative conversations about politics and war, about loyalty, women, and love. It is a rich, rewarding book that makes one wonder, some days, where such urgency and passion have gone.

Here, for those interested, is an engaging, if lengthy interview with Simone de Beauvoir from 1959:

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a highly influential French writer, feminist, activist, and intellectual who wrote novels, essays, biographies, as well as books on politics, philosophy, and social theory.  As a young woman, she was intellectually precocious, passing her baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy in 1925, only to continue her studies at the Sorbonne where she wrote her thesis on Leibniz. There she worked with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Claude Lévi-Strauss.  It was while studying for the agrégation in philosophy that she met École Normal student, Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she formed a tumultuous, if enduring relationship. In 1954 The Mandarins was awarded the Prix Goncourt, the highest literary award in France. 

Peter Adam Nash

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