Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

She still was not happy – she never had been. What caused this inadequacy in her life – why did everything she leaned on instantly decay? … Oh if somewhere there were a being strong and handsome, a valiant heart, passionate and sensitive at once, a poet’s spirit in an angel’s form, a lyre with strings of steel, sounding sweet-sad epithalamiums to the heavens, then why should she not find that being? Vain dream! There was nothing that was worth going far to get: all was lies! Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a misery. Every pleasure brought its surfeit; and the loveliest kisses only left upon your lips a baffled longing for a more intense delight. (Madame Bovary, Part three, chapter six)

Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert is one of the most famous novelists of the 19th century, in any language. Born in 1821 in Normandy, he went to Paris to study law but dropped out after being afflicted by a mystery illness, probably epilepsy. He returned to Normandy and spent the rest of his life living off a modest private income in the remote village of Croisset, devoting himself to literature.

His early (unpublished) novels are lyrical and romantic. As he matured he reined in his tendencies to lush romanticism in order to create a new kind of studied realism.

Madame Bovary

Flaubert is most famous for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857) the low-key, realistic depiction of the life of a small-town woman, Emma Rouault, originally the daughter of a farmer, who marries the well-meaning but dull local doctor, Charles Bovary, but soon yearns for something more.

She has an affair with a stylish local landowner, Rodolphe, who, after several years of dallying, dumps her when she shows signs of wanting to leave her husband and getting serious. As a result Emma has a nervous breakdown and takes months of being tenderly cared for by her husband to recover. Sone years later she develops a passionate and sensuous affair with young Leon the law clerk from her small town, who has moved on to bigger things in Rouen. With him she arranges weekly meetings for days of unbridled sensuality.

Nemesis comes not as a result of these affairs, but through Emma’s equally wanton way with money. The village haberdasher, Lheureux, preys on her over the years, selling her all kinds of luxury knick-knacks she doesn’t really need, making her consolidate her debts into large promissory notes, renewing these at extortionate interest, and finally handing the lot over to a rack-renting debt collector who announces that  she is bankrupt and that he is going to impound and sell off all the good doctor’s belongings and house to pay off the debts.

On this last, climactic day, Flaubert shows Emma desperately running round the village, begging everyone she knows for money. She begs the haberdasher himself, the local lawyer, then goes out to the chateau of her old lover Rodolphe, in a vain attempt to rekindle his interest and get him to lend her money. She takes the coach into town to beg Leon to get the money for her from a friend and then suggests that he steals the money from his employer. One by one all the men reject her.

Finally, in a delirium of despair, Emma goes in the back of the local chemist’s shop, persuades his biddable young assistant to fetch her a jar of arsenic (whose existence we’d learned about in an unrelated scene years earlier, but which she now remembers) and stuffs her mouth with it.

She staggers back home and there follows a protracted death bed scene, at which Charles her husband is distraught and calls for a set of more senior doctors to come and help. Quickly the two local ‘experts’ realise there’s nothing they can do for her and so they take up the offer of Homais, the chemist, to repair for a slap-up dinner at his house (his wife fussing and fretting that she doesn’t have anything special to hand). Back in the sick room, Emma coughs and pukes her last breaths, while the local curé struggles to administer the sacraments. She dies.

The trial of Emma Bovary

Because it was so matter of fact and realistic in its depiction of Emma’s affairs (for its day, 1857) Madame Bovary was seized by the authorities, and Flaubert and the publisher of the magazine it was serialised in were prosecuted for ‘insulting public morals and offending decent manners’.

The trial lasted one day and the defendants were acquitted, although Flaubert was reprimanded by the court for his use of graphic detail concerning ‘adulterous and corrupt affairs’.

The trial, as well as his devotion to the art of writing, which became apparent when Flaubert’s wonderfully colourful and thoughtful correspondence was published after  his death (1880), made Gustave a kind of patron saint of serious literary types, both writers and critics.


The appeal, the pleasure, of realism is in the precision of the descriptions. Flaubert excels at interiors.

A young woman in a blue merino dress with three flounces came to the threshold of the door to receive Monsieur Bovary, whom she led to the kitchen, where a large fire was blazing. The servant’s breakfast was boiling beside it in small pots of all sizes. Some damp clothes were drying inside the chimney-corner. The shovel, tongs, and the nozzle of the bellows, all of colossal size, shone like polished steel, while along the walls hung many pots and pans in which the clear flame of the hearth, mingling with the first rays of the sun coming in through the window, was mirrored fitfully. (Part one, chapter two)

One day he got there about three o’clock. Everybody was in the fields. He went into the kitchen, but did not at once catch sight of Emma; the outside shutters were closed. Through the chinks of the wood the sun sent across the flooring long fine rays that were broken at the corners of the furniture and trembled along the ceiling. Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider. The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders. Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders. (Part one, chapter three)

Light is important in these prose paintings. They have the still, pregnant precision of interiors by Vermeer.

The precisely rendered descriptions extend to finely observed accounts of humans and their surfaces.

In bed, in the morning, by her side, on the pillow, he watched the sunlight sinking into the down on her fair cheek, half hidden by the lappets of her night-cap. Seen thus closely, her eyes looked to him enlarged, especially when, on waking up, she opened and shut them rapidly many times. Black in the shade, dark blue in broad daylight, they had, as it were, depths of different colours, that, darker in the centre, grew paler towards the surface of the eye. His own eyes lost themselves in these depths; he saw himself in miniature down to the shoulders, with his handkerchief round his head and the top of his shirt open… (Part one, chapter five)

And Flaubert deploys the same forensic skills in his descriptions of human behaviour.

When shy Charles marries sentimental Emma, their wedding feast is an opportunity for Flaubert to satirise the behaviour of the small-town Normans he himself lived his whole life among.

Until night they ate. When any of them were too tired of sitting, they went out for a stroll in the yard, or for a game with corks in the granary, and then returned to table. Some towards the finish went to sleep and snored. But with the coffee everyone woke up. Then they began songs, showed off tricks, raised heavy weights, performed feats with their fingers, then tried lifting carts on their shoulders, made broad jokes, kissed the women. At night when they left, the horses, stuffed up to the nostrils with oats, could hardly be got into the shafts; they kicked, reared, the harness broke, their masters laughed or swore; and all night in the light of the moon along country roads there were runaway carts at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clambering up the hills, with women leaning out from the tilt to catch hold of the reins. (Part one, chapter four)

He’s good at crowd scenes. As well as the wedding feast, he really goes to town in his description of the annual Agricultural Show in the novel’s main setting, Yonville. There’s a sumptuous and vivid set-piece description of a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at Rouen. And Emma’s funeral is another opportunity for Gustave to show his skills at large-scale compositions, the prose equivalent of the large canvases of his contemporary realist, the painter Gustave Courbet.

Flaubert’s characters

Flaubert applies the same wry, detached attitude to his characters.

We get a detailed account of the upbringing of Charles Bovary – which amounts to him being spoiled as a boy by his mother and encouraged to run around in the woods to become ‘a man’ by his father, all of which creates his easy-going, lazy personality. Charles drops his medical studies in Rouen and flunks his exams; then gives them another go, scrapes through to qualify as a doctor, and his doting mother finds him a nice, quiet, rural job as doctor in Tostes (a town near the river Seine, about ten miles south of Rouen).

At first we see Emma only through Charles’s eyes when he goes to treat her father, a worthy old farmer, Monsieur Rouault. Her physical beauty and stillness in the dark parlour entrance him. It’s only after they’re married, that Flaubert gives us a chapter describing Emma’s background and we begin to realise she is not at all what she seemed to simple Charles.

Only now are we told that Emma Bovary née Rouault is shallow, sentimental and silly, having been raised on a diet of romantic novels and sentimental religion at a convent school. It turns out that her poise and stillness conceal a mind consumed by the worst clichés of cheap fiction.

She thought, sometimes, that, after all, this was the happiest time of her life – the honeymoon, as people called it. To taste the full sweetness of it, it would have been necessary doubtless to fly to those lands with sonorous names where the days after marriage are full of laziness most suave. In post chaises behind blue silken curtains to ride slowly up steep road, listening to the song of the postilion re-echoed by the mountains, along with the bells of goats and the muffled sound of a waterfall; at sunset on the shores of gulfs to breathe in the perfume of lemon trees; then in the evening on the villa-terraces above, hand in hand to look at the stars, making plans for the future. It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, and that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could not she lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills? (Part one, chapter seven)

Thus Flaubert, skewering the shallow tropes of popular fiction.

Emma hoped the confident amiable young doctor had come to take her away from a life of rural boredom. Instead she finds herself trapped in an arguably even worse life of small-town boredom.

Perhaps she would have liked to confide all these things to someone. But how tell an undefinable uneasiness, variable as the clouds, unstable as the winds? Words failed her – the opportunity, the courage. If Charles had but wished it, if he had guessed it, if his look had but once met her thought, it seemed to her that a sudden plenty would have gone out from her heart, as the fruit falls from a tree when shaken by a hand. But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him. (Part one, chapter seven)

A trajectory of alienation which continues throughout the book, until Emma comes to loathe and detest everything about Charles.


What Flaubert hated, what terrified him most, was banality. Life is banal and, oh God, people are so trite and shallow. In their different ways, Charles and Emma are almost spiteful portraits of dullness.

Charles’s conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everyone’s ideas trudged past, in their everyday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.

And poor Emma, the heroine around which these four hundred pages rotate, is an embodiment of the inchoate longing for adventure, for romance, for something, in the mind of a silly, shallow, provincial young woman, trapped by her narrow upbringing, limited life opportunities and her own trite personality.

Life in 1840s rural France seems almost unbearably dull to us, reading the book in the 21st century – but was doubly so for women who lived virtually under house arrest. Of course, she could go out whenever she liked, except that, in the dull little towns where the couple lived, there was almost nothing to do and no-one to see.

The thought of having a male child afforded her a kind of anticipatory revenge for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free. He can explore the passions and the continents, can surmount obstacles, reach out to the most distant joys. But a woman is constantly thwarted. At once inert and pliant, she has to contend with both physical weakness and legal subordination. Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze hat blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains. (Part two, chapter three)


The story of this small-town tragedy unfolds with a kind of grim inevitability. Flaubert pinpoints with surgical precision the moments where Emma slowly realises she doesn’t love Charles, then chafes at her restricted life, then begins to dislike Charles, then ends up passionately hating him.

This makes her ill, stressed and unhappy. She loses appetite. Charles and his domineering mother, blissfully unaware of her feelings, decide a change of scene is called for and they move to a different town, the (fictional) rural town of Yonville. This is the setting of most of the story.

Against the rhythms of rural and small town life, against the backdrop of the Wednesday market and the Agricultural Show attended by the Department Prefect (part two, chapter 8), we watch Emma:

  • get pregnant, desperately hope it will be a boy who she can project her wish for freedom onto, and sink into despair when it is a girl, who she resents and never bonds with
  • has an almost wordless, touchless, intense passion with a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who shares her naive love of literature and music – perversely she doesn’t return his obvious admiration and he leaves to study in Paris, plunging her deeper into despair

It is then that she is spotted by Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy local landowner and experienced womaniser. With cold calculation he sets out to seduce Emma and add her to his list of conquests.

If he is what we nowadays call a ‘sexual predator’, Emma is far from helpless victim. She is depicted as self-centred and heartless – her lack of affection for her own little girl is quite upsetting to anyone who’s been a parent.

And Flaubert depicts with quite haunting insight the development of their affair, its ups and downs, as both parties are by turns genuinely carried away with love and lust, or have moments of doubt and repulsion, return to the fray willing it to remain heady and romantic, become slightly hardened… and so on.

In other words, there are no heroes or villains, everyone is portrayed with a clinical detachment, sometimes with tones of compassion, sometimes broad satire (the chorus of gossipy townspeople), sometimes bordering on contempt.


Stupid young married woman is seduced by cynical womaniser, has further affairs, runs up huge bills  – then kills herself. It’s not a novel you read for the plot. Instead, it’s a book you can open at any page and immediately enjoy for the precision and deftness of its style. God, it’s good writing, even in translation. Here are the household servants.

‘Let me alone,’ Felicity said, moving her pot of starch. ‘You’d better be off and pound almonds; you are always dangling about women. Before you meddle with such things, bad boy, wait till you’ve got a beard to your chin.’
‘Oh, don’t be cross! I’ll go and clean her boots,’ replied Justin.
And he at once took down from the shelf Emma’s boots, all coated with mud, the mud of the rendezvous, that crumbled into powder beneath his fingers, and that he watched as it gently rose in a ray of sunlight. (Part three, chapter twelve)


And the conception, the composition, feels so right. If the plot isn’t exactly original, it unfurls with a kind of stately orderliness and clarity. Although it is categorised as a ‘realist’ novel, there are in fact many scenes which seem pregnant with an almost medieval sense of allegory and deeper meaning.

In part two, chapter six, Emma hears the church bell of Yonville ringing and is suddenly overcome by the need to confess and unburden herself. She bustles along to the church but there follows an excruciating scene where she tries to hint and convey to the curé that all is not well, but he is hopelessly distracted by a class of unruly young boys he is trying to teach the catechism. Eventually Emma leaves having said nothing, with all her frustration redoubled and bottled up. Back at the house she sits in an agony of frustrated unhappiness while her poor little daughter, Berthe, comes tugging at her skirt, wanting to play. Emma tells her to go away but like all toddlers she comes back and then Emma snaps and pushes her hard with her elbow. With perfect inevitability, Berthe falls backwards and cuts her cheek against the curtain holder, at which Emma snaps out of her misery and panics, shrieking for the maid and then for Charles who comes running. All are impressed by Emma’s doting hyper-care for the child; only we, the reader, have any idea at all of the raging turmoil in her mind which drove her to be so thoughtless.

The whole incident unfolds with the heavy inevitability of a Greek tragedy yet at the same time is entirely naturalistic. There’s nothing forced or symbolic or precious about it. This, you feel, is how life is, made up of silly frustrations, unhappinesses, angers and accidents.

But the way Flaubert chooses and selects these moments is almost breath-taking. ‘Realism’ sounds like it ought to be dull, but Flaubert’s selection of just the right psychological and emotional moments from this tawdry story means that every single scene is alive with meaning and intensity.

And the words. The extremely careful phrasing of every sentence which is used to depict all these charged scenes.

The furniture in its place seemed to have become more immobile, and to lose itself in the shadow as in an ocean of darkness. The fire was out, the clock went on ticking, and Emma marvelled at this calm of all things while within herself was such tumult. But little Berthe was there, between the window and the work-table, tottering on her knitted shoes, and trying to come to her mother to catch hold of the ends of her apron-strings.
‘Leave me alone,’ said Emma, putting her from her with her hand.
The little girl soon came up closer against her knees, and leaning on them with her arms, she looked up with her large blue eyes, while a small thread of pure saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk apron.
‘Leave me alone,’ repeated the young woman quite irritably.

The ticking clock, the spool of spittle, all scream out Emma’s unbearable unhappiness. Character, mood and emotion is portrayed with stunning brilliance on every page. This is what makes Madame Bovary a masterpiece. Here is Charles, alone by the body of Emma, after she’s died and been dressed for her funeral by the village women.

It was the last time; he came to bid her farewell.

The aromatic herbs were still smoking, and spirals of bluish vapour blended at the window-sash with the fog that was coming in. There were few stars, and the night was warm. The wax of the candles fell in great drops upon the sheets of the bed. Charles watched them burn, tiring his eyes against the glare of their yellow flame.

The watering on the satin gown shimmered white as moonlight. Emma was lost beneath it; and it seemed to him that, spreading beyond her own self, she blended confusedly with everything around her – the silence, the night, the passing wind, the damp odours rising from the ground.


If Flaubert is harsh on the self deceptions of the lovers – Emma herself, the calculating cad Rodolphe, the genuinely intoxicated young Leon – and gives an unflinching portrait of Charles’s dull obtuseness and the bossiness of his domineering mother, always ready to stick her oar in – an under-appreciated aspect of the book is its broad humour.

Comedy is harder to quote or pick out of a novel than its countless serious strands and issues. It generally needs more context or build-up. But there’s a kind of Dad’s Army, warm humour about Flaubert’s depictions of the inhabitants of the Norman village. If they can be caught out in petty hypocrisies or pompous speeches or absent-minded behaviour or gossiping, they will be.

A lot rotates around the figure of Homais, the pompous village chemist, who fancies himself as a scientific pioneer, quietly breaks the law by giving medical consultations on the side, and also largely writes the little local paper. Flaubert gives us big quotes from this august journal, allowing us to judge for ourselves its pompous provincial quality.

There’s a classic scene which takes a bit of explaining: Charles’s father dies of a stroke. Charles is so upset he deputes Homais to tell Emma. Homais, in his self-important way, writes a long speech (tearing up numerous drafts in order to arrive at just the right slow revelation of this tragic occurrence.)

And so Homais sends his boy to fetch Emma and tell her it’s important. She is walking by the river, but when the boy tells her something serious has happened and she must come to Monsieur Homais’ at once, she is understandably panic-stricken. But – and here’s the comic denouement – when Emma arrives breathless and anxious, she finds Homais in a fury because his assistant has gone into his inner sanctum and meddled with his chemistry equipment. Emma repeatedly asks what is the important message, while Homais rants and shouts at his poor cowering assistant.

