jeudi 21 avril 2016

The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir (1954)


Despite the overwhelming consensus amongst its readers (from its initial publication in 1954 to present times) that “The Mandarins” by Simone de Beauvoir is a “classic” novel, mixed assessments of its literary value persist. Divergent views are inevitable, in part, because “The Mandarins” overlays political opinion, historical detail and philosophical debate on to the fictional form. For many readers, including myself, too much is being asked of the novel: the large political and sociological problematics that occupy so much of this book undermine the storyline and the psychological rendering of character, making the novel, at times, tedious. Some reviewers find “The Mandarins” to be a soapbox for political ideas or an apologetic for Stalinism and not at all a genuine work of fiction that seeks to understand how people experience a complex world. Critic Norman Podhoretz writes in 1956 that the novel is essentially just a critique of American capitalism. Unfair! The book is more nuanced than that: many of the characters in the novel struggle with the problem of divided loyalties. They ask if one can maintain one’s allegiance to an ideology that has been thoroughly compromised, and at what cost. I prefer critic Anna Banti’s contention that “The Mandarins” is really “an essay that is novelized”, where characters struggle with complex issues.

As simply a novel, a work of the imagination, free of polemical intent, some readers still find it wanting.  On Good Reads, I read comments like, “It is a big, baggy thing in need of an editor and a plot arc” and “the novel is full of flat characters whose voices are scarcely distinguishable, awkward dialogue and insipidly clunky internal monologue”. I, too, admit to finding the characterization sometimes tedious: too much time is spent watching Paula lose herself to mental illness, Nadine to adolescent angst, and Anne to self-doubt. However, the novel offers us a chance to see how people in post-war France and to some extent America (Anne spends time with her American lover Lewis in the United States) were beginning to react to changing social and sexual mores.
I would suggest that while “The Mandarins” is too long (700 pages) and repetitive, lacks a plotline and is short of suspense (although a murder takes place in the penultimate chapter but is oddly immediately forgotten), the work remains important. German reviewer Francois Bondy speaks for many of us when he writes that this book is really a “roman a clef” and should be read as a complement to de Beauvoir’s memoirs, a record of an important cultural movement rather than purely as a work of fiction.

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