Friday, November 06, 2009

The Mandarins

I was about 200 pages into this 700 page novel by Simone de Beauvoir, when I paused and considered: was I going to finish it or not? It was the choice of my reading group. But was I prepared to devote that much time to it? I decided to push on. I'm glad I did. Though it isn't in my view a great novel, it has an interest all its own. It's the kind of great big baggy novel that would never get published now: pages and pages of unrealistic dialogue about politics and philosophy, clunky exposition, far too many characters who aren't sufficiently distinguished from each other, most of them with names beginning with L or S. But as a portrait of post-war French intelligensia I imagine it is unsurpassed. I wish I had read in my twenties when I read Sartre's novels.
It is told from the alternating views of Henri Perron, novelist and journalist (third person), and Anne Dubreuilh, psychiatrist (first person) and we explore through them the dilemmas of politically aware intellectuals in a fractured society still reeling from the trauma of occupation: how those who collaborated should be dealt with; how far to compromise one's ideals for the sake of political expediency; how to find meaning in what for de Beauvoir was a post-Christian world.
There is a strong autobiographical element: too strong, I feel, in the account of Anne's affair with an American novelist, Lewis Brogan, a thinly disguised portrait of de Beauvoir's actual lover, Nelson Algren, to whom the book is dedicated. He objected - and no wonder. It reads very much as if it was a straight transcription of what had really happened, and I kept thinking: enough, I don't need to know this. The question of how far the writer is justified in pillaging the lives of the people around them is one that's often debated. Faulkner thought that 'the writer's only responsibility is to his art . . . if a writer has to rob his mother he will not hesitate; the 'Ode on a Grecian urn' is worth any number of old ladies.' I think this is bunk. Writers are human beings and moral agents before they are writers. Lionel Shriver wrote recently about the havoc caused in her family by a novel which they regarded as being too autobiographical. Some prices are too high to pay.

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