Monday, August 1, 2022

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books. 

“THE WAR ON THE WEST” by Douglas Murray (Harper-Collins, $NZ 39:99)

Douglas Murray's The War on the West is a polemic. That means it is a book that argues a case. Such books are always contentious and can stir up feelings in readers of either great approval or great annoyance. My purpose here is simply to present the core of Murray's case, witholding any particular judgement until the end of this review.

Douglas Murray, often columnist for the English Spectator and frequently seen in podcasts and TV interviews, is damned by his opponents for being “right-wing”. As used by such opponents, “right-wing” means extremist; but it is a very foolish usage. After all, both left- and right-wings have their extremists – Communists and anarchists here; Fascists and racists there. Murray doesn’t fit into these categories so we’ll let the intended slur pass.

In his latest book The War on the West, Murray is not talking about a literal war, but about an all-out assault on the Western (European) cultural heritage – and much of this assault is going on in the West itself. As he sees it, the West is now uniquely damned for its sins while the equally (or sometimes even worse) sins of the rest of the world are ignored. He says “Some unfair ledger has been created. A ledger in which the West is treated by one set of standards and the rest of the world by another. A ledger in which it seems that the West can do no right and the rest of the world can do no wrong. Or do wrong only because we in the West made them do it.” (p.6) In his Introduction he speaks of the suppression of the Western literary canon in many universities, the denigration of the Western tradition and the  - demonstrably untrue – notion the universal human rights first developed somewhere else.

Dealing first (Chapter 1) with race, he notices that in recent years the ideal of racial equality had been undermined by a new rhetoric of race and a demonisation of white people. Hence the emergence of so-called Critical Race Theory and the increasing assertion that “lived experience” is more important than hard evidence – in other words, how one “feels” becomes more important than objective fact. Such an outlook blocks incremental change and even denies that changes for the better have happened. Among other things, Murray shows that after the George Floyd case and the subsequent “Black Lives Matter” movement, repeated surveys showed that Americans vastly over-estimated the extent of police brutality against African-Americans – but their feelings were aroused by the protests and they by-passed statistical evidence. Murray also gives convincing evidence of companies, agencies and (of course and especially) universities having given up all ideas of racial equality and equal rights, and bowing to the new pathologizing of the very fact of being white. What we are seeing here is not a fair balancing of society, but a long programme of revenge.

In an interlude, Murray pauses to note that China has an appalling record with regard to human rights – the genocide committed by Mao was on a far vaster scale even than the historical Anglo and Hispanic suppression of indigenous American tribes; the wholesale suppression of dissent and suppression of ethnic minorities (Tibetans, Uighur Muslims etc.) is ongoing. Yet the Chinese Communist Party is only too delighted to feed off the self-accusations of the West. The American acknowledgement that in past centuries it practised slavery can be used by the CCP to denigrate the USA while ignoring its own great (current and not historical) crimes.

When it comes to history, and the “1619 Project” which preaches that the United States was founded on slavery, Murray argues that the project was written by a journalist, not an historian, the account she produced was largely unhistorical and was easily debunked by real historians. When her many errors of fact were pointed out, the New York Times, which sponsored the programme, surreptitiously removed some of the more egregiously inaccurate things they had originally published, but did not withdraw the project. Murray goes on to note that while Western (American and European) civilisation is strongly criticised, there is very little evidence that its strongest critics want to revert to a non-Western way of life. He notes that one of the earliest and most influential anti-colonial critics, Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), a West Indian psychiatrist, had no interest in reverting to tribal and traditional African customs, but proposed bettering the world via Marxist revolution – in other words, taking the lead from a European philosopher. Edward Said was one of the first to condemn “Orientalism”, generalised Western visitors and scholars as seeing things only through a “western lens” (as if they could do anything else) and ignored their work in archaeology and in preserving Asian and other eastern languages that were in danger of dying. It is true that Westerners in the orient committed many crimes and follies, but the many positive things they did are given no credit. There is no nuance in Said's condemnations.

Most prominently, naturally, Murray deals with slavery, for the three centuries in which Europeans traded in, and profited by, slavery is one the chief criticisms aimed at the West. Be it noted that Murray does not skirt over or deny this historical reality. But he does point out that slave trading among Africans was practised for many more centuries than the European slave trade; and the Ottoman-Islamic slave trade was on a far greater scale than the European slave trade. Not only that, but the Ottoman Turks castrated all their male slaves to prevent them from breeding. Saying this is not a tu quoque argument (an argument that says our crimes are pardonable because others have committed crimes too.). Murray is simply noting that no nation has an unblemished historical record… yet currently, only the Western historical record is widely chastised.

