The Mandarins

I managed to read The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir. I have been trying to gather all I could get from her, especially after already reading Memoirs of a dutiful daugther and She came to stay . More impressions are still pending on some older reads.

The Mandarins is definitely the most complete and the most challenging of her works that I tried so far. It is a complete fresque of the French post-war society, including reminiscence of the Resistance, occupation and what had happened during the Second World War.

We have plenty of characters, and situations, and the main themes revolve around love, friendship, politics, and of course, again, the human condition. As always, Beauvoir’s characters try to find a solution, try to cope with what is happening, but the existentialist issue always arises, the moral question, and the consequences of choices.

On the politics side, we have Henri Perron, one main character, who is a writer, somewhat politician , a former Resistance member, who wants to live his life to the fullest, while leaving a mark on everything. He is tied up by his former lover, Paula, whom he cheats at any possible occasion, and he wants to break free, travel the world, and speak freely with his magazine paper. He manages the L’Espoir, a post-war weekly publication, which he desperately tries to keep politics-free, but very difficult to attain.

We have Robert Dubreuilh, an older teacher and writer, who wants to get involved with politics, manages to start his own political party, but he is attacked from all sides by everyone else: communist leftists want him to merge with them, while capitalist rightists want him dissolved. His party has no success, and he realizes the nothingness of the human individual, and the very limited power, or none at all, that a single man can change anything in the world.

Anne Dubreuilh is the character most connected with Simone de Beauvoir herself, and we see the story from her perspective as well. She was a young student, marrying Dubreuilh, raising a very strange child, Nadine, and finding herself trapped in a marriage and in a shadow of a man that cannot make her happy. On the love side of the book, we see an ongoing affair between Anne and a long-distance lover, an American writer, who is just as weird as she is, and the love they find completely shakes off their existence, only to be destroyed by the distance, and by the complete different worlds in which both of them live. The pain and the sorrow of this lost love is one of most strongly depicted emotions in the book.

We also have Nadine, Anne’s daughter, a stranded child, a young woman, willing to break any rules and any kind of moral line, just for the sake of it, a late-age teenager, that is very difficult to live with. She manages to get all interesting men to spend time with her, only by bribing them into her bed. In the end, she tries a trick to get Henri to marry her, by getting pregnant against her will.

On the love side, Paula, Henri’s former lover, is the perfect model of the madwoman that falls in love and sacrifices everything for it. She loses her youth, her life, and gets committed to a mental institute, all because she could not accept that Henri dumped her and did not love her anymore.

We have a plethora of secondary characters: people from the resistance, working at other magazines: Vincent, Lambert, Sezenac, Lauchame, etc. They all model the French intellectuals of the 40’s. We see revenge on collaborators, investigations on Resistance, we see a France post-war, the hunger for the automobiles, the hunger for new clothing, for fun , adventure, music, and other many things, which were forbidden during the long war years.

Even if the existentialism in this novel is not as strong as in other books, The Mandarins presents a whole and complete world, which made me understand many aspects about the involvement of western Europe in post-war years, the beginning of the cold war, and how the economy and the pleasantries of the mid-century 20 evolved.

A very strong read, The Mandarins is the most complete and detailed picture drawn by Simone de Beauvoir through all my reads on her so far.

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