Finally, in a paroxysm of anger, Homais turns to Emma and declares ‘Charles’s father has died,’ then returns to chastising his assistant. See, it’s not very funny when I write it down here. But if you are properly absorbed in the world of the book and its characters and the flow of the narrative, I found it very funny and it is clearly intended to be funny.

Similarly, at the end of the book, as Emma lies slowly dying, Charles sends messages for help to the two most senior doctors in the neighbourhood. After quickly examining the patient, the most senior one concludes there is no hope (he is correct) and, none of them wanting to be associated with death (bad for business), they eagerly take up Monsieur Homais’s invitation to cross the road to his house for a slap-up lunch – which is the point where his wife begins fussing that she doesn’t have fine food suitable for such eminences and sends out in a fluster for some luxury fare.

I grew up in a village. I have kids of my own and a network of family, cousins, in-laws, all with their foibles and peculiarities. My parents have died, friends have died, I’ve seen people behave very oddly around bereavements and funerals: the strongest collapse in tears, the weakest turn out to be brilliant at organising the funeral, some just can’t face it, can’t face death.

Without trying very hard I’ve come across commentary on the internet describing the behaviour of Homais and the doctors as ‘despicable’ and ‘contemptible’, but this seems to me much too harsh, simplistic and judgmental. Their behaviour is human, all-too-human. The judgers obviously haven’t learned from Shakespeare that something can be intensely tragic and howlingly funny at the same time – the message also conveyed 400 years later by Samuel Beckett. And maybe they haven’t been at many death beds or attended many funerals.

In fact, at a pinch, this could be taken as the humanist message of ‘literature’ – that people are complex, really complex, that what outsiders regard as ‘positive’ traits, can be mixed in with ‘negative’ traits, that people’s feelings and motivations fluctuate from moment to moment. It is as if modern readers took the moment when Emma pushes her daughter over as the one and only moment which Defines Her Character and condemn her as a Bad Mother.

That is to take a legalistic, social worker-cum-Nazi informer view of human nature, where one chance action or one chance remark against the Great Leader, condemns a person for life.

Literature – or some kinds of relatively modern literature – are intended to work precisely against simple-minded judgementalism and to show human beings in all their contradictoriness. The public prosecutor in Rouen didn’t understand this, and saw only a story about an immoral woman. It is disheartening, but not that surprising, that in our own hyper-judgmental times, many teachers and students of literature take a similarly one-dimensional, judgmental view of Flaubert’s characters.

Not that he’d have been surprised. It is exactly what he’d have expected.


As befits such a classic, Madame Bovary has been translated into English numerous times.

Madame Bovary, 1886 by Eleanor Marx-Aveling
Madame Bovary, 1928 by James Lewis May
Madame Bovary, 1946 by Gerald Hopkins
Madame Bovary, 1950 by Alan Russell
Madame Bovary, 1957 by Francis Steegmuller
Madame Bovary, 1959 by Lowell Bair
Madame Bovary, 1964 by Mildred Marmur
Madame Bovary, 1965 by Paul de Man
Madame Bovary, 1992 by Geoffrey Wall
Madame Bovary, 2010 by Lydia Davis
Madame Bovary, 2011 by Adam Thorpe

I read the old 1950 Penguin translation by Alan Russell, but I’ve quoted from the only version which seems to be available online, the one by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

Gustave Courbet

Here’s a depiction of a rural funeral by the great pioneer of realism in painting, Gustave Courbet. In its sense of a) composition with large number of figures b) its emphasis on the quirks and individuality of the people depicted – their boredom, itchy noses and distracted looks, in among the expressions of genuine grief and remorse – it is very much the visual equivalent of Flaubert’s all-encompassing vision.

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

Related links

Flaubert’s books

Karl Marx’s prose style

My daughter is studying sociology and I get to help her with her homework and read her textbooks. The flat, dull tone of would-be scientific writing is enough to drive you mad.

The prose style of Karl Marx, according to some people the founder of modern sociology, is the exact opposite.

It is a constant surprise how rhetorical Marx is: pithy poetic phrases, bombastic generalisations, baggy lists, nifty antitheses, classical references, all these are deployed in a tone dominated by sarcasm and satire – Marx constantly expects the ‘bourgeoisie’ to do its worst and is rarely disappointed.

This blog post simply aims to highlight the importance of techniques of rhetorical persuasion in Marx’s writings.

It’s based on a close reading of Karl Marx Political Writings Volume 2: Surveys from Exile edited by David Fernbach – specifically from Marx’s two long essays about the political turmoil in France between 1848 and 1852, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Page numbers refer to the 1973 Pelican paperback edition.


For a start Marx is not respectful. He doesn’t feel any inhibitions about abusing and insulting all his enemies, from the bourgeoisie in general to the hollow trickster, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who he calls

  • a grotesque mediocrity
  • a ludicrous, vulgar and hated person
  • the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon

The Provisional Assembly which replaced the French king in February 1848, had the bright idea of declaring universal male suffrage i.e. all adult men were empowered to vote, most importantly in the election for a new president to replace the abdicated king. 1. The urban liberals in their idealism overlooked the fact that by far the biggest single part of the electorate was the millions of peasants, who outnumbered the populations of all French cities and towns several times over. 2. By the time the presidential election was held in December 1848, the political landscape had changed out of all recognition. The result was an overwhelming victory for the buffoonish figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Thus Marx not only doesn’t like Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, he actively despises the backward, clumsy, ignorant peasants who voted for him.

The symbol that expressed the peasants’ entry into the revolutionary movement, clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized – this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilization.

But his strongest vituperation is, of course, reserved for the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The mortgage debt burdening the soil of France imposes on the French peasantry an amount of interest equal to the annual interest on the entire British national debt. Small-holding property, in this enslavement by capital toward which its development pushes it unavoidably, has transformed the mass of the French nation into troglodytes. Sixteen million peasants (including women and children) dwell in caves, a large number of which have but one opening, others only two and the most favored only three. Windows are to a house what the five senses are to the head. The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly emerged small holdings and fertilized them with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks the blood from their hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist’s cauldron of capital. (p.242)

Note how solid factual analysis (of the results of debt on French peasants) is inextricably entwined with highly alarmist and exaggerated similes and metaphors – of enslavement, troglodytes and vampires. Abuse and insults are an intrinsic part of Marx’s analysis, not an accident, not a removeable element – bitter hatred of the bourgeois enemy is a key part of Marx’s worldview.

Rhetorical repetition 

Marx uses rhetorical repetition, often in the time-honoured form of the three clauses trick.

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality; of finding the spirit of revolution once more, not of making its ghost walk about again.

Bonaparte represented the peasant’s superstition, not his enlightenment; his prejudice, not his judgement; his past, not his future.


He likes antithesis, or the repetition of an idea with variations – ideally a straight inversion – to produce a snappy phrase.

The republic had announced itself to the peasantry with the tax collector; it announced itself to the republic with the emperor.

The December 10 Society was to remain Bonaparte’s private army until he succeeded in transforming the public army into a December 10 Society.

This tendency is more important than it seems because it indicates the underlying fondness for neat patterns of Marx’s thought. He thinks that History moves in neat antitheses, just like his prose (just like the neatly antithetical prose he learned as a student at the feet of the classically trained Idealist philosopher, Hegel).

Repetition of phrases

Sometimes Marx uses repetition with variation (as above). On other occasions he uses simple repetition, its flatness and bathos indicating the batheticness of the actors he attributes it to, in this case the charlatan, Louis-Napoléon. The use of deadpan repetition reminded me of modern stand-up comedy.

As a fatalist, [Louis-Napoléon] lives by the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage. With this in mind, to begin with, he treats officers and non-commissioned officers in his Elysée apartments to cigars and champagne, to cold poultry and garlic sausage.

Out of context this comes over as a bit flat, but in the warmth of his ongoing text this little trick comes as a moment of comic relief. Boom, boom.


There is nothing so glorious as a long, ragbag, rollercoaster of a list.

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section being led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole organization. Decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, rubbed shoulders with vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, portes, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole of the nebulous, disintegrated mass, scattered hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the December 10 Society…

Having conjured up this vivid Dickensian mob, Marx proceeds in his characteristic tone of High Sarcasm to reveal the ‘real’ motives of such bourgeois shams, and uses a panoply of rhetorical tricks to ram home his contempt for Louis.

… A ‘benevolent society’ – in so far as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need to benefit themselves at the expense of the labouring nation. This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in the scum, offal and refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery.

Note the use of three clauses to build rhetorical power. Note the insult words (scum, refuse). Note the ad hominem attack on Louis-Napoléon (a crafty old roué with a vulgar sense of theatre). Rhetoric and insults are central.

Conjuring ghosts and spectres

The word ‘conjure’ appears five times in the Brumaire, ‘ghost’ eight times, ‘spirit’ 16 times. Circe and her ‘black magic’ are mentioned.

The opening sentence of The Communist Manifesto is bold and memorable – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of communism’ – but reading further into Marx, you realise that the use of imagery connected to ghosts, spirits, conjurors and magicians is not that exceptional. It is a routine fixture of his imagination and his rhetoric.

Even a mere Vaisse [a deputy in the national assembly] could conjure up the red spectre… (p.212)

The social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy, on the threshold of the February Revolution. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost… (p.234)

All the ‘Napoleonic ideas’ are ideas of the undeveloped small holding in the freshness of its youth; they are a contradiction to the outlived holdings. They are only the hallucinations of its death struggle, words transformed into phrases, spirits transformed into ghosts. (p.244)

1. The frequency of ghost imagery reminds you that Marx the writer grew to maturity in the 1830s, the heyday of High Romantic writing, of plays and operas about the supernatural, especially in Germany, and so it’s no surprise that there is a certain Gothic quality to his imagination, teeming as it is with ghosts and spectres.

2. It worryingly reminds you that Marx was above all a writer, given to conjuring up words, classes, nations, conflicts with the stroke of a pen, without a second thought. Historical eras, sociological classes, leading politicians, can all be made to appear or disappear in a puff of smoke by Marx, the political prestidigitator.

The constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the
heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, all the other publications, the political names and the intellectual reputations, the civil law and the penal code, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the second Sunday in May, 1852 – all have vanished like a series of optical illusions before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not claim to be a magician. (p.151)

So we find his compadre, Engels, writing in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions with the optimistic hope that all the reactionary types who had helped to crush the uprisings (specifically, in the Austrian empire) would be swept away.

The Austrian Germans and Magyars will be set free and wreak a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will smash this Slav Sonderbund and wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names. The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward. (The Magyar Struggle in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 13 January 1849).

Unfortunately, their descendants in the Marxist-Leninist line of ideology would take them at their word and, instead of merely textual flourishes, would make real people in the real world and – in Stalin and Mao’s cases – entire groups of people (the kulaks, the urban intelligentsia), disappear with the stroke of a pen into freezing gulags or mass graves.

The language of theatre

The language of magic and conjuring is intimately linked with the lexicon of drama, theatre, comedy, masquerades, costumes and stage with which these texts are drenched.

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to
success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds,
ecstasy is the order of the day. (p.152)

The opening pages of the Brumaire are famous for stating an enormous theory of history, which is that current political actors always clothe themselves in the names and values of previous ones. This allows Marx to compare all of the actors, throughout the book, with their predecessors in everywhere from ancient Israel to the Jacobin Revolution via the Rome of the Caesars.

Whether Marx’s theory that history repeats itself with modern political pygmies dressing up in the clothes of Great Men of the Past has any factual validity, as an imaginative and rhetorical trope it creates a vast sense of a) historical knowledgeableness, and of b) intellectual spaciousness – we feel we are privy to a mind which understands all of human history.

If we consider this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference is revealed immediately. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society.

The first ones smashed the feudal basis to pieces and mowed down the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parcelled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and everywhere beyond the French borders he swept the feudal institutions away, to the extent necessary to provide bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent. Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian Colossi disappeared and with them resurrected Romanity – the Brutuses, Gracchi, Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself.

This long quote demonstrates the way Marx thought of politics as intrinsically theatrical, and the way his imagination constantly recurs to Great Men of the (real or legendary) past.

But he is not only pointing out the way that modern political actors often invoke the shades of the Great Protagonists of the past to bolster their authority – there is also a deeper reference in this idea to Marx’s fundamentally Hegelian worldview: the worldview that History is moving through inevitable phases to an inevitable conclusion. The Jacobins ‘performed the task of their time’; Napoleon ‘swept the feudal institutions away’: both prepared the way for the triumph of ‘free competition’. Marx’s view of History is profoundly teleological; the basis of his entire position is that human History is moving along a pre-determined course towards a pre-determined end.

And if History is heading towards an inevitable conclusion, it must follow that we are all to some extent actors on a stage, playing parts in a drama which is already written. This premise maybe explains Marx’s fondness for theatrical metaphors.

The first act of his ministry was the restoration of the old royalist administration. The official scene was at once transformed – scenery, costumes, speech, actors, supers, mutes, prompters, the position of the parties, the theme of the drama, the content of the conflict, the whole situation.

The revolution made progress, forged ahead, not by its immediate tragicomic achievements but, on the contrary, by the creation of a powerful, united counterrevolution…

Marie’s ateliers, devised in direct antagonism to the Luxembourg, offered occasion, thanks to the common label, for a comedy of errors worthy of the Spanish servant farce…

Instead of only a few factions of the bourgeoisie, all classes of French society were suddenly hurled into the orbit of political power, forced to leave the boxes, the stalls, and the gallery and to act in person upon the revolutionary stage!

The people cried: À bas les grands voleurs! À bas les assassins! when in 1847, on the most prominent stages of bourgeois society, the same scenes were publicly enacted that regularly lead the lumpenproletariat to brothels, to workhouses and lunatic asylums, to the bar of justice, to the dungeon, and to the scaffold.

The terrible attempt of April 16 furnished the excuse for recalling the army to Paris – the real purpose of the clumsily staged comedy and for the reactionary federalist demonstrations in the provinces.

In the many places where Marx invokes the theatre, we join him in the audience watching a political drama which has already been written, assimilated and analysed: while the poor political actors take their parts in the farce or tragedy totally seriously, we, the privileged spectators, understand what is really going on behind the sham of bourgeois rhetoric and in the drama of History.

The rhetoric of both these long essays encourage in the reader a sense of superiority to other commentators and analysts, to the politicians and moralists who are taken in by the play. We are not taken in. We know what is really going on. We are the only ones who understand that all human existence, all human history and all political events are based on class conflict, that this dizzying vaudeville of political acts are all combinations on the theme of the ‘bourgeois’ control of power – and that the entire giddy play will one day come tumbling down when we, the clever ones, and the workers, rise up in revolution.

It is in the opening lines of the Brumaire that he expresses most pithily the idea that History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. (p.147)

Taken in isolation this has the crisp appeal of an Oscar Wilde witticism. But I hope I have provided enough context to show that it is just one among many examples of Marx’s highly theatrical way of thinking about history, and of his very dramatic and rhetorical way of writing.

It isn’t, in other words, the one-off insight it is so often painted as being.

On the contrary, this pithy quote is a key which opens up Marx’s entire imaginative worldview of the world as being a stage, a platform on which a pre-scripted drama is unfolding towards its preordained end and we, his readers and the members of his ‘party’ – sitting by his side – are privileged to be in on the secret of the plot, we are the cognoscenti, we have a front row seat at the great drama of History.


There are plenty more examples, and I could have elaborated a bit more on the connection between rhetorical tropes and his actual ideas – but I wanted to keep this blog post short and sweet.

The point is simply that, whenever you read that Marx founded a form of ‘scientific’ socialism, invented the objective ‘scientific’ analysis of society, of its economic and class basis and so on – you should also remember that he did so in texts notable for their sustained irony, ad hominem abuse, rhetorical play and theatrical melodrama.

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Communism in Russia

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Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how,during the Spanish Civil War, the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies – specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was a member of – and how Orwell, having fought bravely for the Republic, was forced to flee the country, only just escaping arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33 by John Willett (1978)

Willett was born in 1917. He attended Winchester public school and then Christ Church, Oxford (one of, if not the, poshest Oxford college). He was just beginning a career in set design when the Second World War came along. He served in British Intelligence. After the war he worked at the Manchester Guardian, before becoming asistant to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, writing scores of reviews and articles, until he went freelance in 1967.

He had travelled to Germany just before the war and become fascinated by its culture. He met and befriended Bertolt Brecht whose plays he later translated into English. As a freelance writer Willett authored two books about the Weimar period. This is the first of the pair, published by the well-known art publisher Thames and Hudson. Like most T&H art books it has the advantage of lots of illustrations (216 in this case) and the disadvantage that most of them (in this case, all of them) are in black and white.

The New Sobriety is divided into 22 shortish chapters, followed by a 30-page-long, highly detailed Chronological Table, and a shorter bibliography. There’s also a couple of stylish one-page diagrams showing the interconnection of all the arts across Europe during the period.

Several points:

  • Though it has ‘Weimar’ in the title, the text is only partly about the Weimar Republic. It also contains lots about art in revolutionary Russia, as well as Switzerland and France. At this point you realise the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as 1917 but that’s not true: the early chapters start with Expressionism and Fauvism and Futurism which were all established before 1910, followed by a section dealing with the original Swiss Dada, which started around 1915.