In another interlude, he addresses a matter which has been mooted in the United States. This is the idea that reparations should be paid to the descendants of slaves. He argues that (1.) the call is for reparations for things that happened long ago, which means no living person can be called responsible; and (2) it would be impossible, in the United States, to decide who should pay reparations – what of all those European immigrants who came to the USA long after slavery was abolished? What of people whose ancestors fought for the Union Army against the slave states? (And what of the British navy which spent about 40 years suppressing the slave trade?) Again Murray notes that no non-Western country has been asked to pay reparations for genocide or slavery, regardless of their records in these matters.

In a chapter called “Religion” Murray posits that a new religion is the cult of anti-racism, which among other things means rejecting Christianity and seeing it as inferior to other global religions. (Murray himself is an atheist.) With this comes a growing ignorance of ancient Greek philosophy and learning, and of Judaism as well as Christianity. Along with all this there is also a contempt directed at major Enlightenment figures (Locke, Kant, Hume, Mill). Usually these figures are damned for one or two passing racist things they said in the course of a whole life's work. Cheekily, Murray is able to prove – and quote – the very many racist things Karl Marx said in letters and some publications – far more than the Enlightenment philosopers said -  but for some curious reason Marx doesn’t ever get cancelled (nor does the postmodernist Michel Foucault, despite his rampant paedophilia). Murray sees the rejection of Western philosophy and the Enlightenment as ushering in the idea of “my truth” – that is, emotional subjectivism which by-passes objective and empirical truth. Murray also blasts the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who ushered in the idea of the “noble savage” whose culture was seen as superior to Western mores. This whole concept was, inevitably, built on ignorance, given that neither Rousseau nor his followers had ever experienced the cultures they praised.

In his later chapters, Murray blasts many Christian denominations – but especially the Church of England and American Episcopalians – for bowing down to "woke" concepts. He speaks of the subversion of the traditional humanities in university departments and he notes, with justifiable disgust, attempts to “de-colonise” the sciences and to shut down many cultural endeavours as “cultural appropriation”.

I have presented Douglas Murray’s ideas in a very scatter-shot way, and you have possibly come to the conclusion that he has merely produced a conservative rant. You might also be wondering if, quite apart from the issue of slavery, he hasn’t downplayed the evils of Western colonialism, the exploitation of resources taken from colonised countries, and the suppression of some cultures. You might be right if you suspect this, and you might note how often Murray appears to conflate the West with the United States of America, as if he is addressing an American audience. Even so, his essential argument does stand. The West (Europe and countries now largely populated by the descendants of Europeans) is repeatedly condemned for its historical sins, while countries which have committed as great or even greater sins are very rarely criticised by those who condemn the West. Murray does present much good evidence for this concept.

This book will be most read most eagerly by those who already agree with the polemicist's view of the world; and it will possibly be sneered at by those who don't agree with his views. On the whole, I think Murray makes a strong case.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE MANDARINS”” by Simone de Beauvoir (Les Mandarins first published in 1954; English translation by Leonard M. Friedman first published in 1956)

            Recently, in what I can now only call a fit of literary masochism, I took off my shelves a hitherto unread copy of [an English translation of] Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins, and ploughed my way through it – all 700 closely-printed pages of it. It took me about two weeks of evenings to read. It doesn't surprise me to discover that, because it is so long, the novel has often been issued in France in two volumes. My knowledge of the work of Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) had been patchy. As university students doing French fifty years ago, we were directed to read de Beauvoir’s Memoires d’une Jeune Fille Rangee, the first volume of what would eventually become her four-volume autobiography. I’d also read her polemic The Second Sex, often touted as the first blast of second-wave feminism. But that was as much as I had read of de Beauvoir's work. I had encountered her mainly in articles and books concerning her long-time partner Jean-Paul Sartre. So here I was reading what is often regarded as de Beauvoir’s best novel.

            When it was first published in 1954, Les Mandarins was a sensation in France, selling in the tens of thousands and winning the Prix Goncourt. Simone de Beauvoir was only the second woman to win that gong since the Prix Goncourt was set up in 1905 (Elsa Triolet won it in 1945). Instantly, most readers in France understood that this was very much a roman a cle. For years, de Beauvoir angrily denied this, claiming that all the characters were purely fictitious; but over the years she relented a little and admitted that at least some of the characters were drawn from life.

I’ll get back to this roman a cle business later, and begin by taking the novel on its own terms.


