Simone de Beauvoir’s 20th Century modern classic, The Mandarins, is her most acclaimed novel. The lives of intellectuals in post-World War II France are told through omniscient third-person narration for Henri: ex-resistance fighter, writer and editor; and the first-person narration of Anne: a psychoanalyst, wife of Robert, Henri’s best friend. One big post-war gathering opens the tale: every character in their respective lives are there, cheering the Americans, disbelieving that the wartime version of their life in Paris is over. From there, over 700 pages and several years, their lives wheel out and move on, and the tale of these people are told.
It is a novel on a grand scale. German occupation has ended and the future can now be contemplated. Henri wants to resume the life he had to put on hold for the war – one of travelling and writing – but his lover Paula is focussed only on reviving their affair. Robert is determined to enter politics – he cannot just watch and write but must act – but Anne is held by a lassitude and distraction while their daughter Nadine strikes out in all directions in mourning and self-definition. This book is a romance, of sorts, and somewhat of a political manifesto. Broad in reach, for me it falls far short of profound.
Essentially, I did not enjoy this book. I found both Paula and Nadine simultaneously unsympathetically portrayed and profoundly irritating, with no discernible motivation or inner life to understand or excuse their terrible behaviour. Henri is a selfish bastard, and his friend Robert is much the same, only slightly more self-reflective. Both their arguments and agreements are just like one person talking to themselves in the mirror for their ego’s own gratification. There are somewhat witty and wicked portrayals of de Beauvior’s contemporaries such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus peppered throughout but they seem much the same in their tedious crowd. The group is so involved in each other’s lives it is almost inbred, from affairs to politics to business to holidaying to life and death.
What is there in this book that I am missing? Throughout, I never wanted to pick this book up but while reading it I was motivated enough. I resented it from the outset. The first chapter is from Henri’s perspective and I almost gave up on the book entirely until Anne’s first chapter entered, with her very particular voice and perspective. Her own inner life is the wisdom and moral backbone of the book.
“I did not attempt to answer him. All that Scriassine wanted was to reduce French writers to silence, and I clearly understood why. There was nothing really convincing in his prophecies, and yet his tragic voice awakened an echo in me. ‘How shall we live?’ This question had been painfully pricking me all evening and for God knows how many days and weeks.”
Yes, how shall we live, how shall we write, what is the point? I kept waiting for realisation to dawn, for some sort of feminist defining moment, but The Mandarins feels as unproductive as the intellectuals’ lives. Perhaps in context this novel was a turning point, a mirror held up so people could see for the first time, but for me, today, it felt fruitless.
I do like to self-educate with the classics, change my reading habits and take myself back to something founding, or seminal. With that in mind I bought The Mandarins, but there was no insight nor profundity. It neither asked nor answered any questions. But there is just one question for me: what is it in this book that kept me reading? Life is too short, I can quit books, but there is something here in de Beauvoir’s work that kept me going. What it is remains a mystery.