An Introduction to Dusty Jackets
Maybe it's just me, but it seems like it's getting harder and harder to find something good to read. One would expect the opposite, given all the options these days. But if you're like me, options might be the problem. You may feel paralyzed by the staggering excess of them. How does one contend with this terrible postmodern predicament? Most of us outsource the job, surrendering our literary fates to friends, book clubs or reviews. I subscribe to a more discerning service: time.
I read old books, books which history itself has curated. Their longevity is a testament to their quality. These books transcended political zeitgeists and literary fads because they speak to the raw truths of the human condition. The keenness of their insight is as striking today as ever — sometimes more so. These books go by another name: Classics.
In this blog series, I shall exhume for you the best of forgotten fiction, combing dark basements and cobwebbed corners to bear neglected masterworks up into the light of your attention.
Few classics make a stronger case for that coveted status than this month's pick, Simone de Beauvoir's anguished ode to metaphysical malaise, The Mandarins.
Before George W. Bush redefined the word "existential" through dogged misuse, it referred to a school of philosophy concerning freedom and what to do with it. Simone de Beauvoir and her husband Jean Paul Sartre formed French philosophy's premier power couple and were existentialism's main spokespeople. Though de Beauvoir penned numerous works of literature and philosophy (of which 1949's The Second Sex is her most famous) The Mandarins is unique in its scope and ambition, deftly utilizing its story to explore the questions central to existentialism while avoiding the heavy-handed didacticism that is often the downfall of novels with a philosophical agenda (Atlas Shrugged, cough cough).
About the Book
Set in Paris following the Nazi Occupation (with scenic detours to the French countryside, Italy, Spain and Portugal), The Mandarins draws heavily upon de Beauvoir's own experiences (though it takes too many liberties to be considered biographical). Despite being over 600 pages, it passes all too fast. The dialog is crisp and witty: heated, political arguments and painfully restrained tête-à-têtes roiling with anguished subtext. But the book shines most just where you'd expect it from an author renowned for her groundbreaking works of philosophy- in the long passages of introspection that seem so raw that they might have been ripped straight from the author's own diary.
The story follows friends Henri and Anne as they navigate a world of bombastic intellectuals, glad handing politicians, social climbing bourgeois and blood crazed reactionaries, including fictionalized versions of Jean Paul Sartre, Nelson Algren and Albert Camus. The two protagonists trade chapters, offering different perspectives on the same characters and events, as well as stories uniquely their own.
The story begins the night after the Liberation of Paris, as a group of friends anticipate returning to the way things were before the Nazi Occupation. Their anticipation proves naive.
Henri, the editor of a Resistance newspaper during the Occupation, aims to return to his dreams of novel writing. But as as the French political left fragments and partisans scheme for control of his paper, he finds himself unable to disengage. While political strategizing consumes his life, his desire to write only grows stronger. Unable to reconcile duty and desire, he embarks on an escalating series of compromises, his once lucid moral code turns murky, and he finds himself sliding into nihilism.
Meanwhile, Anne, a renowned psychiatrist, reopens her practice. But as her office fills with people traumatized by war, she begins to doubt her usefulness. How can analysis heal the damage wrought by Nazi death camps, Soviet gulags, and the atomic bomb? At home, her relationship with her husband (a thinly veiled facsimile of Jean Paul Sartre) is intellectually stimulating but devoid of romantic passion, and his growing political celebrity leaves him little time for her. Her dyspeptic daughter, suffering from the death of a wartime boyfriend, rejects Anne's attempts to help her heal. Feeling dismissed and unnecessary, Anne loses any sense of power or purpose in her life. Yet when a chance to start over arrives in the form of new career opportunities in America and the affections of a handsome Chicago writer, she is unable to tear herself free of her old life. Like Henri, she is torn between duty and desire, and like Henri, her inability to reconcile them sets her on a downward spiral.
Beyond their personal struggles, Anne and Henri must confront a changing world, a world that forces them to question their ideals. "Compared to the concept, reality is always wrong," one character quips about Communism after learning about Stalin's labor camps. "As soon as the concept is embodied, it becomes deformed." For de Beauvoir's characters, the black and white moral landscape of the war years is gone, leaving only a void of crippling ambiguity. Their idealism eclipsed by nihilism, Henri and Anne must learn how to live all over again.
Like all great stories The Mandarins speaks to the universal human experience. It's about the corrupting power of ideology, what it means to be a man or a woman, and idealizing the past. It's about learning to balance individuality with community and duty with desire. But above all it's about facing ambiguity without succumbing to nihilism, and finding the will to live and act in an uncertain world. This book is has it all. It's the ultimate literary mic drop of the atomic age, the final, resounding word in existentialist fiction. Je recommand!