The Mandarins opens very specifically at Christmas 1944. The war is still in progress, but France – particularly Paris -  has been liberated by the Allies and, among those who resisted Nazi occupation, or at least claimed to have resisted, there is a mood of elation – a sense that anything can now be achieved. Though no dates are given, it is clear that the novel takes us though four or five years, up to about 1949. In the progress there is a growing sense of disillusion. The “spirit of the Resistance” dissolves into partisan factionalism. The “mandarins” of the title are the intellectual class, the chattering class, and when they are not philosophising or bed-hopping, they are discussing politics, fiercely and intensely. There is in the development of the novel a subtext suggesting the tension between high-sounding words and real action. Whether or not it was de Beauvoir’s intention, much of this comes to suggest the impotence of intellectuals in the face of historical events.

Robert Dubreuilh is a novelist, polemicist and chief contributor to a political newsletter called Vigilance. His wife Anne is a psychoanalyst. Their daughter Nadine, 18-years old when the novel opens, is sexually promiscuous, sleeping with many men. Anne attributes this to the trauma Nadine felt during the war when her boyfriend Diego was killed by the Nazis. Or maybe not, because Robert and Anne Dubreuilh have an “open” marriage, which means they agree that they can stay together while also taking many sexual partners. Hard not to believe (whether Anne or the novelist admits it) that this is just as likely to have encouraged Nadine’s behaviour.

Their closest friend – at least apparently – is Henri Perron, also a novelist and a journalist. He edits and/or contributes to a newspaper called L’Espoir (Hope). He cohabits with a woman called Paula, a former cabaret singer; but he is souring on her and planning to leave her. As the plot unwinds, Paula has a nervous breakdown, is institutionalised for a while, and parts from Henri while still obsessing about him. Henri takes a number of lovers. Though in his mid-30s, one of them is teenaged Nadine, whom he takes to Portugal on a journalist assignment. [She revels in the rich food and chic clothes that are not available in France; he notes the extreme poverty of most of the population and his conscience is pricked.] Later, Henri writes, and has successfully produced, a play reflecting on French society during and after the war. He takes up with the aspiring and glamorous young actress Josette, whose family were clearly collaborators with the Nazis during the war, possibly having Gestapo connections. To protect Josette’s family, Henri, the left-wing idealist, perjures himself in court to get a notorious collaborator off the hook. [When you understand who Henri is modelled on, you will recognise the malice of Simone de Beauvoir]. By novel’s end (and most improbably, dare I say?), Henri has gone back to Nadine, now presumably in her early 20s, has married her, and they are having a baby which may or may not be his. Henri, the novel implies, has stood back from politics and is now embracing domesticity and settling into an apolitical way of writing. Incidentally, this of course now makes Henri Perron the son-in-law of Robert and Anne Dubreuilh.

That is a very skeleton outline of what happens in his novel, but the most insistent element of it is politics. Robert Dubreuilh and Henri Perron discuss again and again the political situation in France as they see it. Both are determinedly left-wing and very much opposed to what they see as the growing Americanisation of France and of Europe in general. They are wary of the Communists (whose influence in France was at its greatest in the late 1940s… before beginning to fade away in the 1950s after the time when this novel is set). But they are more worried by the Marshall Plan when it is launched. On the whole they admire the French Communist leader Thorez more than they admire General de Gaulle, whom they [wrongly of course] suspect of planning to become a dictator. What they want is an independent socialist party that will ally with the Communists but not be swallowed by them.

Robert Dubreuilh wants Henri Perron to turn L’Espoir into a newspaper championing such a socialist-but-not-Communist party. Henri is lukewarm about this, but then finds that other people – with money to fund him – might have different agendas. Some want to turn the newspaper to the Right. An American called Preston says he will provide (otherwise rationed) newsprint so long as L’Espoir includes no anti-American material. Some (like the Russian émigré Victor Scriassine) want the newspaper to forthrightly denounce the terrors being perpetrated by the Soviet Union. Some would simply like to make money out of the newspaper. Many, many pages of this novel deal with the complex negotiations to modify or take over the newspaper and many, many (wearisome) pages deal with Robert and Henri’s discussions about the case. The merdre hits the fan when all the evidence shows that the Soviet Union is running, with great cruelty, many forced labour camps (what we later came to know as the Gulag). Henri prints in L’Espoir a major article denouncing the camps… and immediately loses erstwhile Communist friends. The Communist paper L’Enclume (The Anvil) denounces him as a Fascist reactionary, a lackey of the Americans etc. And Robert Dubreuilh breaks with him, using the argument that it is not opportune to publicise such things when America and de Gaulle are the real enemies. Robert claims that such articles will only encourage right-wingers. [For this reader, Robert’s argument reminds me of George Orwell’s warning that telling the truth is often countered by people who say that the inconvenient truth will simply “play into the hands of” the wrong people.] Later there is a reconciliation between Robert and Henri – maybe Henri’s marrying Nadine has something to do with it – and Communist friends come to woo him once again when the party line has changed. But their approaches seem purely opportunist.