Cool and left wing

The real point to make about this book is that it reflects Willett’s own interest in the avant-garde movements all across Europe of the period, and especially the politically committed ones. At several points he claims that all the different trends come together into a kind of Gestalt, to form the promise of a new ‘civilisation’.

It was during the second half of the 1920s that the threads which we have followed were drawn together to form something very like a new civilisation… (p.95)

The core of the book is a fantastically detailed account of the cross-fertilisation of trends in fine art, theatre, photography, graphic design, film and architecture between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany.

In the introduction Willett confesses that he would love to see a really thorough study which related the arts to the main political and philosophical and cultural ideas of the era, but that he personally is not capable of it (p.11). Instead, his book will be:

a largely personal attempt to make sense of those mid-European works of art, in many fields and media, which came into being between the end of the First War and the start of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. It is neither an art-historical study of movements and artistic innovations, nor a general cultural history of the Weimar Republic, but a more selective account which picks up on those aspects of the period which the writer feels to be at once the most original and the most clearly interrelated, and tries to see how and why they came about. (p.10)

‘Selective’ and ‘interrelated’ – they’re the key ideas.

When I was a student I loved this book because it opened my eyes to the extraordinary range of new avant-garde movements of the period: Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and then the burst of new ideas in theatre, graphic design, magazines, poetry and architecture.

Although Willett doesn’t come across as particularly left wing himself, the focus on the ‘radical’ innovations of Brecht and Piscator in Germany, or of Proletkult and Agitprop in Soviet Russia, give the whole book a fashionable, cool, left-wing vibe. And if you don’t know much about the period it is an eye-opening experience.

But now, as a middle-aged man, I have all kinds of reservations.

1. Willett’s account is biased and partial

As long as you remember that it is ‘personal’ view, deliberately bringing together the most avant-garde artists of the time and showing the extraordinary interconnectedness (directors, playwrights, film-makers travelling back and forth between Germany and Russia, bringing with them new books, new magazines, new ideas) it is fine. But it isn’t the whole story. I’m glad I read Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture just before this, because Laqueur’s account is much more complete and more balanced.

For example, Laqueur’s book included a lot about the right wing thought of the period. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to those beliefs, but that otherwise the rise of Hitler seems inexplicable, like a tsunami coming out of nowhere. Laqueur’s book makes it very clear that all kinds of cultural and intellectual strongholds never ceased to be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and anti the Republic.

Also Laqueur’s book also plays to my middle-aged and realistic (or tired and jaundiced) opinion that all these fancy left-wing experiments in theatre (in particular), the provocations by Dada, the experimental films and so on, were in fact only ever seen by a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and most of them were (ironically) wealthy and bourgeois enough to afford theatre tickets or know about avant-garde art exhibitions.

Laqueur makes the common sense point that a lot of the books, plays and films which really characterise the period were the popular, accessible works which sold well but have mostly sunk into oblivion. It’s only in retrospect and fired up by the political radicalism of the 1960s, that latterday academics and historians select from the wide range of intellectual and artistic activity of the period those strands which appeal to them in a more modern context.

2. Willett’s modernism versus Art Deco and Surrealism

You realise how selective and partial his point of view is on the rare occasions when the wider world intrudes. Because of Willett’s compelling enthusiasm for ‘the impersonal utilitarian design’ of the Bauhaus or Russian collectivism, because of his praise of Gropius or Le Corbusier, it is easy to forget that all these ideas were in a notable minority during the period.

Thus it came as a shock when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d forgotten they existed during this period, so narrow is his focus. It is amusing, and significant, how much he despises both of them. The chapter (18) is called ‘Retrograde symptoms: modishness in France’ and goes on to describe the ‘capitulation and compromise’ of the French avant-garde in the mid-1920s. 1925 in particular was ‘a year of retreat all down the line’, epitomised by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes exhibition which gave its name to the style of applied arts of the period, Art deco. Willett is disgusted that dressmakers sat on the selecting committees ‘alongside obscure establishment architects and rubbishy artists like Jean-Gabriel Domergue’. Not a single German artist or designer was featured (it was a patriotic French affair after all) and Theo van Doesberg’s avant-garde movement, de Stijl was no represented in the Dutch stand.

Willet hates all this soft luxury Frenchy stuff, this ‘wishy-washy extremely mondain setting’ which was the milieu of gifted amateurs and dilettantes. It was a hateful commercialisation of cubism and fauvism, it was skin-deep modernism.

What took place here was a diffusing of the modern movement for the benefit not of the less well-off but of the luxury consumer. (p.170)

It’s only because I happen to have recently read Andrew Duncan’s encyclopedic book about Art Deco that I know that there was a vast, a truly huge world of visual arts completely separate from the avant-garde Willett is championing – which built buildings, designed the interiors of shops and homes, created fixtures and fittings, lamps and tables and chairs and beds and curtains and wallpapers, all in the luxury, colourful style we now refer to as Art Deco. Thousands of people bought the stylish originals and millions of people bought the affordable copies of all kinds of objects in this style.

Which is right?

When I was a student I also was on the side of the radical left, excited by Willett’s portrait of a world of hard-headed, functional design in homes and household goods, of agit-prop theatre and experimental film, all designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow the ruling classes and create a perfect world. Indeed the same chapter which dismisses French culture and opens with photos of elegant titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, see, that’s real comitment for you!

But therein lies the rub. The radical, anti-traditionalist, anti-bourgeois, up-the-workers movement in architecture, design, film and theatre which Willett loves did not usher in a new workers’ paradise, a new age of peace and equality – the exact opposite.

The sustained left-wing attacks on the status quo in Germany had the net effect of helping to undermine the Weimar Republic and making the advent of Hitler easier. All the funky film innovations of Eisenstein and the theatrical novelties of Meyerhold failed to create an educated, informed and critical working class in Russia, failed to establish new standards of political and social discourse – instead the extreme cliquisness of its exponents made it all the easier to round them up and control (or just execute) them, as Stalin slowly accumulated power from 1928 onwards.

Older and a bit less naive than I used to be, I am also more relaxed about political ‘commitment’. I have learned what I consider to be the big lesson in life which is that – There are a lot of people in the world. Which means a lot of people who disagree – profoundly and completely disagree – with your own beliefs, ideas, convictions. With everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And they have as much right to live and think and talk and meet and discuss their stuff, as you do. And so democracy is the permanently messy, impure task of creating a public, political, cultural and artistic space in which all kinds of beliefs and ideas can rub along.

Willett exemplifies what I once read to be the central idea of Modernism: that there is only one narrative, one avant-garde, one movement: you have to be on the bus. He identifies his Weimar Germany-Soviet Russia axis as the movement. The French weren’t signed up to it. So he despises the French.

But we now, in 2018, live in a thoroughly post-Modernist world and the best explanation I’ve heard of the difference between modernism and post-modernism is that, in the latter, we no longer believe there is only one narrative, One Movement which you simply must, must, must belong to. There are thousands of movements. There are all types of music, looks, fashions, lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (the wishy-washy degenerate French fashion) itself seems part of the problem. It’s the same insistence on binary extremes which underlay the mentality of a Hitler or a Stalin (either you are for the Great Leader or against him). And it was the same need to push political opinions and movements to extremes which undermined the centre and led to dictatorship.

Whereas the fashionably arty French world (let alone the philistine, public school world of English culture) was simply more relaxed, less extreme. They had more shopping in them. The Art Deco world which Willett despises was the world of visual and applied art which most people, most shoppers, and most of the rich and the aspiring middle classes would have known about. (And I learned from Duncan’s book that Art Deco really was a lot about shops, about Tiffany’s and Liberty’s and Lalique’s and the design and the shop windows of these top boutiques.)

On the evidence of Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture and Duncan’s account of the Art Deco world, I now see Willett’s world of Bauhaus and Constructivism – which I once considered the be-all and end-all of 1920s art – as only one strand, just one part of a much bigger artistic and decorative universe.

Same goes for Willett’s couple of pages about Surrealism. Boy, he despises those guys. Again it was a bit of a shock to snap out of Willett’s wonderworld of Bauhaus-Constructivism to remember that there was this whole separate and different art movement afoot. Reading Ruth Brandon’s book, Surreal Lives would lead you to believe that it, Surrealism, was the big anti-bourgeois artistic movement of the day. Yet, from Willett’s point of view, focused on the Germany-Russia axis, Surrealism comes over as pitiful play acting.

He says it was unclear throughout the 1920s whether Surrealism even existed outside a handful of books made with ‘automatic writing’. When Hans Arp or Max Ernst went over to the Surrealist camp their work had nothing to tell the German avant-garde; they were German, it was more a case of the German avant-garde coming to the rescue of a pitifully under-resourced French movement.

There was in fact something slightly factitious about the very idea of Surrealist painting right up to the point when Dali arrived with his distinctively creepy academicism. (p.172)

Surrealism’s moving force, the dominating poet André Breton, is contrasted with Willett’s heroes.

Breton’s romantic irrationalism, his belief in mysterious forces and the quasi-mediumistic use of the imagination could scarcely have been more opposed to the open-eyed utilitarianism of the younger Germans, with their respect for objective facts. (p.172)

I was pleased to read that Willett, like me, finds the Surrealists ‘anti-bourgeois’ antics simply stupid schoolboy posturing.

As for his group’s aggressive public gestures, like Georges Sadoul’s insulting postcard to a Saint-Cyr colonel or the wanton breaking-up of a nightclub that dared to call itself after Les Chants de Maldoror, one of their cult books, these were bound to seem trivial to anyone who had experienced serious political violence. (p.172)

All in all, although the Surrealists bandied around the term ‘revolution’ they didn’t know what it meant, they had no idea what it was like to live through the revolutionary turmoil of Soviet Russia or the troubled years 1918 to 1923 in post-war Germany which saw repeated attempts at communist coups in Munich and Berlin, accompanied by savage street fighting between left and right. Although the Surrealists pretentiously incorporated the world revolution into the title of their magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, none of them knew what a revolution really entailed, and

Breton, Aragon and Eluard remained none the less bourgeois in their life styles and their concern with bella figura. (p.172)

There were no massacres in the streets of comfortable Paris, and certainly nothing to disturb the salon of the Princess Edmond de Polignac, who subsidised the first performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or to upset the Comtesse de Noailles, who commissioned Léger to decorate her villa at Hyères and later underwrote the ‘daring’ Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Age d’Or (1930).

In this, as in so many other things, French intellectuals come across as stylish poseurs performing for impeccably aristocratic patrons.

3. Willett’s account is clotted and cluttered

The text is clotted with names, absolutely stuffed. To give two symptoms, each chapter has a paragraph-long summary of its content which is itself often quite exhausting to read; and then the text itself suffers from being rammed full of as many names as Willett can squeeze in. Almost every sentence has at least one if not more subordinate clauses which add in detail about the subject’s other activities, or another organisation they were part of, or a list of other people they were connected to, or examples of other artists doing the same kind of thing.

Here’s a typical chapter summary, of ‘Chapter 16 Theatre for the machine age: Piscator, Brecht, the Bauhaus, agitprop‘:

Middlebrow entertainment and the revaluation of the classics. The challenge of cinema. Piscator’s first political productions and his development of documentary theatre; splitting of the Volksbühne and formation of his own company; his historic productions of 1927-8 with their use of machinery and film. The new dramaturgy and the problem of suitable plays. Brecht’s reflection of technology, notably in Mann ist Mann; his collaboration with Kurt Weill and the success of the Threepenny Opera; epic theatre and the collective approach. Boom of ‘the theatre of the times’ in 1928-9. Experiments at the Bauhaus: Schlemmer, Moholy, Nagy, Gropius’s ‘Totaltheater’ etc;. The Communist agitprop movement. Parallel developments in Russia: Meyerhold, TRAM, Tretiakoff.

Quite tiring to read, isn’t it? And that’s before you get to the actual text itself.

So Eisenstein could legitimately adopt circus techniques, just as Grosz and Mehring could appear in cabaret and Brecht before leaving Munich worked on the stage and film sketches of that great comic Karl Valentin. In 1925 a certain Walter von Hollander proposed what he called ‘education by revue’, the recruiting of writers like Mehring, Tucholsky and Weinert to ‘fill the marvellous revue form with the wit and vigour of our time’. This form was itself a kind of montage, and Reinhardt seems to have planned a ‘Revue for the Ruhr’ to which Brecht would contribute – ‘A workers’ revue’ was the critic Herbert Ihering’s description – while Piscator too hoped to open his first season with his own company in 1927 by a revue drawing on the mixed talents of his new ‘dramaturgical collective’. This scheme came to nothing, though Piscator’s earlier ‘red Revue’ – the Revue roter Rummel of 1924 – became important for the travelling agit-prop groups which various communist bodies now began forming on the model of the Soviet ‘Blue Blouses’. (p.110)

Breathless long sentences packed with names and works ranging across places and people and theatres and countries, all about everything. This is because Willett is at pains to convey his one big idea – the astonishing interconnectedness of the world of the 1920s European avant-garde – at every possible opportunity, and so embodies it in these chapter summaries and even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by the key aspects of the subject matter, for example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, specially in Russia where revolutionary excitement slowly morphed towards totalitarian bureaucracy, all tending to give rise to countless initialisms.

Becher, Anor Gabór and the Young Communist functionary Alfred Kurella, who that autumn [of 1927] were part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary celebrations [of the October Revolution] in Moscow, also attended the IBRL’s foundation meeting and undertook to form a German section of the body. Simultaneously some of the surviving adherents of the earlier Red Group decided to set up a sister organisation which would correspond to the Association of Artists of the Russian Revolution, an essentially academic body now posing as Proletarian. Both plans materialised in the following year, when the new German Revolutionary Artists Association (or ARBKD) was founded in March and the Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers’ League (BPRS) in October. (p.173)

4. Very historical

Willett’s approach is very historical. As a student I found it thrilling the way he relates the evolving ideas of his galaxy of avant-garde writers, artists and architects – Grosz and Dix, Gropius and Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy and Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Eistenstein, Piscator and Brecht – to the fast-changing political situations in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, which, being equally ignorant of, I also found a revelation.

Now, more familiar with this sorry history, I found the book a little obviously chronological. Thus:

  • Chapter six – Revolution and the arts: Germany 1918-20, from Arbeitsrat to Dada
  • Chapter seven – Paris postwar: Dada, Les Six, the Swedish ballet, Le Corbusier
  • Chapter eight – The crucial period 1921-3; international relations and development of the media; Lenin and the New Economic Policy; Stresemann and German stabilisation

And so on.

5. Not very analytical

The helter-skelter of fraught political developments in both countries – the long lists of names, their interconnections emphasised at every opportunity – these give a tremendous sense of excitement to his account, a sense that scores of exciting artists were involved in all these fast-moving and radically experimental movements.

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t come away with any new ideas or sense of enlightenment. All the avant-garde artists he describes were responding to two basic impulses:

  1. The advent of the Machine Age (meaning gramophone, cars, airplanes, cruise ships, portable cameras, film) which prompted experiments in all the new media and the sense that all previous art was redundant.
  2. The Bolshevik Revolution – which inspired far left opinions among the artists he deals with and inspired, most obviously, the agitprop experiments in Russia and Piscator and Brecht’s experiments in Germany – theatre in the round, with few if any props, the projection onto the walls of moving pictures or graphs or newspaper headlines – all designed to make the audience think (i.e. agree with the playwright and director’s communist views).

But we sort of know about these already. From Peter Gay’s book, and then even more so Walter Laqueur’s book, I came away with a strong sense of the achievement and importance of particular individuals, and their distinctive ideas. Thomas Mann emerges as the representative novelist of the period and Laqueur’s book gives you a sense of the development of his political or social thought (coming round to support the Republic) and his works, especially the complex of currents found in his masterpiece The Magic Mountain.

Willett just doesn’t give himself the space or time to do that. In the relentless blizzard of lists and connections only relatively superficial aspects of the countless works referenced are ever mentioned. Thus Piscator’s theatre projects moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops. That’s it; we don’t get a sense of the specific images or facts used in any one production, rather a quick list of the productions, of the involvement of Brecht or whoever in the writing, Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Thus there is:

6. Very little analysis of specific works

I think the book would have benefited from slowing down and studying half a dozen key works in a little more detail. Given the funky design of the book into pages with double columns of text, with each chapter introduced by a functionalist summary in bold black type, it wouldn’t have been going much further to insert page-long special features on, say, The Threepenny Opera (1928) or Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate housing in Stuttgart (1927). Just some concrete examples of what the style was about, how it worked, and what kind of legacy it left would have significantly lifted the book and left the reader with concrete, specific instances. As it is the blizzard of names, acronyms and historical events is overwhelming.

The Wall Street Crash leads to the end of the Weimar experiment

In the last chapters Willett, as per his basic chronological structure, deals with the end of the Weimar Republic. America started it, by having the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. American banks were plunged into crisis and clawed back all their outstanding loans in order to stay solvent. Thus businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had been the main lender to the German government. it had been an American, Charles G. Dawes who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan which in 1924 arranged for loans to Germany, which it would invest in industry, which would raise taxes which it would use to pay off the punishing reparations to France, which would use the money to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

The guarantee of American money stabilised the currency and enabled the five years of economic and social stability which followed, 1924-29, the high point for Willett of the Republic’s artistic and cultural output. All funded, let it be remembered, by capitalist America’s money.