In the political element of the novel there are other matters that are discussed. After the Liberation, is it right for people to kill or harass, without legitimate trial, former notorious collaborators? One of Nadine’s many lovers, a guy called Vincent, takes it upon himself to drive long distances to assassinate known collaborators. At one point, Henri is appalled to learn from Vincent (on the staff of his newspaper) that L’Espoir is partly being funded by money blackmailed out of collaborators. Later in the novel, Nadine assists Vincent by, in effect, torturing and eventually killing a collaborator who has become a drug addict by depriving him of his drugs. Neither Robert nor Henri approve of such extra-judicial murders or blackmail.

If you have read The Mandarins, you will know that, despite the long discussions between  Robert Dubreuilh and Henri Perron, the characters who loom largest in this novel are Henri Perron and Anne Dubreuilh. In fact Robert Dubreuilh is a very flat character whom we mainly see only in his political discussions – almost a walking set of opinions. There is a reason for this. The Mandarins is told in two distinct narrative voices. In the third-person are narrated most of the activities and negotiations of Henri Perron and his circle, and we are privy to Henri’s thoughts and changing viewpoints. But in the first-person are narrated all the thoughts and experiences of Anne Dubreuilh – a psychoanalyst, remember, and therefore constantly questioning and dissecting her own motives and the motives of others. After the first chapter, which is divided into third-person and first-person narration, the following chapters alternate between these two voices.

And this brings us to what I see as a major flaw in the novel. It is almost schizophrenic, as it switches from one voice to the other. Not only that, but increasingly the first-person narrative of Anne Dubreuilh seems totally detached from the third-person narrative of the rest of the novel.

Bearing in mind that de Beauvoir’s feminist polemic The Second Sex was published in 1949, five years before The Mandarins came out, it is understandable that in Anne’s narration there is much feminist focus. Anne helps Henri’s discarded partner Paula when Paula has a breakdown and is under psychiatric care. She treats her with courtesy and gives her affirming advice – but basically she (and the novelist?) sees Paula as a weak woman who has allowed herself to be too attached to, and too dominated by, a man. For Anne, Paula’s obsession with Henri is a sign of weakness. Real women – real feminist women – should be made of sterner stuff. In chapters where Anne enters bourgeois high society, she encounters fashionable women whose lives revolve around chic clothing, wealth, male company and frivolous novels. Again, she (in what she thinks; not in what she says to them) gives them a polemical kick in their fashionable derrieres.

So far, so feminist. But then we have what overwhelms Anne’s narrative. This is Anne’s affair with the American novelist Lewis Brogan. Anne is invited to a conference of psychoanalysts in New York. After some dithering and hesitation she goes, obviously being bedazzled by New York after still-rationed Paris. Friends tell her that she should go and visit the left-wing novelist Lewis Brogan in Chicago. She goes. And on comes their affair. In this novel, Anne has already bedded Victor Seriassine, but that affair wasn’t satisfactory and, methodically, she puts it down to experience. With Lewis Brogan, however, she sees their love as the real thing. They bed harmoniously. They bed again and again. The prose becomes very much what would qualify for one of those “Bad Sex awards” which hip magazines used to feature. (Okay, I’ve used that jibe in another review on this blog, but what the hell – it’s still true.) She loves his rough, proletarian-raised, forthright opinions in contrast with the hyper-intellectual theorising of the Paris crowd. They travel to Central America. Their relationship is enchanting. They live for a while in a little hideaway on a lake. It is idyllic…. Then she returns to Paris, always missing Lewis Brogan. So she goes back to him a year or so later, still madly in love with him. He is nice to her. They sleep together. But she senses he has lost that old feeling. She begs with him, cries, wants their love to be rekindled. But it’s no-go. He’s had enough of her. So back she goes to Paris, still cradling her lamentations.

 When The Mandarins came out, the glossy French magazine Paris Match declared that it was “Bound to become one of the most famous love stories in all French literature”. [I have this from the blurb of the 1957 edition of the English-language version I’ve been reading]. “Um… really?” thinks I. At which point, with amusement, I recall reading an angry review of this novel by a feminist who had read with admiration The Second Sex and was therefore appalled to find the same author giving such a stereotypical account of a love story in which the woman was so submissive to, and obsessed by, a man. Though it is based on de Beauvoir’s own experience, it still reads as the complete denial of Anne’s (and implicitly the author’s) attitude to broken-hearted Paula. Or – me being the charitable chap I am – is this in fact de Beauvoir’s point? Is she showing us that emotions, feelings and attractions can run in directions totally different from the rational concepts we have embraced? Human nature is very contradictory.

Be all that as it may, the long narrative of Anne Dubreuilh and Lewis Brogan  would probably have worked better as a novel on its own.

After reading this novel, what does one take from it?

Despite the one-dimensional depiction of Robert Dubreuilh and the awkward structure of the novel, you have to give points to de Beauvoir for the clear characterisation of her cast, especially when there are so many minor characters whom I have not mentioned. Evocation of a certain time and place (post-war Paris) is vivid. On the whole, the conversations she creates are credible – even when they are political discussions – but the problem is that they do go on and on. Many points are made again and again, swelling the novel to tedium. The Mandarins is very interesting as an historical document and as an account of what French non-Communist left-wingers were thinking – but of course throughout we are aware that this is a time and place as seen from one side of the aisle only. Centre-right parties were as important to France as centre-left parties were in that era. They are dismissed in this novel as irrelevant or left-overs. In the process, there is what now seems a very naïve attitude towards Communism. It would take a more astute political commentator than either Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir to point out, in the 1950s, the nature of their naivete. I am referring to Raymond Aron - definitely anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi (he was Jewish) but also aware that Communism was just another form of totalitarianism. His polemic The Opium of the Intellectuals – much hated by Sartre - is still worth reading.

There are other matters that I take away from The Mandarins. One is that odd tension regarding the United States of America. Throughout, it is depicted as trying to take over and dominate Europe, and for Robert and Henri this is unthinkable. Much better a socialist or (perhaps) even Communist future. But in the whole story of Anne’s affair with Lewis Brogan we have what amounts to her envy of the USA, its abundance, its variety, its openness, its food, its jazz, its cabarets. Sure, the dark side is also seen in the slummy quarters Anne shares with Brogan in Chicago; but in the main, at least in Anne’s mind, this is almost the promised land. Isn’t this very much the expression of a nation that had been humiliated in war and occupation, and was now humiliated by the fact that it had to be liberated by another nation and was beginning to lose “great power” status. Even if this novel’s protagonists are opposed to France’s attempts to cling to its colonial empire (Algeria, Indo-China, Madagascar), the mood tends to be “We dislike Americans because they make us feel bad about ourselves.” There is a strong strain of envy mixed with the admiration.

As I said near the beginning of this review, this novel ultimately expresses the gradual disillusion that came after the original elation of the Liberation. France’s left intellectuals running around like headless chickens, often talking to no constructive purpose.


That is how I read this verbose and over-long novel. Now I go into the business of UNMASKING THE MASKS, and identifying which fictitious character is based upon which real person. Again quoting from the blurb of my 1957 edition of the novel, one American reviewer wrote “It reminds me of the tremendous joy I felt when reading Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point after World War 1.” Sure thing, because The Mandarins is like Point Counter Point (reviewed on this blog) in that it is very much a roman a cle, much as Simone de Beauvoir took a long time to partially admit it.

Robert and Anne Dubreuilh are very obviously Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir themselves. Of course their fictional selves are altered a bit. Robert and Anne are married and have a daughter. Sartre and de Beauvoir were sworn partners for over forty years, but they never married and never had children (although late in life both “adopted” grown women, largely to protect their assets and inheritance). Like Robert and Anne, Sartre and de Beauvoir had an “open” relationship, which allowed them to have affairs as they pleased without discontinuing their domestic arrangement. Robert’s news sheet Vigilance is obviously Les Temps Modernes, which Sartre didn’t own but for which he was often the leading writer. The Communist newspaper L’Enclume clearly stands in for the real Communist newspaper L’Humanite. The Socialist-but-not-Communist Party which Robert tries to promote is the Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionnaire (Democratic Revolutionary Organisation) which Sartre promoted, with very little success, in 1948.