The Wall Street Crash ended that. American banks withdraw loans. German industry collapses. Unemployment shoots from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler takes power. Six million! People voted, logically enough, for the man who promised economic and national salvation.

In this respect, the failure of American capitalism, which the crash represented, directly led to the rise of Hitler, to the Second World War, to the invasion of Russia, the partition of Europe and the Cold War. No Wall Street Crash, none of that would have happened.

A closed worldview leads to failure

Anyway, given that all this is relatively well known (it was all taught to my kids for their history GCSEs) what Willett’s account brings out is the short-sighted stupidity of the Communist Party of Germany and their Soviet masters. Until the end the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD), and often campaigned against them. Willett quotes a contemporary communist paper saying an SPD government and a disunited working class would be a vastly worse evil than a fascist government and a unified working class. Well, they got the fascist government they hoped for.

In fact, the communists wanted the Big Crisis to come because they were convinced that it would bring about the German Revolution (which would itself trigger revolution across Europe and the triumph of communism). How could they be so stupid? Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming media. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select news media, journalism and art and movies and so on, which reinforce their views and convince them that everyone thinks like them.

To some extent the extreme unreality of this attitude, with its deceptive aura of do-or-die militancy, sprang from the old left-wing tendency to underrate the non-urban population, which is where the Nazis had so much of their strength. At the same time it reflects a certain social and cultural isolation which sprang from the KPD’s own successes. For the German Communists lived in a world of their own, where the party catered for every interest. Once committed to the movement you not only read AIZ and the party political press: your literary tastes were catered for by the Büchergilde Gutenberg and the Malik-Verlag and corrected by Die Linkskurve; your entertainment was provided by Piscator’s and other collectives, by the agitprop groups, the Soviet cinema, the Lehrstück and the music of Eisler and Weill; your ideology was formed by Radványi’s MASch or Marxist Workers’ School; your visual standards by Grosz and Kollwitz and the CIAM; your view of Russia by the IAH. If you were a photographer, you joined a Workers-Photographers’ group; if a sportsman, some kind of Workers’ Sports Association; whatever your special interests Münzenberg [the German communist publisher and propagandist] had a journal for you. You followed the same issues, you lobbied for the same causes. (p.204)

And you failed. Your cause failed and everyone you knew was arrested, murdered or fled abroad.

A worldview which is based on a self-confirming bubble of like-minded information is proto-totalitarian, inevitably seeks to ban or suppress any opposing points of view, and is doomed to fail in an ever-changing world where people with views unlike yours outnumber you.

A democratic culture is one where people acknowledge the utter difference of other people’s views, no matter how vile and distasteful, and commit to argument, debate and so on, but also to conceding the point where the opponents are, quite simply, in the majority. You can’t always win, no matter how God-given you think your views of the world. But you can’t even hope to win unless you concede that your opponents are people, too, with deeply held views. Just calling them ‘social-fascists’ (as the KPD called the SPD) or ‘racists’ or ‘sexists’ (as bienpensant liberals call anyone who opposes them today) won’t change anything. You don’t stand a chance of prevailing unless you listen to, learn from, and sympathise with, the beliefs of people you profoundly oppose.

A third of the German population voted for Hitler in 1932 and the majority switched to Führer worship once he came to power. The avant-garde artists Willett catalogues in such mind-numbing profusion pioneered techniques of design and architecture, theatre production and photography, which still seem astonishingly modern to us today. But theirs was an entirely urban movement among a hard core of like-minded bohemians. They didn’t even reach out to university students (as Laqueur’s chapter on universities makes abundantly clear), let alone the majority of Germany’s population, which didn’t live in fashionable cities.

Over the three days it took to read this book, I’ve also read newspapers packed with stories about Donald Trump and listened to radio features about Trump’s first year in office, so it’s been difficult not to draw the obvious comparisons between Willett’s right-thinking urban artists who failed to stop Hitler and the American urban liberals who failed to stop Trump. American liberals – middle class, mainly confined to the big cities, convinced of the obvious rightness of their virtuous views on sexism and racism – snobbishly dismissing Trump as a flashy businessman with a weird haircut who never got a degree, threw up their hands in horror at his racist, sexist remarks. And utterly failing to realise that these were all precisely the tokens which made him appeal to non-urban, non-university-educated, non-middle class, and economically suffering rural, small-town populations.

Also, as in Weimar, the left devoted so much energy to tearing itself apart – Hillary versus Sanders – that it only woke up to the threat from the right-wing contender too late.

Ditto Brexit. The liberal elite (Guardian, BBC) based in London just couldn’t believe it could happen, led as it was by obvious buffoons like Farage and Johnson, people who make ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ comments and so, therefore, obviously don’t count. Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count. Well, they were proved wrong. In a democracy everyone’s vote counts as precisely ‘1’, no matter whether they’re a professor of gender studies at Cambridge (which had the highest Remain vote) or a drug dealer in Middlesborough (which had the highest Leave vote). Dismissing Farage and Johnson as idiots, and anyone who voted Leave as a racist is simply a way of avoiding looking into and trying to address the profound social and economic issues which drove the vote.

Well, the extremely clever sophisticates of Berlin also thought Hitler was a provincial bumpkin, a ludicrous loudmouth spouting absurd opinions about Jews which no sensible person could believe, who didn’t stand a chance of gaining power. And by focusing on the (ridiculous little) man they consistently failed to address the vast economic and social crisis which underpinned his support and brought him to power. Ditto Trump. Ditto Brexit.

Some optimists believe the reason for studying history is so we can learn from it. But my impression is that the key lesson of history is that – people never learn from history.

Related links

Related reviews

The Resistance by Matthew Cobb (2009)


September 3 – France and Britain declare war on Nazi Germany as a result of its invasion of Poland
May 10 – after 9 months of ‘phoney war’, Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and quickly overruns them
June 18 – In the dying days of the Battle of France, General de Gaulle broadcasts from London telling the French to resist Germany
June 22 – The defeatist French government signs an armistice with Germany which establishes German direct rule over northern and western France and leaves southern, ‘unoccupied’ France, to be run by a new French government led by First World War hero, Marshal Pétain. Technically, the unoccupied territory referred to itself simply as the ‘French state’, but the English-speaking world refers to it as ‘Vichy France’ because its government was located in the small spa town of Vichy.

Map of German-occupied and unoccupied France from July 1940 to November 1942

During its 18 month rule the Vichy government slowly instituted Nazi policies, banning Jews, rounding up eligible Frenchmen for enforced labour in Germany and so on.
November -in response to the mounting level of Resistance activities, the Nazis moved to occupy all of France.
January – The Germans lose the Battle of Stalingrad
July – The Allies invade Italy and fight their way up the peninsula
June – D-Day landings in Normandy
August – Paris is liberated

The French Resistance

Books There are over 3,000 books about the Resistance in French, and half a dozen good overall accounts in English, of which this is one of the most recent.

Number of résistants Anyone who resisted was a résistant. In total, in the four years of Germany occupation, from June 1940 to the liberation of Paris in August 1944, some 500,000 people took part in the broadest definition of resistance activities. Around 100,000 were arrested, imprisoned, deported to camps in Germany or executed.

Collaboration and resistance It seems that when Marshal Pétain and members of the Vichy government first used this word, collaboration, to describe their working arrangement with the Germans, it had neutral connotations, it just described a new way of working together. Many French thought the old Marshall was a canny planner who was just waiting for the right moment to turn on the Nazis and kick them out. Only very slowly did ordinary people realise that Pétain had no such plan and was happy to connive in:

  • the collapse of living standards
  • food shortages
  • the mass deportation of young men to work in labour camps
  • the persecution, imprisonment then deporting of the Jews

So ‘resistance’, as a concept, was developed partly as a response to ‘collaboration’ – yin and yang.

De Gaulle The book makes clear that when General de Gaulle escaped to England, he was more or less alone. Certainly, over 100,000 French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk and then billeted in the south of England, but from the higher echelons of the French army de Gaulle was virtually alone. When an army officer called on him to ask for a job he had to bring his own paper to write out the specification. De Gaulle barely had an office, no secretary, a few military assistants.

Nonetheless, de Gaulle’s invincible optimism that France would be liberated persuaded the British government to give him a five-minute slot in the weekly half hour broadcast to France, and this helped identify him with the cause of Free France, which is what he named his movement.

The book then chronicles the very long and very complex series of political manoeuvring among the Allies, de Gaulle’s own camp, among the myriad different resistance groups and among Vichy politicians which slowly led to de Gaulle becoming the most acceptable – or the least unacceptable – figurehead which all the different forces fighting to liberate France could rally round.


Varieties of resistance Only slowly, and in scattered pockets all over occupied and unoccupied France, did people from all walks of life decide they had to ‘resist’ the invader, by any means possible. To begin with this took modest forms:

  • schoolchildren marched on patriotic holidays
  • everyone, from kids to old ladies, carved, wrote or made models or hand gestures of ‘V for victory’, for example painting V on the wall or writing it in the dirt on cars
  • after waving the tricolour flag was banned, people wore clothes the same colour as the French flag

Amateur and professional

While dealing with these early outbreaks of spontaneous and ‘popular’ resistance, Cobb also sets the scene for the politics of the Resistance. The broad outline is simple. De Gaulle isolated in London assumed every French citizen would place themselves under his control and would obey military discipline and his orders. The snag was that the Allies had a very uneasy relationship with de Gaulle and his supposed Free French, because he was arrogant, dictatorial and unbending. On the other hand, he did become an icon due to his radio broadcasts and it aided the Allied effort to have a central focus of dissent, even if a difficult one.

Meanwhile, for his part, de Gaulle had little grasp of what was going on in France. Broadly speaking there appear to have been two periods: before Hitler’s invasion of Russia the entire communist party and all its affiliates was under orders from Stalin not to attack the Germans. They were hors du combat from June 1940 till June 1941. During this period small resistance networks bloomed all across France. Some carrying out ad hoc sabotage when a member had the opportunity – cutting telegraph wires, damaging railway lines. Others – in Paris especially – organised underground newspapers, propaganda and morale boosting stunts. All learned from bitter experience how not to set up underground organisations, how not to get caught, how to code messages and arrange secret rendezvous. Newspapers around which organisations clustered included Liberation, Combat, Valmy and Pantagruel.

All these organisations reflected the severe splintering which had characterised French political life before the war (and would continue to do so afterwards). Some were extreme right-wing Catholic monarchists; some liberal, some non-aligned, some socialist and when the communists joined the fray in 1941, it was reflected in the resurgence of their well-written newspaper, L’Humanité.

The engagement of the communists after June 1941 changed the dynamic in numerous ways: most obviously because they were well-organised, motivated and armed, and started carrying out effective assassinations and sabotage straight away. But they also upset the political balance. De Gaulle and the Allies became worried that arming ‘the Resistance’ would mean, in effect, helping the communists prepare for a post-liberation revolution. Certainly, the resistance had to be maintained as a morale-boosting force and military asset, but prevented from turning into an insurrectionary, revolutionary force. This one consideration explains the single greatest issue for the Resistance, and its biggest complaint against the Allies, its persistent shortage of weapons.

The rest of the book details the prolonged and complex negotiations and jockeying between all parties at a high level, a lot of which focuses round De Gaulle’s representative in France, Jean Moulin, expert at setting up committees and organisations. On this political level, the history of the Resistance disappears into a blizzard of organisations and acronyms, continuing as high-level political and diplomatic negotiations for the rest of the war. To give a flavour:

On 23 July 1943 the MUR [Mouvement Unis de la Résistance] and some of the small resistance organisations set up a ‘Central Committee’, which deliberately excluded all the political parties (including the Communists, the FTP [Francs Tireurs et Partisans] and the Front National) and which sought to control all armed action. In response, de Gaulle’s delegate to the northern zone, Claude Serreulles, set up a rival CNR [Conseil National de la Résistance] ‘Bureau’, composed of the Front National, the PCF [Parti Communist Français], the CGT trade union, Ceux de la Résistance, the OCM [Organisation Civil et Militaire] and Libération-Nord, which also claimed control over the maquis and the Secret Army. This was a straightforward power struggle over the leadership of the Resistance, but the contending parties were aligning themselves in unexpected way. The Parisian Gaullists had united with the Communist Party, while the Resistance movements had the support of Colonel Passy’s BCRA [Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action] in the shape of Pierre Brossolette… (p.226)

Much of the book reads like this. There are three densely-printed pages of acronyms at the end of the book.

The maquis

Meanwhile, down on the ground, people were fighting and getting killed. Cobb describes how various resistance groups organised, created structures, cells, passwords, safe houses, dead letter drops and all the rest of the ‘tradecraft’ we read about in John le Carré novels. (It’s slightly strange that no-one has thought of creating a series of Resistance novels; presumably there are lots in French; I’ve never heard of any.)

There was another turning point in February 1943 when, as a consequence of the catastrophic defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad, the Germans decided to force all able-bodied French men into the Service du Travail Obligatoire i.e. being conscripted to work in Germany. Many thousands evaded the call-up by taking to the hills.

This is the origin of the maquis – meaning ‘the bush’ – a word which describes the scrubby landscape of south-eastern France where it these groups became common. They were quite separate from the longer-established urban-based underground newspapers and information-gathering networks although, over the next few years as Cobb shows in detail, they became organised into regional groupings and these themselves came under the umbrella of the national organisations which were being set up.


The Nazis started the occupation fairly relaxed, but responded fiercely to ad hoc assassinations or sabotage, and got slowly, steadily crueller. There was a step change when the communists became active after June 1941 and began to carry out assassinations and attacks on German soldiers. The Nazis had taken hostages and didn’t hesitate to murder them in reprisal. When the military commander of Nantes, Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Hotz was assassinated in October 1941, a handful of French hostages were shot by the local authorities. Then Hitler heard about it and personally ordered a hundred Frenchmen to be executed. That was his rule of thumb: 100 natives shot for every Nazi murdered.

The book is littered with stories of a resistance attack leading to the execution of hostages or just to the rounding up and shooting of men off the street of the nearest village or town. There are some nightmare accounts by people lucky enough to survive mass killings as at the notorious incident at Oradour-sur-Glane where, on 10 June 1944, the entire population of 642 was murdered and the village reduced to ruins by a German Waffen-SS company, allegedly to free an SS officer who was being held prisoner by the Resistance.

This was the most extreme example of cold-blooded brutality, but Cobb’s narrative is full of stories of résistants captured, tortured, deported and executed.

Many were given away by informers: entire networks, sometimes of 1,000 people, could be rolled up, imprisoned and tortured by the betrayal of one person. When two SOE men were arrested carrying uncoded messages in June 1943, it led to the capture of over 1,000 members of the PROSPECT network, the biggest single blow suffered by the Resistance. But Cobb also gives stories of terrible accidents and basic errors in security – carrying uncoded lists of names was a common error. I was struck that it is a basic rule of tradecraft to only wait ten, a maximum of fifteen minutes, at a rendezvous site, then clear off. Cobb gives stories of several high-ranking résistant who ignored this rule and were stopped, questioned, arrested, tortured and tragically revealed their networks.

By page 200 I had already had enough of men and women being arrested, tortured, breaking, giving other names, then being shot or beheaded or sent off to the death camps in the East – but it was only 1943 and there was another year of escalating horror and brutality to go. It becomes painful and terrible to imagine what it must have been like. And to witness so much heroism, God the bravery and dignity with which so many of these very young men and women went to their deaths makes me feel ashamed of the triviality of our modern world.

The Jews

To my mild surprise the book is full of stories of how very pro-Jewish the French were. There are lots of stories of non-Jews in all walks of life doing what they could to help and protect the Jews, as the Nazi regime became more repressive, humiliating and then began rounding up Jews for extermination.

Léon Bronchart was a forty-four-year-old train driver. In October 1941, when he was ordered to drive a train of Jewish deportees from Montauban station, he simply refused. The station master and depot manager argued with him but he refused. He shut down the engine and walked away. Another driver was found, and Bronchart was disciplined and fined. A few months later he was caught in possession of the banned resistance paper, Combat, and sent to do forced labour in Buchenwald camp, where he sabotaged the V-2 rockets he was working on, before being sent to Bergen-Belsen. As a non-Jew, he survived. After the war, Israel awarded him the title ‘A Righteous Among the Nations’. This story made me cry.

Or the account of André Trocmé, the Protestant pastor of Le Chambon, who organised the mass concealment of thousands of young Jews among his flock and in the nearby countryside. He is quoted as saying, ‘We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men.’ Simple principle, but leading to unimaginable bravery.

In July 1942 the Nazis rounded up about 13,000 Jewish men, women and children in Paris. Half of them were kept in a sports stadium for days with no food or water, till they could be loaded into trains and shipped east. Resistance newspapers reprinted accounts of the conditions (which, of course, went unmentioned in the official newspapers) and commented on the horror.

With the latest measures taken against the Jews, we are sinking even lower. Those who have ordered these measures are forever condemned in the eyes of all human and divine justice… We hesitate to use the term bestiality, because a beast does not separate a female from its babies. This is a case of human intelligence entirely in the service of Evil, using all its resources to aid the global triumph of evil, of cruelty, of filth. (quoted page 137)

This is stirring rhetoric against the evil of anti-Semitism, but Cobb also quotes an article in Combat titled ‘The Jews, Our Brothers’, which makes more of a reasoned case for the stupidity, for the incoherence, for the meaninglessness of anti-Semitism.