Of course the novel does not make Anne bisexual, as de Beauvoir was. She slept with both men and women. Nor does the novel show how manipulative the sexual approaches of both Sartre and de Beauvoir were. Having to read de Beauvoir’s Memoires d’une Jeune Fille Rangee (Memoirs of a Well-behaved [or “Dutiful”] Daughter) as a student, I would sometimes dismiss it as Memoires d’une Jeune Fille Derangee (Memoirs of a Deranged Daughter).  I now discover that somebody else made use of this title. Bianca Lamlin wrote in her book Mémoires d'une Jeune Fille Dérangée (published in English under the title A Disgraceful Affair) that, while a young teenage student at high-school, she was sexually exploited by her teacher de Beauvoir, who was in her 30s. Many other such stories have since come out of the Sartre-de Beauvoir axis. The fact is that the couple’s open, free love approach was very destructive for many of the partners they used and discarded.

Which brings us to the character of Anne’s lover Lewis Brogan. He is very obviously the left-wing, often very sensationalist, American novelist Nelson Algren (to whom The Mandarins is dedicated). De Beauvoir had a long-ish, and publicly well-known, affair with Algren, and there is no need to add much comment on this because the factual parts of the affair of Anne and Brogan in The Mandarins follow closely de Beauvoir and Algren’s affair -  Chicago, Central American holiday, lakeside hideaway etc. In the end, Algren tired of de Beauvoir long before she tired of him. Some years after The Mandarins was published, Algren gave a very dismissive version of his dealings with Sartre and de Beauvoir, saying that the two of them used people sexually like a  prostitute and her pimp. These might have been the words of a jaded lover, but they square with many accounts that have emerged of the couple’s sexual behaviour. 


Then there is the novel’s other major character, Henri Perron. He is very obviously Albert Camus. And Perron’s newspaper L’Espoir stands in for the newspaper Combat which Camus had edited first when it was an underground newspaper connected with the Resistance in the years of Occupation. This one really opens a can of worms. In one sense, de Beauvoir’s version of Perron / Camus is fairly accurate. Like Perron, Camus was an incorrigible seducer of women, having numerous affairs. (Remember in the novel, Perron goes through Paula, Josette and Nadine, with intimations of others.) Having Perron settling down to domesticity at the end of the novel may have been wishful thinking on de Beauvoir’s part. Though he married, the real Camus remained a Casanova to his death in his 40s. But there may be another reason for de Beauvoir’s characterisation. Camus gradually became disenchanted with left-wing dogmatism, and therefore broke with Sartre on many matters, effectively ending what had hitherto been their friendship. By, at the end of her novel, having Perron become the Dubreuilhs’ son-in-law may have been the novelist’s way of putting Camus in his place,  showing his inferiority to, and discipleship of, Sartre.

There is more to this. You might recall that in my review of The Mandarins, I referred to the episode in which Perron lies in the interests of a collaborator. I noted “when you understand who Henri is modelled on, you will recognise the malice of Simone de Beauvoir”. Reason? It is clear that during the Occupation, Camus really was involved in the Resistance, even if only in writing and editing the clandestine Resistance newspaper Combat. There is no evidence that he ever took up arms. Camus openly admitted that he had never been a fighter. By contrast, long after the war was over, Sartre acted and spoke as if he had been a Resister. But there is little evidence that he – or de Beauvoir – had been involved in Resistance. Like many people in France, they hated Nazi Occupation and wished it wasn’t there. Apart from talking about it in discussion groups with friends - such as the Socialisme et Liberte circle - they hardly ever took any action (Sartre wrote a couple of articles for Combat, but that was his lot.).  Some people have claimed that Sartre’s play Les Mouches, staged in Paris in 1943, was an “anti-Nazi” play, but it is hard to sustain this assertion. Les Mouches was an adaptation of a classical Greek play. As in very many films and plays in Occupied France (see on this blog my review of Cinema of Paradox, about French films made during the Occupation), there were some moments in Les Mouches where the word “Freedom” was applauded by French audiences and could have been taken as a sign of Resistance. But remember that the play had been licenced by the Nazi censors (as all French plays, films and books then were) and the censors were in no way troubled by the contents of the play. Some Resistance!

The case of de Beauvoir is a little more murky. Early in the Occupation, she wrote her novel Le Sang des Autres (The Blood of Others) , definitely siding with active and armed Resistance. But the novel wasn’t published until well after the war and Occupation were over. (Of course Nazi and Vichy censorship meant it couldn’t be published until then). So it had no influence on the Resistance. Worse, de Beauvoir agreed to do talks on the collaborationist Radio France, commonly known as Radio Vichy, in 1943. She correctly noted that the talks were inconsequential and non-political. Even so, she would have known that they were the kind of “filler” that kept people listening to the propaganda of this Vichy-controlled station. I make these comments having read Gilbert Joseph’s well-researched book Une si douce occupation (“Such a Pleasant Occupation”), published in 1991, which systematically debunked the idea that Sartre or de Beauvoir ever participated in the Resistance. Also worth reading is The Left Bank - Writers, Artists and Politics From the Popular Front to the Cold War by Herbert R. Lottman, wherein he points out the docility of nearly all the Left Bank intellectuals during the Occupation.

So how does all this suggest malice on de Beauvoir’s part? By making Perron / Camus a man who lies on behalf of a collaborator – an offence of which Camus was never guilty – de Beauvoir the non-Resister is smearing Camus, who at least did some Resisting, even if it wasn’t in the front line. As for the play Perron writes, it may perhaps be a smack at Camus' play Caligula, produced in 1945, which, though post-war, made a more forceful statement about dictators than Sartre ever made. (As all audiences understood, Camus' depiction of the mad Roman emperor, and the toadies who surrounded him, was clearly an analogue for Hitler and his regime.)

Closing, I note that there are some minor characters in The Mandarins who may have been based on real people. It is possible that Raymond Aron, who initially contributed to Les Temps Modernes along with Sartre, was one of the anti-Communists the novel ridicules. It is more strongly possible that Scriassine, who denounces the brutality of the Soviet regime, is based on Arthur Koestler.  But they are not as developed in the novel as the people I’ve already discussed.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.     

                                   HEROES AFTER THE EVENT

I’ve just been dissecting Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, set in Paris immediately after the Second World War and including some minor characters whose business was tracking down and either killing or denouncing people who had collaborated with the occupying Nazis. This put me in mind of people (like Jean-Paul Sartre) who acted after the war as if they had been in the Resistance, but who in fact had had virtually no connection at all with the Resistance. The fact is, there were many people in France (and other occupied counties) who later claimed to have acted heroically during the war, but who were only heroes after the event.

Such claimed heroism was not unique to the Second World War. In 1991, the popular English novelist Laurie Lee produced a memoir called A Moment of War in which he claimed to have spent three months fighting in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War…but no surviving British members of the International Brigades had even heard of him. They classed his book as pure fiction. However this is a complicated case as later, one of Lee’s hitherto lost diaries was found and it seemed to prove that Lee did indeed take some part in the Spanish war, although it is still uncertain how deeply he was involved. Most of the events he recorded in his memoir had no way of being verified. Perhaps his narrative was true, or perhaps he was largely a hero after the event.

One person who definitely lied, on many issues, and played the hero when she came to write her memoirs, was the American playwright Lillian Hellman. This included concocting fictions about single-handedly standing up to the HUAC during the McCarthy era. It also included her fiction about having acted as a courier for an anti-Nazi group in Germany in the 1930s. This tale involved a member of the anti-Nazi underground whom she called “Julia”. The fiction was later made into a film called Julia. It has now been thoroughly debunked by credible researchers, historians and the people who were genuinely part of the German anti-Nazi underground (see on this blog my review of William Wright’s Lillian Hellmann – The Image, The Woman). Hellmann was certainly a hero after the event.

I could give further examples of this form of charlatanry, but I think you get the idea.

Considering the French Resistance, my mind turns to all the (post-war) French films I have seen which deal with the era of Occupation.

Rene Clement’s Bataille du Rail (Battle of the Rails) was the first such film. I was recently able to catch up with it on Youtube. It was made in 1945 only months after the war ended. It is a semi-documentary with non-professional actors, many of them railwaymen, chronicling how the Resistance sabotaged railway lines to prevent Nazis deploying armoured trains and heavy artillery in the weeks after the D-Day landings. Still vivid as a film of action, it has no other political agenda than to celebrate the saboteurs and the defeat of the occupiers.

My research tells me that for many years, there were very few films made in France concerning the war years. In many respects the subject was too painful and there was too much political factionalism with different groups (Gaullists, Communists etc.) claiming to have been the most prominent resisters in the war. In the 1950s, there were some French films set in the war years, but they were largely apolitical. Two of the best were Rene Clement’s Les Jeux Interdits [Forbidden Games] (1952) about the impact of war on two young children; and Robert Bresson’s Un Condamne a Mort est Echappe [A Man Escaped] (1956), a methodical account of how a Resister escaped from a Nazi prison. These were films which, in New Zealand, were more likely to be seen in Film Society screenings rather than in commercial theatres, and that indeed was where I saw them as a student.