All those who suffer at the hands of the Germans, be they Jews or not, be they Communists or not, are our brothers… There is no Jewish racial problem, no question of Jewish ‘blood’, for the simple reason that the ‘Jewish race’ is, as all serious ethnologists recognise, as mixed as the ‘French race’ or the ‘German race’… This Jewish community is a constituent component of the French national community, just like all the other religious, cultural or regional communities. (quoted page 137)

Some of the resistance groups came from the right, some from the extreme right-wing of French politics, and included military men, extreme Catholics and conservatives among whom everyday anti-Semitism had been commonplace. Cobb shows how one of the effects of the occupation was to undermine if not eliminate anti-Semitism in the rhetoric of all the Resistance groups.

Nonetheless, in the final analysis, 85 railways convoys left France, carrying 70,000 Jews (10,000 of them children) to the death camps, without any serious effort made to hamper or sabotage them. You can dwell on this fact and ask why the Resistance didn’t do more to stop them (the short answer is that no-one appreciated the scale of the Holocaust until the war was over). And then, to put it in context, a similar number of trains left France carrying some 88,000 résistants and nobody stopped or liberated those, either.

The Resistance could only do what it could do, generally small-scale attacks or sabotage at times and places which best suited its (very) limited means.

Politics by other means

In summary, the Resistance may have played a sporadic role in hurting the Nazi war effort (though not, in the great scale of things, very much) – but more importantly, it was the way French politics continued during the occupation.

You can separate the book into two distinct strands – one is the complex history of numerous groups and networks on the ground, their heroic work to organise, meet, print newspapers and occasionally carry out attacks, some minor, some really significant and daring, like the January 1944 attack on the aircraft propeller factory at Figeac.

The other is the permanent buzz of high-level politics going on ‘behind the scenes’ as all sides fought over their visions for a post-war France. For example, the anti-imperialist Roosevelt envisioned a Europe of free states stripped of their colonial empires. For de Gaulle, on the contrary, regaining control of the empire was a key part of the French war aim, alongside restoring strong, authoritarian government under a strong authoritarian leader such as, ahem, himself.

While Roosevelt detested de Gaulle, he realised that at least he wasn’t a communist. For he, Churchill and de Gaulle shared a common fear that the Resistance would become a united military force strong enough so that, come the liberation – in whatever form – it would provide the vanguard for a Russian-style revolution.

And this is what some communists hoped for. But Socialist résistants, on the contrary, wanted something like a restoration of the 1936 Popular Front government. While a lot of people on the ground in France simply wanted a restoration of democratic politics – or had no political views at all – or were at the opposite extreme, arch right-wing Catholics who detested communists, socialists and liberals alike.

So a major strand of the book is detailing the incessant manoeuvring which went on all the time between all these different players, in light of the changing fortunes of war (e.g. June 1941 German invasion of Russia; December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and resultant entry of the USA into the war; January 1943 Germans lose the battle of Stalingrad; July 1943 the Allies take Sicily and Mussolini is sacked and imprisoned).

This manoeuvring carried right on up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944, and then swiftly became the ‘business as usual’ of French politics – which meant the dizzying turnaround of half-baked administrations which drove de Gaulle so mad with frustration that he resigned as head of the provisional government in 1946.

But America’s main war aim re. France was achieved. The Resistance did not become the kernel of a revolutionary army. There was no communist revolution in France. The communist party remained a very powerful presence for the rest of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, but it had been ordered during these crucial years not to foment revolution, not to frighten the Allies which Stalin needed to keep as friends, not to abuse its power. In fact, when Corsica was liberated in September 1943, the communist participants went out of their way to work in partnership with and submit themselves to the authority of the Free French forces.

de Gaulle part two

It is hilarious to read how much Roosevelt hated de Gaulle for his arrogance and hauteur – he couldn’t bear to be in the same room as the tall Frenchman. Even after the Free French located their new government in Algiers (after it had been liberated from the Germans by the Americans) Roosevelt still refused to consult it, and de Gaulle was never invited to the meetings of the Big Three – Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin.

It is a very striking fact that the Allies didn’t bother to tell de Gaulle the date of the D-Day landings until two days beforehand, on 4 June. All senior Allied officials and military leaders knew this weeks before de Gaulle; even the Resistance leaders had been told a week earlier. It cannot be over-emphasised how much Roosevelt et al disliked him.

And yet, the final pages of Cobb’s book show how, despite everything, de Gaulle’s rigidity and hauteur paid off. Once Paris was liberated, once he had walked down the Champs d’Elysees at the head of triumphal French troops (rustled up for the occasion), once he had announced that he was running the government, no other individual had the same a) contacts with the Allied leaders b) reputation among the general population, thanks to all those radio broadcasts. By definition, most of the Resistance leaders had worked anonymously, or under pseudonyms, whereas de Gaulle broadcast under his own name.

Which just goes to show that nations need, in the sense of wish for, desire, want to obey, one clear identified leader – even if he is a supercilious wanker. By the time I got to the last chapter I wasn’t at all surprised to read that in his speeches on the day of Paris’s liberation, de Gaulle made no mention of the Resistance, none at all; didn’t mention them, didn’t thank them (p.268). And that ten years later, in his memoirs, he hardly referred to this entire, huge, multi-headed organisation with its hundreds of thousands of brave men and women, who ran terrible risks and so many of whom paid for it with torture, slave labour and execution. Instead, all de Gaulle’s praise went to his little staff of ‘Free French’ colleagues in London or Algiers, but most of all to his mystical invocation of La France itself.

Then again, de Gaulle did have a grasp of the global situation. In order to earn respect from the Allies, in order to restore France as a world power, he vitally needed the French to take part in the conquest of Nazi Germany. Which is why, within three days of the liberation of Paris, de Gaulle called for the winding up of the two main Resistance organisations, the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieure and the Comité d’Action Militaire, and for all résistants to be absorbed into the Free french army. This was called l’amalgame and by November over 200,000 former résistants were fighting in the French Army which entered Germany.

What if…?

Obviously the book’s overt purpose is to provide a narrative history of ‘the resistance’. The main learning from it is how scattered and multi-headed this entity was, and how acts of resistance could range from schoolkids drawing a V for victory on a wall to complex plans to smuggle German military plans to England.

But all the way through, as I read of the outrageous courage and heroism of so many men and women, I was creating a secondary book in my mind, a ghost book, wondering – what would happen now?

How would I respond if, say, the Russians invaded England and created a dictatorial state (as they do in Kingsley Amis’s counter-factual novel, Russian Hide and Seek)? How would we all respond? Who would take a job with the regime, hoping to work improvements inside? Who would sell out, pure and simple? Who would go underground committing sporadic acts of sabotage or terrorism? Would I have the courage to refuse to drive the trainload of Jews like Léon Bronchart? What if… what then… how would…?

The fate of empires

Finally, it made me wonder about the French and British empires.

Again and again, de Gaulle and other French leaders are quoted as wanting to restore the gloire and the grandeur and the prestige of France. I have recently read several histories of the wars for independence from France fought by the Vietnamese (1945 to 1954) and the Algerians (1954 to 1962), bitterly contested, bloody, brutal wars which repeatedly jeopardised the French state itself.

So what I wonder is this:

Did France’s losing the war, being occupied and humiliated for four years, harden its patriotism, making all sectors of the political spectrum absolutely adamant that part of France’s core identity was its glorious empire and its famous mission civilatrice (France’s self-appointed mission to bring its glorious civilisation to the poor benighted peoples of Africa and south-east Asia)?

Did losing the war – and four years of resistance – make it harder for France to give up its empire? Hence the absolute debacles in Vietnam and Algeria?

And is it valid to compare and contrast France’s attitude to its empire with that of Britain, which wasn’t invaded or occupied, which fought off the attacker, which significantly helped win the final victory and so – to some extent – forged a national identity based on its own courage and pluck? Did this give the British a relatively secure, a psychologically confident, position which made it easier for the Brits to relinquish their empire?

In 1947 Britain gave away the jewel in the crown of its empire, India. In 1947 in Vietnam, the French had just launched a bloody attack on the port city of Haiphong, which hardened and spread anti-imperialist sentiment. Can the diverse approaches taken to their respective empires by the French and British governments be traced to their very different national experiences of the Second World War?

Le chant des partisans

Related links



Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus (1960)

I loathe none but executioners.

This is a selection of 23 essays from Camus’s entire journalistic and speech-making output chosen by the man himself in the year of his death, 1960. By then Camus had published three big collections bringing together all his journalism, in 1950, 1953 and 1958 – this is a selection from those books.

The three collections were titled Actuelles I, II and III. ‘Actuelle’ is a French adjective which can be translated as ‘current’, ‘contemporary’, ‘relevant’ and it is straightaway noticeable that almost all the pieces address pressing contemporary political and social issues of his day. Collected essays by a novelist and playwright might be expected to include some studies of favourite forebears, of Racine or Zola, say. Not here. The pieces are nothing if not engagé, as the contemporary catch-phrase had it. For example, Actuelles III is entirely devoted to Camus’s collected writings on Algeria, from 1939 to 1958.

The pieces are short

The most obvious thing about the pieces is that they’re all very short. Half a dozen of them are from Combat, the underground Resistance paper Camus helped to produce during the Occupation and for a few years afterwards, often only three or four pages long. Others are ten-minute speeches, short addresses, brief replies to critics of his plays, and so on. By far the longest piece is the essay on the guillotine, a hefty 60 pages long, which brings together a career of thought to argue vehemently against the death penalty.

They cluster round two active periods

Then there’s their dates. Very roughly there are two active periods – the War (1944-45) and the late ’50s (1955-58). The speeches to Christians and the freedom pieces from the early 50s appear as interludes between these two main clusters of productivity, which obviously reflect moments when France was actually at war, with Germany, and then in Algeria.

The War

  • Letters to a German Friend (1943, 1944, 1945) [summarised below]
  • The Blood of Freedom (Combat, 24 August 1944) Short editorial exhorting his comrades to victory during the Liberation of Paris. This and the next one are, apparently, of historic importance.
  • The Night of Truth (Combat, 25 August 1944) Short editorial on the night before the German surrender of Paris.
  • René Leynaud (Combat, 27 October 1944) Short piece commemorating the execution of his friend.
  • Introduction to Poésies Posthumes by René Leynaud (1947) Longer piece giving potted bio and memories of his resistance friend.
  • Pessimism and Courage (Combat, September 1945) Irritation at bourgeois critics attacking the alleged pessimism of Sartre, Malraux and the existentialists, arguing that absurdity must be faced because it is the climate of the time.
  • Defense of Intelligence (speech given to L’Amitié Française, 15 March 1945) We must not give in to hatred; we must descend to insult; we must debate with respect. ‘There is no freedom without intelligence.’

Speeches to Christians

  • Speech given at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg (1948) He admires them for their Christian faith but honestly disagrees. ‘the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds.’
  • Why Spain? (Combat, December 1948) An article replying to criticism of Camus’s play State of Siege made by the Christian existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, who asked why it was set in Franco Spain and not Communist East Europe? Because we have still not expiated France’s sin of collaborating with Franco, Camus replies.

It seems to me there is another ambition that ought to belong to all writers: to bear witness and shout aloud, every time it is possible, insofar as our talent allows, for those who are enslaved. (p.83)


  • Bread and Freedom (Speech given at Labour Exchange Saint-Etienne, May 1953) Intellectuals and workers must be united: if either is attacked, it is by the forces of oppression and injustice; if both stand together, they can bring freedom closer.
  • Homage to an Exile (Speech given to honour President Eduardo Santos, driven out of Colombia by the dictatorship, 7 December 1955) Really fulsome praise in his role as newspaper editor who defended other people’s rights to speech, in which he explains that those who ‘bear witness’ to oppression decrease the solitude tyranny depends on, and increase the sense of common cause and solidarity among the oppressed.


  • Preface to Algerian Reports (March-April 1958) Actuelles III was a book-length collection of all Camus’s writing on Algeria from 1939 to 1958. This is the introduction to that volume. It is convoluted and mealy-mouthed, dutifully condemning extremism on both sides but you feel he knows in his heart of hearts that his suggested solution – Algeria to be split into federal units, some European, some Arab, along with a lot of reform and investment from France – was hopelessly impractical.
  • Letter to an Algerian Militant (to Aziz Kessous, Algerian socialist, October 1955) On 20 August 1955 FLN militiamen massacred 37 Europeans in the Algerian coastal port of Philippeville, gang-raping the women, hacking the babies to pieces. In reply, French paratroopers massacred Muslim peasants at nearby El-Halia, while surviving colons lynched hundreds of Muslims in Philippeville. Just two months later, Camus, in anguish, writes to support his friend Aziz Kessous who has set up a newspaper to try to create a space where the opposing sides can meet and debate. Forlorn hope.
  • Appeal for a Civilian Truce (Lecture in Algiers, February 1956) A speech Camus gave to a mixed audience in Algiers hoping to launch a movement to get both sides to agree at least not to target civilians. It is pitiful  to see how ineffective the stirring rhetoric of his essays and books is when it comes to the real world. And makes you realise how Eurocentric his rhetoric is. The FLN wanted their own country back; no amount of fancy rhetoric about liberty or terror or man had any hope of changing that.
  • Algeria (A personal statement, 1958) Camus thinks the FLN demand for full-blown independence is ludicrous. 1. What would happen to the 1.2 million French living in Algeria? 2. It’s all part of a conspiracy to create a pan-Islamic empire. 3. Algerians alone don’t have the economic know-how. 4. Insofar as the FLN are supported by Russia it would amount to a communist takeover of the southern flank of Europe. And so on. Camus proposes a federal structure like Switzerland, with the Muslims having one part of government, the French another. The more he elaborates the details of this complex scheme, the more unrealistic it becomes. After this final intervention, Camus retired into hurt silence and the war escalated.


  • Kadar Had His Day of Fear (Franc-Tireur, 18 March 1957) In October-November 1956 the Hungarian people spontaneously rose up against their communist leaders. After some hesitation, the Soviet Union sent in tanks and troops to put down the revolution, killing some 3,000 civilians during days of street fighting, and sending tens of thousands of the country’s best and brightest to forced labour camps in the months that followed. Camus writes with searing anger at the naked totalitarian tyranny of the Soviets and with disgust at the hypocrisy and self-hatred of French communists who supported the Soviet intervention.
  • Socialism of the Gallows (Interview published in Demain magazine, February 1957) An equally angry and disgusted repudiation of communist totalitarianism and its supporters in the West. Totalitarianism means above else a state with only one party in it. This will inevitably crush all debate, all art, all possibility of criticism and improvement. It guarantees repression, secret police, the gulag. It also guarantees that there can never be any change or progress. By contrast, the only form of society which can guarantee at least some progress is one which allows multiple parties and viewpoints. Liberal democracy. — The anti-Marx section of The Rebel should certainly be read alongside these two pieces which unambiguously convey Camus’s violent anti-communism.

The death penalty

  • Reflections on the Guillotine (A long excerpt from a book-length symposium organised by Camus and Arthur Koestler, 1957) Anyone who’s read this far should realise that Camus is against the death penalty. Vivid description of the effect of the guillotine drive home how disgusting it is. If the aim of capital punishment is to deter, it would be on prime time TV. But most murders aren’t pre-meditated, are committed on the spur of the moment – so capital punishment cannot be a deterrent. Capital punishment degrades the executioners, as memoirs testify. Replacing it with hard labour gives the opportunity for rehabilitation. Only God has 100% knowledge; capital punishment is a hangover from the time of Christian faith in an all-knowing God, but the justice system is far from all-knowing: a steady stream of innocent men have been executed. Even one miscarriage should invalidate it forever. Most profoundly, man’s deepest virtue is revolt against the human condition, meaning death. The death penalty undermines human solidarity and community at its most vital place; this is why so many modern people feel degraded because it attacks our deepest, most animal instinct – for life.

The writer in our time

  • The Wager of Our Generation (Interview in Demain, October 1957) Back in those days ‘the writer’ had a prophetic role and authority which has completely vanished. Camus says the writer is caught between immersion in the history of his time and duty to his art, and this is a ‘dangerous’ situation. Not really.
  • Create Dangerously (Lecture given at the University of Uppsala, December 1957) A sustained 20-page expression of his view of the role of the artist, the lecture emphatically conveys Camus’s sense that a) there is such a thing as Grand Art, Art Which Matters b) the Artist has some kind of Special Responsibility to engage with his Society c) this makes Art dangerous for repressive societies and potentially for any Artist who takes them on. In other words, all the premises, conclusions and rhetoric come from a pre-Post-Modern world, the grey decade of McCarthyism, Kruschev, Hungary and Suez. 1957 was the year the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, and the first Aldermaston March took place the following year. Nuclear weapons haven’t gone away, nor various tyrannies around the world, but the sense that the world is perched on the brink of a vast catastrophe and that Artists and Writers and Intellectuals play a privileged role in explaining it all to us lesser mortals, and leading us to Freedom – this has gone for good. Five minutes after Camus died people started getting colour televisions, Andy Warhol making silk screens of Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles dropped acid, and the gadget-driven consumer paradise started up which we still live in. The core of the speech gives a history of the development of art in 19th century France leading up to the irresponsible doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, and contrast this with the aggressive doctrine of Socialist Realism, demanded in the Communist Bloc and supported by many Western intellectuals. In other words, this is an interesting analysis of the position of the European writer in 1957, but it is 60 years old and shows it.

The message

Having now read all of Camus’s main works, I think I can summarise his position as killing people is always and everywhere wrong. The foundation text in this respect is the Letters to a German Friend. In these Camus admits that he and his Nazi friend both shared the same pre-war sense of the complete bankruptcy of traditional bourgeois values and the utter meaninglessness of life in a world bereft of God or any transcendental values – but they drew very different conclusions from it.

The Nazi concluded that the only value in the world is the animal virtue of power and, like so many of his countrymen, submitted to a leader and an ideology devoted to the worship of power. Apart from the obvious consequences (invading and devastating the rest of Europe) this led to an instrumentalist point of view which saw Europe solely as a larder of oil wells, wheat fields, arms factories and so on to be used in the relentless conquests of the Master Race, and its population, similarly, as objects to be used for the Master Plan.

Camus, by contrast, saw that there is a fundamental, irreducible value in the world, and that is man’s revolt against his destiny (i.e. an arbitrary death).

Man’s greatness lies elsewhere. It lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition. (p.39)

We are the only animals to be aware of our condition and to seek to rise above it. This is a value, a position, a basis for appealing to justice and against the wanton mutilation of ‘life’ and the murder of millions represented by the Nazis (and, later, the Communists). Taken collectively, or read on the social plane, this revolt becomes man’s rebellion against oppression.

I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man, and our task is to provide its justifications against fate itself. And it has no justification but man; hence he must be saved if we want to save the idea we have of life. With your scornful smile you will ask me: what do you mean by saving man? And with all my being I shout to you that I mean not mutilating him and yet giving a chance to the justice than man alone can conceive. (p.29)

As to proof of the existence of these things – Art, culture, civilisation is the collective record of the revolt of individuals against the limits of the human condition; and rebellions in the name of justice are an undeniable fact of history, and were in train all across Europe as Camus wrote, no matter how confident the Nazis were of their total power.

These fundamental values – revolt and rebellion – are the seeds which will grow into The Rebel, Camus’s enormously long attempt to devise a philosophy or worldview which starts in the post-war waste land and works its way upwards towards a viable basis for a world of humane values, of human dignity and freedom.

Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. (p.73)

The image of the individual having to decide whether to acquiesce in the triumph of tyranny or whether to stand against it, at the risk of their own lives, is obviously derived from his experience working with the French Resistance against the Nazi Occupation and is made very real in his account of the capture and execution of his friend, fellow resistant and would-be poet, René Leynaud.

But it is an image, a pose, an attitude Camus carried on into the post-war era of the Cold War, when a new tyranny dominated Eastern Europe, as Communist governments in the Eastern Bloc set up new secret police forces, torture chambers and slave labour camps. Hence the two pieces here about the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

It is Camus’s misfortune that his most famous and most accessible texts – The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus – stem from his early, ‘nihilist’ period; both were drafted around 1940. To really understand his thought, it would be better to focus on his later, far more humane works – The Rebel, the late short stories, and these essays – which move towards a whole-hearted support for a liberal democratic society which enshrines competing parties, voices, and freedom of speech.

In the later essays and speeches references to his personal theory of ‘the Absurd’ disappear and, although ‘revolt’ still crops up occasionally, really the final period of Camus’s life was devoted to the ideas of Justice and Freedom, and the need to speak out against Oppression and Injustice wherever they are found.

Europe and colonialism

It was Camus’s consistent opposition to Soviet tyranny which brought down on his head the wrath of the communist-minded Paris intellectual élite but which now, of course, make him look like a hero. Except the image is troubled because of the darkness shed over his later years by the outbreak of war in Algeria, his homeland. The four pieces on Algeria bring home his inability to agree with the colonial wish for independence; he just refuses to accept it as a possibility because it implies the exodus of 1.2 million French from Algeria (which is what in the end happened).

They also shed light on another limitation of Camus’s thought. It is very Eurocentric. In the Letters to a German Friend he discusses Europe’s histories and values in a way which remains very much within the European arena. The Algerian tragedy is a violent reminder that there is a very big world outside of Europe, its tragedies and civilisation, and it is a world where European philosophy, rhetoric, political and cultural values, may simply be irrelevant.

In fact, the more I’ve read about Camus’s position on Algeria the more I’ve been disappointed by his complete silence about Vietnam. For eight long years from 1946 to 1954 the French tried to put down the Vietnamese struggle for independence, as described in histories like The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow.

Hindsight is easy. I’m being unfair. Taken altogether what these essays show more than anything else is what an extraordinarily troubled era he lived through. Foreign invasion and humiliation, the threat of violent revolution bringing the utter loss of freedom and human dignity, the collapse of European empires all round the world, the real risk of nuclear armageddon – it was a difficult time to understand, to grasp, and in which to hang on to fundamentally humane, decent values. Camus did his best, despite his flaws.

The comedy of being French

These essays are intensely serious. You’d think smiling had been banned, let alone laughing. The British ridiculed Hitler (who only had one ball, the other was in the Albert Hall). By contrast, the French invoked the long history of their grandeur and prestige and their gloire. In this respect – obsessing about France’s special destiny, invoking its unique civilisation, and so on – Camus is no different from the grand rhetoric of de Gaulle. I couldn’t help smiling at Camus’s Frenchness i.e. his conviction of his country’s invincible superiority to all other nations, despite the rather prominent evidence to the contrary.

For history is the record of what actually happened, not of what writers and philosophers would like to think happened. And having recently read Alistair Horne’s massive history of the Battle of France I know that France fell to Germany in 6 quick weeks because French society was ruinously divided, demoralised and defeatist (as described from the inside in Jean-Paul Sartre’s great Roads To Freedom trilogy).

In this respect Camus’s Letters to a German Friend perform a prodigious feat of philosophical prestidigitation. They explain that France’s bad management, lack of preparation, appalling military and political leadership, defeatism and swift surrender turn out all to be indicators of France’s spiritual and moral superiority. France wasn’t ready to fight because it was too dedicated to the noble arts of peace. It was too good to fight. Ha!

More – by losing the actual battle France turns out to have won the moral war, because it took her four long years to overcome her natural repugnance to warfare, her superior preference for happiness and civilisation, in order to fight back. Sadly, of course, the Germans never had these superior moral qualities. And so, announces Camus, with a Gallic flourish -the German victory in 1940 was in fact an indication of Germany’s spiritual defeat. Voilà!

Camus goes on to give a quick overview of European civilisation (which in fact turns out to be largely based on French achievements) in order to show how the Nazis only regarded Europe as a collection of resources – oil wells, wheat fields, arms factories – to be exploited, whereas the superior French – naturellement – see Europe as a glorious repository of civilisation and intelligence. At which point Camus rattles off some characteristic landmarks of European civilisation, such as the cloisters of Florence, the gilded domes of Krakow, the statues on the bridges over the Charles River, the gardens of Salzburg. And then tells his German friend:

It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. (p.24)

‘We’? ‘We’ would have to liberate them? The French?

Did the French ‘liberate’ Florence, Cracow, Prague or Salzburg? No. Did the French even liberate France? No. On D-Day 73,000 American, 61,715 British and 21,400 Canadian soldiers landed in Normandy, 4,400 of whom died on the first day.

And the Russians. They helped defeat the Nazis a bit.

Many of the Combat essays read as if they should be sung by Edith Piaf at her most histrionic:

We know this fight too well, we are too involved through or flesh and our hearts to accept this dreadful condition without bitterness. But we also know too well what is at stake to refuse the difficult fate that we must bear alone. (p.35)

You’d think the Spanish republicans, the Czechs, the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, the Finns and Danes and Dutch and Belgians, let alone the Russians at Leningrad or Stalingrad, none of them had experienced anything like the French, who alone knew the tragedy and, oui, mon brave, the nobility of suffering!

The Paris that is fighting tonight intends to command tomorrow. Not for power, but for justice; not for politics, but for ethics; not for the domination of France, but for her grandeur. (p.36)

a) Camus’s French arrogance – his complete omission of the vital role played by the Anglo-Saxon countries in standing up to Hitler and then overthrowing the Nazi regime – his sublime confidence in French exceptionalism, matches the haughty grandeur of de Gaulle, and is just as ludicrous.

b) On a more serious note, this willful omission mirrors his neglect of the colonial issue, the post-war problem of France’s Empire – and specifically the massive war in Vietnam which kicked off as soon as the World War ended  – until he was absolutely forced to confront it when his own homeland went up in flames.

If Camus’s notions of French grandeur and prestige and gloire turned out to be a fatal dead end, nonetheless his championing of human freedom and dignity against Nazi and Communist tyranny remain impressive and inspiring to this day. It set the tone and helped spread the language of resistance to communist tyranny – of being a ‘witness to truth’, of art’s capacity to unite people against oppression – which echoed on in the writings of, for example, Václav Havel and Polish Solidarity. 


The English translation by Justin O’Brien of Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus was published by Alfred Knopf in 1960. All quotes & references are to the Vintage paperback reprint of this 1960 translation.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The battle for France

The Algerian war of independence

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

It sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert. (p.7)

This volume consists of the long (100-page) essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues against despair and in favour of life – accompanied by five much shorter essays each exemplifying Camus’s healthy lust for living.

It’s worth remembering how young Camus was when he wrote these texts. Born in November 1913, he was just 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940 and the year he wrote The Stop in Oran, and so on. A young man just beginning a career in writing and still very much entranced by the pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing, swimming, eyeing up beautiful women (a constant theme in his works).

The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s preface sums it up. Written in 1940, in the ruins of the defeat of France, the text affirms that even in a Godless universe and a world awash with nihilism, there remain the means to defy and surmount that nihilism. If life is meaningless, the teenager is tempted ask, what on earth is the point of going on living? Why not commit suicide? That is the subject of the essay: it is an essay about suicide – about confronting this ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

Camus’s answer is, that we shouldn’t commit suicide because it is more human and more noble and more in tune with a tragic universe – to rebel, to revolt against this fate. To face down the obvious absurdity of human existence and to enjoy the wild beauty of the world while we can.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Essayist not philosopher

Camus takes a long time to say this. I am influenced by the comment of Jean-Paul Sartre in a 1945 interview where he pointed out that Camus is not an existentialist, and not a philosopher – he is much more a descendant of France’s 17th century moralists. He is a moralist, an essayist (as the essays later in this volume testify) – and the essayist isn’t under any compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument – an entertaining flow of ideas will suffice.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big names – early on there’s half a paragraph each about Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl – but this very brevity shows that he picks and chooses quotes to suit him, rather like Hazlitt or any of the impressionist Victorian essayists, yanking in quotes here or there to support their flow – and in order to create a rather meandering flow rather than a logical sequence of argument.

Camus himself explains that he is not ‘examining’ the philosophy of a Heidegger or Jaspers – he is ‘borrowing a theme’ (p.40), he is making ‘a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd’ (p.20). He is not addressing their philosophical arguments – he is bringing out their common ‘climate’. Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments.

  • The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt…
  • If it would be presumptuous to try to deal with their philosophies, it is possible and sufficient in any case to bring out the climate that is common to them…
  • Certain men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate…
  • Never, perhaps, have minds been so different. And yet we recognize as identical the spiritual landscapes in which they get under way. Likewise, despite such dissimilar zones of knowledge, the cry that terminates their itinerary rings out in the same way. It is evident that the thinkers we have just recalled have a common climate. To say that that climate is deadly scarcely amounts to playing on words. Living under that stifling sky forces one to get away or to stay…

Climate. Zone. Landscape. Stifling sky. This is not an argument – it is impressionistic prose poetry.

This hell of the present is his [the Absurd Man’s] Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’ s heart. (p.52)

This poetic meandering results in the sometimes obscure nature of the text. Camus is often surprisingly turgid and difficult to understand.

If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. (p.23)

I understand what he’s saying: if any of us could discover a really unified theory underlying the world of phenomena how happy we, and mankind, would be. But you can see how this is not anything like philosophy: it is more a description of what philosophy would feel like.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself. (p.16)

Most of the book is like this. It is not a continuous philosophical argument, it is a series of psychological insights. He uses the Jaspers quote to create a poetic scenario using – characteristically for the man of Africa – the image of a desert, and going on to describe how we ‘must’ stay out there, in the waterless desert of absurd knowledge, in order to study its peculiar features. (Camus uses the metaphor of the desert of human thought seven times in the book – but I don’t find human thought a desert; I find it a bounteous and infinite garden.)

When he says the thinking mind is ‘an inhuman show’ in which a dialogue takes place you realise this is philosophy envisioned as theatre and become alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was himself a successful playwright and a section of the essay is titled Drama.

  • The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable. (p.32)
  • By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. (p.75)

It is a vision obscured, rather than clarified, by the author’s habit of imposing histrionic metaphors wherever they’ll fit. Absurdity, hope and death in the final sentence have specific meanings: absurdity is the lucid knowledge of the pointlessness of existence i.e the absence of any God or external values; hope is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world; and death is the resort some people take from absurd knowledge, either getting themselves killed for a cause or doing away with themselves. This tripartite categorisation does make a sort of sense. What makes a lot less sense is to talk about how ‘tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show’ or ‘the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance’.

There is generally a discernible flow to the argument, but Camus’s writerly fondness for metaphors, similes, for paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive, so often obscures rather than clarifies his meaning. This is what I mean when I say that he is not a lucid writer. He uses the word ‘lucid’ no fewer than 43 times in the text, and the continual reading of it may begin to unconsciously make you think he is lucid. But he isn’t. Sometimes his style descends into almost pure poetry, emotive, descriptive, incantatory.

‘Prayer,’ says Alain, ‘is when night descends over thought. ‘But the mind must meet the night,’ reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of man – dark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid -polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. (p.62)

Here is no argument, just rhetoric, poetry, a particular type of melodramatic and harrowing poetry. Some of it teeters on gibberish.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the
beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (p.18)

The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

Every time I reread this sentence, it moves further away from me.

Even when I think I understand it, it doesn’t really contribute to any logical argument – it is designed to create a similar climate or attitude in the mind of the reader. It is, thus, a form of attitudinising i.e. creating a mood through poetic means – for example, the way the ‘implacable visage’ is a melodramatic way of describing the Absurd, which is itself a melodramatic concept.

The text is designed to convert you to its rather histrionic (and theatrical) worldview. It is a pose. Every page is made up of this often hard-to-follow attitudinising.

It is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes the absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. (p.21)

‘Under the fatal lighting of that destiny…’

The cumulative effect is to make you stop trying to elucidate what too often turn out to be spurious meanings.

Men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. (p.68)

Even before I begin to make the effort to decode what he’s saying, I know in advance it will not be worth the effort. Trying to understand a book about quantum physics or about evolutionary cladistics or memorising the different Chinese dynasties – that’s the kind of thing that’s worth making an effort for, because the knowledge is real and will last. But trying to decide whether this is a universe where ‘kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage’ strikes me as being a real waste of time.

In the rebel’s universe, death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse. (p.85)

What? Here he is describing music.

That game the mind plays with itself according to set and measured laws takes place in the sonorous compass that belongs to us and beyond which the vibrations nevertheless meet in an inhuman universe. (p.91)

An impressive display of rhetorical fireworks. But useful? Applicable? Enlightening? Memorable?

Quotable quotes

All this, the emphasis on rhetoric over logic, helps explain why it is much easier to quote Camus’s many catchy formulations in isolation than it is to remember any kind of reasoned argument.

  • An act like this [suicide] is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (p.12)
  • Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. (p.12)

Looked at from one point of view, the text is a kind of impenetrably turgid grey sea from which emerge occasional shiny wave crests, glinting in the sunlight.

  • In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. (p.13)
  • It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. (p.16)
  • At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. (p.20)
  • A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. (p.80)

Seen this way, Camus certainly does fit Sartre’s description as a traditional moralist – his text is just the stuff which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, which are meant to be taken away and meditated on.

  • To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason. (p.38)

Great t-shirt material.

The Absurd

A bit like Sartre circling round and round his central concept of ‘freedom’, Camus circles round and round his central concept of the Absurd. The word occurs 316 times in the text, again and again on every page.

Put simply, the absurd is the mismatch between man’s deep need for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the world’s all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again Camus defines and redefines and approaches and reapproaches and formulates and poeticises the same fundamental idea.

  • At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. (p.17)
  • That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd. (p.20)
  • The revolt of the flesh is the absurd. (p.20)
  • This discomfort in the face of man’ s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd. (p.21)
  • What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. (p.27)
  • The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.32)
  • The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (p.33)
  • The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together. (p.34)
  • The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits. (p.49)
  • [The absurd is] that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. (p.50)
  • [The absurd is] my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle (p.51)

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. It is the way he repeats it with infinite variations, under the lights of numerous metaphors and similes, included in sentences which evoke emotional, intellectual and existential extremity, suffering, endurance, and so on, which make it more a poetics of living than philosophy.

The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. (p.65)

I’m not sure how you’d measure this but it seemed to me that, as the book progresses, the references to absurdity become steadily vaguer and more poetical and meaningless.

  • Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. (p.85)
  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. (p.87)
  • For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. (p.87)
  • In the time of the absurd reasoning, creation follows indifference and discovery. (p.88)
  • The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. (p.90)
  • The most destitute men often end up by accepting illusion. That approval prompted by the need for peace inwardly parallels the existential consent. There are thus gods of light and idols of mud. But it is essential to find the middle path leading to the faces of man. (p.94)

This impressionistic approach, this lack of a coherent logic, this mosaic of quotes from Great Thinkers or abstruse analyses of Great Writers, grandiose examinations of the Stage or the mentality of The Conqueror, interspersed with descriptions of everyday life – how, for example, a sense of the futility of life hits you as you look in the mirror to shave – this may account for Camus’s wider popularity than Sartre’s. His very patchiness, the way he’s less logical and consistent, more given to sudden flashes of insight which can be put on a t-shirt.

Thus even if a lot of Sisyphus is turgid and obscure, with much of it showing off or perverse paradox-making for its own sake, there are many other bits which suddenly leap out with great clarity and make you think ‘Yes’.


It takes Camus a long time to get to the punchline which is that we must face the absurdity of the world and overcome it. We must be like Sisyphus who, in the Greek myth is being punished in hell by being made to roll a rock to the top of the mountain only for it to be dashed to the bottom again. Over and again.

That is how we must live. But we must do it with a smiling heart, happy in the knowledge that we do it because we will it. We want to live.

Teenage heroism

And it is not irrelevant to the book’s popularity, or the popularity of watered-down ‘existentialism’ that it helped promote, that throughout the book the person who holds this notion of the absurd, who doesn’t give in to false consolations or to the siren call of suicide, who faces the meaningless world without flinching – is considered a hero.

It is a heroic pose to be one man undaunted against an uncaring universe, walking a ‘difficult path’.

There is a profoundly adolescent appeal not only in the fascination with suicide but in the rather laughable descriptions of the bold, brave heroism required to outface the absurd, ‘fearlessly’ and stoically living with his bleak knowledge. Refusing consolation and false comfort, committing oneself to live under ‘this stifling sky’ in these ‘waterless deserts’, living a life of ‘virile silence’ and ‘solitary courage’. Sounds like a film noir hero, sounds like Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Down these mean streets the ‘absurd man’ must go because, after all –

  • Sisyphus is the absurd hero

The essay is divided into three parts, the second of which is titled The Absurd Man. It’s heroic posturing is quite funny if read through the eyes of Tony Hancock or Sid James.

  • Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. (p.69)
  • There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. (p.81)
  • There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. (p.86)

Around page 70, while taking a break on the internet, I stumbled over several comic strips devoted to taking the mickey out of Camus and Sartre. From that point onwards found it hard to keep a straight face while reading it. This is all so old, so 80-years-old, so much another time. It was passé in the 1960s, now it is ancient history. Old enough to have been satirised and parodied for generations.

Existential Comics – Camus

There is also something specifically comical in the way a writer decides, at the summary of his masterwork about the meaning of life in a godless universe and so on, that the highest possible calling for the Absurd Man is to be… a writer! The section titled Absurd Creation is not much about music or art, but mostly about other writers. It is rather bathetic that a writer decides,after much cogitation, that being a writer is the pinnacle of the kind of lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. (p.104)

So – as the Existentialist Comic puts it – these bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays all agree that the true Resistance to the Nazis and the true heroes of their time must, logically, according to their ‘lucid’ and ‘precise’ philosophy — be bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays.

Guys just like them, who can therefore congratulate each other on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their  dignity and their strength. How to be a Hemingway hero without even stubbing out your Gauloise!

But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his
naked reality. (p.104)

‘Ordeal’. ‘Overcoming his phantoms.’ Outfacing ‘naked reality’. Braving the deserts of ‘lucid thought’. Mingling ‘intelligence and passion’. Summoning ‘diligence, doggedness and lucidity’ (p.106). Facing up to this ‘difficult wisdom’ (p.106). ‘Unceasing struggle’.

Wow. Never before or since has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

Brief discussion

When I was an over-intellectual 17 year-old these thoughts and Camus’ attitude helped reassure me and calm me down from my own nihilistic panic. My family didn’t understand me, my friendships were superficial, I had no job, no wife, no children and little experience of the real world of work and effort. Looking back I can see why I was subject to panic attacks.

But now I’m a fifty year-old family man with deep commitments, children to care for, bills to be paid and meals to be cooked – I find it impossible to recapture the mood of teenage hysteria which permeates all Camus’s books.

I go to the gym and watch, on the bank of TV screens, pop videos showing half-naked young men and women partying in the city or frisking on beaches, under waterfalls, in tropical islands around the world. My kids jet off to exotic destinations I could only dream of back in the 1970s. They text, Instagram and Facebook with friends in America, Spain, the Middle East, even China.  The world just no longer is the limited world of one-town boredom and dull routine that Camus describes. Rather than a crushed, defeated, broken, humiliated culture as was the Nazi world of 1940 or the post-war ruins of the 1940s – my kids live in a vibrant shiny world alive with music, movies, clothes, festivals, travel round the world and futuristic technology: they think life is great.

Looking back, Camus’s writings are really a kind of prose poetry which repeats pretty much the same idea from a thousand angles, expressed in countless metaphors and images, laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition, but essentially static.

A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations. (p.25)

The ‘appetite for conquest’, the ‘poisoned peace’, ‘fatal renunciations’?

You either enjoy this kind of poetry or you don’t. I can feel my way into it as I feel my way into the harsh world of the Icelandic sagas or the sweet humour of Chaucer’s poetry or the gargoyle world of early Dickens or the bumptious jingoism of Kipling. Those writers, also, have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself or others or the world in general.

But whereas I carry Chaucer and Kipling out into the world, remembering their best lines and beauty to enrich and colour my life, when I closed The Myth of Sisyphus I could remember almost nothing of it. — Some people find life absurd and it drives a tiny minority to suicide but it’s best, on balance, to face up to the meaninglessness of a godless universe and to create your own values and purpose within it.

The absurd man catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. (p.61)

The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. (p.62)

OK. I get it. Most people nowadays do that anyway, and don’t need a laboriously over-written, obscure and attitudinising text to help them.

Why is absurdity negative?

My son’s just got an ‘A’ in his Philosophy A-level. He didn’t study Camus (who is, after all, not a philosopher) though he did spend a lot of time on Martin Heidegger, the grand-daddy of 20th century existentialists.

I explained Camus’s notion of the Absurd to him i.e. the mismatch between the human wish (it’s always translated as nostalgia; maybe it means ‘longing’ as well) for order and meaning in the world and the lack of any such order – and the way it is always presented by Camus as a challenge, a trial, an ordeal, a desert under a hostile sky that only the strongest can face up to and confront, and my son said – ‘Why?’

He understood the idea of the mismatch, he got the absurdity of looking for meaning in a ‘godless universe’. OK. But… why does it have to be negative? Why does this mismatch have to have a value? Why can’t it just be… a mismatch, and up to each of us to make of it what we will, to give it a value? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? The absurd can be funny. Absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

He suggests that the entire climate, to use Camus’s word, of Sartrean existentialism and Camusian Absurdity, the rhetoric of anguish and despair and futility (in Sartre) and being an alien, an outsider in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the grim situation of 1930s and 40s France – the political chaos of the 1930s, the grinding humiliation of defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the even worse humiliation of liberation by the hated Anglo-Saxons in 1944.

Very few people followed the ‘logic’ of the existentialists’ arguments (where a ‘logic’ could be discerned) – but everyone grasped the way their negativity crystallised into words and ideas the vast, continent-wide wartime destruction and the collapse of all established social values, the loss of so many friends and family, hecatombs of corpses, which really did spread an atmosphere of anguish and despair through an entire generation. There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation and collapse of values.

At the climax of the book, the last few pages describing the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the book gives way to an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. Sisyphus is condemned in Hades to roll his rock up a hill and then watch it be tumbled back to the bottom, and forced to go back down and start rolling it up again – for all eternity. And yet Camus sees him as a positive figure, the epitome of the Absurd Man who sees the futility of life but sets himself to live it, regardless. All this is expressed with rhetoric not reason.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. (p.110)

In its way, and taking into account its very different context, this stirring rhetoric is as full of moral uplift as a speech by Churchill.


The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing (p.62)

Part one

Mersault is a young French man, born and bred in Algeria, living and working in the capital Algiers. He is directionless, aimless, never really knows what to say to people, goes along with whatever people suggest. His mother’s been living in a home for over a year and the story opens as Mersault receives news of her death. He doesn’t know which day she actually died on, the telegram could have been delayed a day or two. Doesn’t know and doesn’t really care. He never used to visit her. It would have been too much bother.

Mersault catches a bus out to the village of Marengo and walks to the home to attend a night-long vigil and then the funeral, all of which he finds a chore. When they ask him if he wants a last look at his mother before they put the coffin lid on he says no. They look at him. He realises it was a mistake. The home and church officials talk to him but he hesitates, says whatever comes into his mind and generally makes a bad impression. When asked, he guiltily realises that he doesn’t know how old she was. He looks out the window and thinks what a nice walk he could have had, if only his mother hadn’t gone and died.

Back in Algeria his boss commiserates with him but Mersault, typically, doesn’t know what to say, exactly. Once or twice he lets slip his real feelings which is that he doesn’t feel anything but this goes down badly so he errs on the side of keeping his mouth shut. We meet his neighbours in his shabby tenement block (he can hear his neighbours through the walls), notably the old guy, Salamano, who walks his mangy mutt every day, and spends all his energy shouting and abusing it, until one day it runs off never to return.

Mersault observes the street life of his quarter of Algiers, the hot sun climbing the sky, the shop shutters opening, a bourgeois family going to church. Later, in the evenings, he observes the lads, the local ‘bloods’, coming back from the cinema, eyeing a gaggle of girls on the corner. All very laid back and evocative.

Mersault himself has picked up a girlfriend he meets casually at the beach, Marie Cardona who used to be a typist at his office. There are long sensual descriptions of swimming at the public pool or at a secluded bay. On the beach, in the cinema he touches her breast. They kiss. They go back to his flat and make love. Sunday follows Sunday in this lazy sensual way. When she asks him whether he loves her, he shrugs: probably not. She asks if he wants to get married. OK. Why not? He has no idea how much his indifference hurts her. Doesn’t care, either.

Also in his block is a loud young man, Raymond Sintès, who the neighbours often hear beating up his Arab girlfriend. Local rumour has it he’s a pimp, though he denies it. Mersault, drifting as usual, finds himself getting to know Raymond. He listens passively to Raymond’s harrowing description of how he routinely beats up his girl. In fact he’s recently been in a fight with the girl’s Arab brother. Mersault nods vague approval.

This is enough for rough Raymond to think Mersault is his friend and he asks Mersault to write a letter to the girlfriend, asking her to come to Raymond’s flat so they can make up. Them he explains, he’ll get her sexually aroused, begin to make love to her – and spit in her face.

Mersault can’t see any reason not to. A few days later, after the unfortunate girl does come back to Raymond’s flat, he beats her up, the cops are called, Mersault even allows himself to accompany Raymond to the police station to testify that it was the girlfriend’s fault, that Raymond caught her cheating on him. He doesn’t know whether this is true, it’s just Raymond asked him to help out and, you know, why not.

Thinking Mersault is now his pal, Raymond invites Mersault and Marie out to the house of a friend of his, Masson, on the coast. As they leave the apartment building to head for the bus station, Raymond points out a couple of Arabs watching from across the street: it’s the brother of the woman he beat up, and a mate.

Out at Masson’s place, they swim. They cook. They drink and chat. Raymond flirts with Marie who is uncomfortable but Mersault doesn’t really care. They have a massive lunch, fried fish then steak and chips with lots of wine, till they’re all pretty tipsy.

The menfolk decide to go for a stroll. They notice they’re being followed by the brother and his mate. Suddenly there’s a confrontation. Masson beats up the mate while Raymond takes on the brother. The latter pulls a knife and cuts Raymond badly on the arm and lip but the Europeans manage to fight them off. Masson and Mersault help Raymond back to the beach cottage and Masson recommends a doctor who always spends his Sundays out there, so he takes Raymond off to get patched up. A hour later he reappears, stitched up and in a bad mood. He insists he wants to go for another walk, the others discourage him, he gets cross and sets off with Mersault following.

Inevitably they come across the Arabs, again, tending their wounds by a stream across the beach. Raymond is now packing a gun, a revolver. He asks Mersault whether he should plug the Arabs and Mersault finds himself saying the first thing which comes into his head which is – Not unless they strike first. ‘Here, let me take the gun,’ Mersault says, and Raymond passes it over. All four actors stare at each other, turned to stone under the pitiless sun.

Then the Arabs have gone, ‘like lizards’ disappearing into the rocks. The spell is broken and Raymond and Mersault return to the cottage, Raymond swaggering and happy. As they climb the steps Mersault decides, on a whim to go back along the beach. The sun is pressing on his skull. He’s vaguely thinking of the shade under the rock and the tinkling stream. But the Arab is there, the brother, lounging by the little stream. They look at each other. Mersault walks closer. The Arab pulls a knife and there is a still moment while he holds it up, glinting in the fierce sunlight. Mersault fires the gun. Pauses. Then fires four more shots.

Part two

He’s in prison, charged with murder. Mersault is held on remand for an interminable 11 months during which he carries on feeling nothing whatsoever, either about his plight or his responsibility, while he is interrogated by the magistrate, discusses the case with his lawyer, goes to trial and slowly rumbles along the conveyor belt of the Law.

The magistrate reveals that he is a devout Catholic and claims that if only Mersault will acknowledge God and throw himself on the mercy of the Lord etc will he experience forgiveness and be relieved of his guilt. But Mersault feels no guilt. He doesn’t know what the magistrate’s on about. Instead of regret and guilt Mersault appals the magistrate by saying he feels, on reflection, ‘a kind of vexation’ (p.74). From then on the magistrate humorously refers to Mersault as ‘Mr Antichrist’.

Killing a man has made no difference at all to Mersault. Marie comes to visit him but he can’t get very worked up. She’s in floods of tears, and says they’ll fight for his freedom and when he gets out they’ll get married. Oh. Alright, he shrugs, in his usual listless way.

When the trial finally comes round Mersault discovers that everything he did and said in since his mother’s death (and which we saw being carefully annotated in part one of the book) has been collected up and is now being thrown in his face and used against him. His lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral is reported as ‘great callousness’ (p.68). His listless replies to the people at the Home or at the funeral or to his boss incriminate him. Marie is made to admit that they started their liaison the day after the funeral, swimming on the beach and going to a comic movie. In the hands of the prosecution all this goes to demonstrate that Mersault is:

an inhuman monster wholly without moral sense. (p.97)

His lack of concern for his girlfriend is brought up. Even the way he fired once and then paused before firing a further four times. We know this is all the result of Mersault’s profoundly hollow lack of emotion, of affect or personality – but to the prosecuting lawyer it can all be built up into the image of a cold calculating killer.

The text reports the apparatus of the court and the palaver with the barristers for the prosecution and defence but Mersault, typically, zones in and out of their arguments and the development of the trial.

Finally, he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution by a judge who finds him repellent, cold murderer.

In the last few pages there’s a set piece scene between Mersault and a priest who comes to try and persuade him to repent and have faith in God. This strikes me as unimaginative, a cliché of this kind of meaning-of-life novel stretching back to the vast arid wastes of Dostoyevsky’s obsession with religion. The priests’ persistence in trying to get Mersault repent finally drives him to his only display of emotion in the book, when he grabs the priest’s collar, shaking him, and shouting what right has he got to impose his lifeless creed on Mersault? Mersault’s destiny is what it is, when he’s dead that’ll be it, done, over.

Guards come and release the priest. Mersault collapses on  his bed exhausted and drifts into sleep. When he awakes it is the middle of the night and he can see the stars shining out of a pitch black sky. He knows in the morning he will die. But suddenly he feels cleansed and free.

For the first time, the first time, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. (p.120)

He realises that he is happy.


Contemporary critics went mad for this book. It caught the mood of the times and made Camus a literary phenomenon.