Only in the 1960s did there begin to be French films that examined the rival Resistance groups and the extent of collaboration in France. The war was now far enough in the past to be seen in perspective and even laughed about (as in Gerard Oury’s La Grande Vadrouille, made in 1966, starring the comedians Bourvil and Louis de Funes). Only now were specifically party-political factions discussed in the context of the war.

In 1966 it was again Rene Clement who directed the all-star extravaganza Is Paris Burning? Based on an American non-fiction book, scripted by two Americans, largely American-financed, and with as many American as French actors on screen, it is hard to see this international enterprise as a French film. To be fair, it is largely accurate in its account of the liberation of Paris in 1944; but it does have a political agenda. President de Gaulle made it clear that filming in Paris could not take place unless the film showed Gaullist resisters playing the dominant role in the liberation. The leading French character (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) was a Gaullist and there is a scene where, noting Communists have taken over a certain building, he remarks “We got here first”.


Naïve non-French audiences may assume that any French film made about the Resistance will be politically “neutral”. Such is not the case. All have a political agenda of some sort. What I regard still as the best French (fiction) film about the Resistance is Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’Armee des Ombres (Army of Shadows) made in 1969. The film goes out of its way to show that many politically-different types were involved in Resistance. The main character (played by Lino Ventura) is Gaullist and there is even a scene when, in London, he is personally awarded a medal by de Gaulle. But when he’s in a Vichy internment camp, other resisters include a young Communist, a Catholic and a non-partisan guy, a pilot who just wants to get back into fighting the Germans. Later, there’s a crusty old aristocrat, previously a Royalist who hated the French Republic, but who is now dedicated to fighting the Boche. The film also has much painful truthfulness because it shows all the compromises Resisters had to make and especially the brutal way informers had to be treated. There is a long and painful sequence in which a tearful young informer is strangled by resisters as he is compromising their agents. Yet, when the film was first released, it was severely criticised by French reviewers and had only a limited release. This was because 1969 was the year of student riots in Paris and rising anti-de Gaullism. For the reviewers, L’Armee des Ombres was not “politically correct”. Only in later years was it reassessed and re-released to acclaim. I caught up with it recently at a niche Auckland cinema.

Interestingly, in the same year that L’Armee des Ombres was released (1969) so too was released Marcel Ophuls’ long and detailed documentary Le Chagrin et la Pitie (The Sorrow and the Pity) which showed, scathingly, the extent of collaboration between 1940 and 1944 and especially the Vichy regime’s role in assisting Nazi persecution of French Jews.


Only a few years later (1974) appeared Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien about a naïve peasant boy who, in his general ignorance of the world, joined the Milice (the Vichy regime’s militia) purely to do something exciting, and sets about assisting the Gestapo. A collaborator, but in this case seen as a pathetic dupe who didn’t understand the consequences of his actions. In the 1980s appeared Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980), concerning a Jewish theatrical producer who, during the Occupation, had to remain in hiding while other people pretended to run his theatre. Then there was Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants (Goodbye Children)  (1987) based on Malle’s memories of attending a Catholic school during the Occupation. Surprisingly for a director of decidedly secularist views, the hero of the film was a priest who was protecting a Jewish kid from deportation.

And [sticking only with films I have seen] we come to the 1990s. One of the most contentious Resistance films was Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac (1997). The film celebrated a woman who genuinely was a member of the Resistance, as was her husband Raymond. But there was a big problem. Even as the film was being made, there were strong rumours [still much contested] that it was Lucie’s husband who, while being tortured, had dobbed in to the Gestapo the (Gaullist) Resistance leader Jean Moulin. (For evidence of this, see on this blog my review of The Death of Jean Moulin by Patrick Marnham). Knowing this, the film’s scriptwriters had to include such improbable lines as “After the war they will say that …” and then proceeded to make defensive statements about Raymond’s innocence.


Finally, and returning at last to my original theme of false heroism, we come to what should be essential viewing for anyone interested in French films about the Resistance. This is Jacques Audiard’s 1996 film Un Heros tres discret (literally A Very Discreet Hero but called A Self-Made Hero for English language release). It concerns an enterprising young man who has lived a quiet life throughout the Occupation, but after the war is over he realises he could gain prestige and hero status by claiming to have been an active Resister. His path is made clearer by the fact that  there were many opposing factions within the Resistance, and as he presents himself, each faction assumes he must have been part of another faction. The film begins as ironical comedy but gradually works its way to tragedy as the “discreet hero” is given the task of hunting down and destroying former collaborators. Only too late does he realise that he does not have the moral authority to do such things, but by then blood has been shed.

When major conflicts are over, there are always heroes after the event.