  • It chimes with the tough guy films noirs coming out of America at the time (This Gun For Hire, Journey into Fear, The Glass Key), with their brutal but highly stylish violence. I visualised the scene where Marie visits Mersault in prison and has to struggle to make herself heard among the other prisoner-visitor conversations, in black and white, out of a James Cagney movie.
  • It chimes with something fatal about the Second World War, about the Nazi occupation of France and the undermining of French Enlightenment values, the end – possibly – of European civilisation.
  • It seems to say something about our post-Christian age and confirm Dostoyevsky’s worst fears – if there is no God, everything is permitted; Mersault kills with no guilt whatsoever.
  • For others Mersault is a symbol of the mindless superiority complex of European colonialism – a hollow shell himself, he doesn’t give a damn about the Arab woman getting beaten up or about murdering the Other, the Arab, the colonised. None of the Arabs are given names or even speak.
  • Or Mersault is a type of the rootless young European male, no values, no role models, living a casual empty life, a type of the tough or hoodlum threatening society, a precursor to the rebellious rockers of the 1950s.
  • To the Communists Mersault is the type of the rootless petit bourgeois, obsessed with his own petty affairs, whose life is meaningless and aimless – he needs to find solidarity with the working classes and join himself to the Forward March of History by joining the Communist Party.
  • To yet others, Mersault is like the protagonists of Kafka’s novels, an everyman figure who is caught up in a terrifying web of misunderstandings, whose life takes a turn for the worse through no fault of his own.
  • The long trial scene is enough to put anyone off getting involved in the Law, especially criminal law where barristers are paid to twist the truth out of all recognition in order to get a result
  • To the philosophically-minded, Mersault is an epitome of Camus’s own philosophy of ‘the Absurd’ as outlined in The Myth of Sisyphus: the lumbering mechanism of the rational, common sense Law can’t hope to capture the intensity, the weirdness, the irrationality of human nature.
  • To feminists The Outsider is a typical patriarchal story of men fighting over the body of a woman who isn’t even named – all three women in the story – his mother, Marie, the unnamed Arab woman – are victims of male indifference or violence.
  • To literary types Mersault’s central defining act is like the acte gratuit idea of André Gide – the notion that life is empty and meaningless and that we must rebel against its emptiness with one great decisive irrevocable act, which has no meaning in itself but represents our protest against meaningless existence.
  • To other commentators Mersault is a representative of ‘Mediterranean Man’, a kind of throwback to pagan times, untroubled by Christian conscience or guilt, he lives in a permanent present of the senses, a kind of post-Christian hero.
  • To yet others the protagonist of the story isn’t the man Mersault at all, it is the pitiless landscape of Algeria with its blistering heat and inhuman craggy landscape. Arguably, the ‘scorching hot’ sun is as much a character in the book as any human.

The light was almost vertical and the glare from the water seared one’s eyes. (0.58)

The sand was as hot as fire and i could have sworn it was glowing red. (p.59)

It was like a furnace outside, with the sunlight splintering into flakes of fire on the sand and sea. (p.60)

  • Rereading it carefully, it struck me that Mersault is an uneducated, working class man living in a pretty rough milieu. Surprisingly, he admits that he was once a student but, more true to form, says that when he was forced to give up his studies he realised ‘all that’ i.e. studying, was pretty futile anyway (p.48). He gets on just fine with the violent bullying abuser Raymond, Marie is a callow typist, his mate Emmanuel often doesn’t understand what’s going on at the cinema. Noscitur a socio. I think Mersault is rougher, chavvier, than is often realised. This is certainly the impression the prosecution lawyer seeks to give, that Mersault is part of a squalid low-life vendetta.
  • The final chapter, with its protagonist crying out against the ‘brutal certitude’ of his execution could easily be taken for a tract against the death penalty which was only abolished, in France, in 1981.
  • There’s even a theory that Mersault is on the autistic spectrum, possibly with Asperger’s Syndrome: incapable of making out other people, lacking the ability to know what is required in pretty much every social situation he finds himself in. Which also explains why he sees things in such uncomfortable detail – the blobby red ears of an old man, the sopping wet hand towel at work – while not having a clue what to say to people. An indication of this comes late on when we learn that he hasn’t looked once at Marie who has come day after day to support him through the trial. And when he does, for the once and only time, look at her and she smiles wanly and gives him a little wave – his face doesn’t flicker. He neither waves nor smiles back. Heart of stone.

I could go on.

What strikes me rereading The Outsider today is that the descriptions of lazy swimming in the sun are not quite as good as I remembered. I prefer Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of swimming off the Riviera in The Sun Also Rises. I liked the scene where he watches from his balcony a gang of young men sauntering along the boulevard, backchatting with young women – I feel I’ve seen that scene hundreds of times.

I’ve just read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. What bursts from Sartre’s texts is their enormous super-abundance of hyper-sensitive self-awareness, a prolific stream of profuse and varied perceptions, characters bursting with ideas about ‘existence’ and ‘freedom’, sensations turning into ideas, ideas turning into feelings, freedom and anguish mingled with night and the cold snow, a bombardment of ideas and concepts.

Camus’s novel, by contrast, feels empty. The hollow shell which is the central character goes about his life, barely involved in it, certainly not thinking anything, finding himself in situations with other people rather than creating them, and always taking the easy way, out, saying whatever first comes to mind. He is not even stupid, he’s just not there.

  • I just nodded to cut things short. I wasn’t in the mood for talking.
  • I had nothing to say and the silence lasted quite a while.
  • After that I don’t remember much. Somehow the night went by.
  • I nodded… I made no comment… I had no objection… I just listened without speaking… I didn’t say anything… I kept silence… I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I told him I hadn’t expected anything whatsoever… I told him I had no objection…
  • really I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I found him rather boring but I had nothing to do…
  • I said the first thing that came into my head…
  • I said the first thing that crossed my mind…
  • I found that my mind had gone blurred: everything was dissolving into a greyish, watery haze…
  • I had stopped thinking altogether…

As he says, with deliberate downbeat irony, ‘Imagination has never been one of my strong points’ (p.111).

It is a portrait of vacancy. And that’s why so many different critics and interest groups were able to fill the novel up with their own interpretations. It is an empty vessel, a mirror.


The Algerian War of Independence broke out in 1954 but there had been violent incidents of rebellion and harsh repression immediately following the end of the Second World War. Knowledge of this later  history sheds a harsh historical light back on Camus’s novels set in Algeria. His people, the pieds noirs, the French settlers in Algeria, would eventually be forced to flee into exile back in France, all one million of them.

At the time of its publication the book was most widely read as an epitome of ‘existential man’, confronting the meaninglessness of existence on a rocky coastline stripped of all colour and help. Seventy years later it is hard not to read it, at least in part, as a record of the hollow, heedless, empty-headed arrogance of French colonial culture… whose days were numbered.


L’Étranger by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1946, and as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 60p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime and found among his papers, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49). I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

I’ve decided to discuss the numerous points made in the introductory material and essays in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1). In this blog post I am commenting on the two major fragments of fictional text itself, which are titled A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.

1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

In Iron In the Soul we followed the activities of Mathieu, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, both retreating in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ending up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself volunteering to quit his pack of demoralised men and throw in his lot with a lieutenant and his platoon who arrive in the village having carried out a fighting retreat. Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied them to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. They begin shooting at the Germans, which leads into a fierce firefight, which is ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu was killed.

Not so Brunet. Without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, tough Communist Brunet has also ended up in the same village, where he makes the strategic decision to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising the French prisoners of war into a communist cell. The final part of Iron in the Soul follows Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others; before feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and prisonhood.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet finds himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background – and at key moments points out flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident the descriptions of the camp and the conditions are accurate.

What happens in A Strange Friendship is there is a bunch of new arrivals at the camp and one of them is Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by revealing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was expelled from the Party
b) Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, organising to undermine the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a mouthpiece for the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy). He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over, the USSR will crush Germany, the workers should reject the armistice, the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, the prisoners should consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, the Vichy government is illegitimate, the armistice was treason. (He is, of course, dead wrong – all these things came to pass and be accepted as orthodoxy.) With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a streetwalker for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his ‘guys’ must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the ‘Krauts’, the party should cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and get a foot into the National Assembly again. To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle who is a mouthpiece for British imperialism, and direct the workers towards pacifism (p.63).

Brunet listens, obeys, tries to quell his misgivings, makes himself a servant of the Party. Maybe this is Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the ‘guys’ he has deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with the fact that the ‘guys’ don’t trust him and the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as explored in Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unquavering faith is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to free thought i.e. ruthlessly repress it.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(Worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture after the war.)

And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider. Brunet comes to the latter’s rescue, but the ‘guys’ he interrupts hitting Schneider don’t get it: Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too? In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the guys in the face and the pair slope off, at which point Brunet realises he has burned all his bridges. Now the ‘guys’ belong to Chalais, everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. The Party has decreed he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape and in the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans. As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death. Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.


1. I can see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes point out, the official Party line was itself changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, so much had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse. Why write about the arcane disputes ot his increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? And so Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, they all seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all obsessively blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the Communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain. And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koeslter’s fictional recreation of the interrogation of an old Bolshevik in readiness for his show trial, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls dogs. (It is important to remember that the PCF called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.) He prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. Wow.

And this exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’. Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on Brunet who wants to be a loyal Party servant but is aware of the cost to himself and his ‘guys’. I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom etc – as Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic — but refuses, in the end, to give up – insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, once the scaffold was in place.

This text consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose use to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to. Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose. I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section enacts and embodies the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals. Whereas the moments of high delirium Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but there’s

a) no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see is extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape, they are just disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically – after all, the Germans don’t need to do anything: they know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics – the French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted: I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting. Vive la France! Vive la Revolution!

2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

We all thought Mathieu Delarue, the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher, had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul -but no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The segment just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s transferred out into the wider camp. The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed.

As usual, two things happen immediately: Mathieu is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on. And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and was also a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to even perceive themselves as human, become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on. I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things. Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insets, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground of crabs and lobsters. he was fascinated by these prehistoric crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He was most certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes Vasey explains that the structure of the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running  his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the guys gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations. The
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagining killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of  his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, he returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. Then gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • It is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is boredom and mild dislike. climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should triumphantly complete the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him. Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu not only ‘became free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked. But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And it’s here that this long, fragmented section ends.

American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia. This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie. Worst of all the men or blokes become ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial translation choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the whole reading experience and its continual repetition has the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’


This edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of related books

To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne (1969)

General Altmayer, who seemed tired out and thoroughly disheartened, wept silently on his bed. (p.575) [A typical example of the behaviour of senior French militaryfigures during the Battle of France.]

This is the third of Sir Alistair Horne’s trilogy about the three great wars fought between Germany and France, the others being The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-1 and The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. (I have also recently read his classic account of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962.)

To Lose A Battle is about the German invasion of France in May 1940, the most perfect example of the Wehrmacht’s new Blitzkrieg strategy that it ever carried out.

It is a long book (680 pages) because Horne starts by giving a several hundred page-long detailed account of the historical, cultural, political and military background leading up to the debacle. Once this is done, part two begins, no fewer than 400 pages devoted to an incredibly detailed account of the Battle of France itself.

(I particularly wanted to read this book for the social background chapters, to provide context for the trilogy of Jean-Paul Sartre novels which I’ve just read and which are set initially in 1938 and then during the self-same Battle of France. Indeed Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir are quoted several times as epitomising the defeatist spirit of pre-war France – which is certainly how The Roads To Freedom read to me.)


French army Most European nations considered the French Army which emerged from the Great War to be the best in Europe. Horne goes to some length to describe and explain the widespread feeling of:

that ineradicable, mystical self-assurance of the invincibility, in extremis, of the French Army. (p.246)

With typical chauvinism the French preferred to downplay the role played by her allies, Britain and, latterly, America, in the Great War and to insist she was the victorious power. Psychologically, this has much truth since France lost more men dead in the war than any other nation (1,315,000, 27% of all French men aged between 18 and 27 were killed), a fact which deeply scarred its psyche, and affected its economy, for a generation.

But this pride/arrogance/over-confidence in France’s armed forces lingered on into the 1930s, well after it had been made redundant by Hitler spending a fortune creating the super-efficient new German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. (Horne describes very thoroughly the military, strategic, financial, technological and all-round ‘revolutionary dynamism of the Wehrmacht’, p.514.)

French politics and society were deeply riven by conflicts: the creation, with encouragement from Lenin’s Comintern, of the French Communist Party in 1920, crystallised the revolutionary forces of the Left. The PCF not only entered into a permanent dispute with the French Socialist party and other less revolutionary left-wing groups, splitting the left into endless squabbling – but also prompted the rise of far-right political parties such as Action Francaise and Croix-de-Feu which helped to splinter political parties of the Right. The extreme position of these parties, along with France’s persistent economic crises, bedevilled French politics for the whole inter-war period.

It was also an era which saw an astonishing turnover of governments, many lasting only a few months, some only days. Between mid-1932 and the outbreak of war in 1939 France had 19 different government with 11 different premiers. Symbolically, on the day Hitler came to power in 1933, France had no government. Seven years later, on the very day Germany invaded, the premier had just resigned and had to be persuaded to return to office to run France.

In this culture of political chaos nothing could be decided. No consistent line was taken in any area, finance, diplomacy or defence. Although the Treaty of Versailles gave France enormous power over German territory as well as a whole new empire in the Middle East, she never had the continuous administrations or strong leaders to set a consistent policy and to use her power effectively. Instead, political France became a nest of vipers, of extreme political factions who hated each other more than their external enemies. By the middle of the 1930s it had become an established saying on the Right that ‘Better Hitler than the Reds’. They really meant this and many people at the highest levels were, in effect, traitors.

The Great War In political terms, all this was obviously due to the legacy of the cataclysmic Great War: the Great War causes Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which causes the creation of violently revolutionary communist parties across Europe, which causes the creation of counter-revolutionary, proto-fascist parties across Europe – and the advent of both these extremes causes new levels of rhetorical, and real, violence against opponents. The process is described in harrowing detail in Robert Gerwarth’s recent book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (2016).

A generation exterminated But Horne makes a simpler, bleaker point which is that a lot of the educated officer classes who might have provided bourgeois, old-fashioned, consensual and parliament-based political leadership, had been wiped out  in the trenches. Polite parliamentary politics didn’t go out of style; it was killed off. The new generation of leaders were unashamedly proletarian: Mussolini’s father was a blacksmith, Hitler’s father was a customs official, Stalin’s father was a cobbler. Daladier, the French Premier who sold out the Czechs, was the son of a baker; Reynaud, the man who replaced him, was the son of farmers.

Corruption Probably unrelated was the fact that a series of scandals enveloped many senior figures in France’s political elite in the run-up to the war, each case of embezzlement, jobs for the boys, swindles and cynical abuse of power further alienating the population at large. Why fight to help a pack of crooks keep their snouts in the trough?

Losing the war

As to why France lost the war, and so quickly, there is no shortage of reasons.

  • France’s Great War experience for four long bitter years had been entirely of the static defence of trenches. The centrepiece of their war had been the defence of the fortified complex at Verdun. They had no experience of the fluid, fast-moving war which took place in the East where the Germans fought the Russians and ranged over huge areas, or in the Middle East where the British fought the Turks. Building on the idea of static defence, the French High Command became mesmerised by the idea of creating a network of Verdun-like fortifications, buried deep underground with only impervious guns set in concealed hillsides to indicate their presence. This was commissioned in 1930 by a Defence Minister named Maginot and so became known as the Maginot Line.
  • But – as every schoolboy used to know – this line stopped short at the border with Belgium for a number of reasons: no one could decide whether to build it along Belgium’s border with the beastly Hun (thus defending the Belgians) or along the French-Belgium border (thus excluding the Belgians). Ans building just the 87 miles of sophisticated subterranean defences from Switzerland to the Belgian border had cost a fortune and continued to cost a fortune to maintain. So there was incompleteness, uncertainty and delay.
  • Tanks In the Great War the French used their primitive tanks spread thinly across a wide front, where they tended to make short-lived breakthroughs but then run out of petrol and so allow the enemy to regroup before the infantry could catch up. Thus French military thinking rejected the tank in favour of static defences in depth – the Maginot Line – linked by static landlines, phone lines – themselves vulnerable to being damaged.
  • Planes While the Germans built up their Luftwaffe under the ebullient Marshall Goering and with the aid of Germany’s best designers and technicians, the French sank half their military budget into the quite literal black hole of the Maginot Line buried forts.
  • All this contrasted with the Germans who
    • remembered the experience of fast-moving attacks in the East, and learned from it
    • designed superior tanks
    • built more planes, lots more planes
    • developed a theory of air and land attacks co-ordinated by new and better radio communications i.e. not vulnerable to lines being broken.
  • Blitzkrieg Taken together these were the bases of the Blitzkrieg theory, as outlined by Panzer commander and military theorist Heinz Guderian in his revolutionary pamphlet Achtung – Panzer! This was published in 1937 but never translated into French or English and – like Hitler’s Mein Kampf – went unread by the Allies.
  • Camaraderie In a fascinating section Horne brings out another really important element which was the tremendous esprit de corps and camaraderie in the German military. He describes the upbringing of men in Nazi Germany, passing through the Hitler Youth into the army, these boys becoming men had undergone punishing physical fitness regimes followed by demanding training designed to instil obedience and confidence.
    • The result was a generation of superb physical specimens, indeed there is a slightly homoerotic tinge to some of Horne’s descriptions of young German engineers stripped to the waist building pontoon bridges across the River Meuse and on other occasions.
    • The Germans believed in their leaders, in fact they had a fanatical devotion to the Führer and the Fatherland rarely seen in history. They really wanted to fight.
    • And Horne explains how the German army cultivated closeness between officers and men. They shared the same food, sleeping quarters etc, so the men knew and liked and respected their commanders, based on their ability. This contrasted with the French army which kept in place old-fashioned class ideas, officers never socialised with the men and often had bought commissions or had them on the basis of aristocratic family tradition.

French demoralisation

Horne’s book lists a long catalogue of errors and follies on the French side which start at the very top.

Politicians held in contempt Premiers of France came and went through a fast-moving revolving door. These senior politicians jostling for power all hated each other and did whatever was best for their careers. All their civil servants and soldiers followed suit. The population despised them.

Timidity bordering on cowardice Half the French cabinet were ‘doves’, hoping against hope that no war would come, and frightened of doing anything aggressive in case they incurred Hitler’s wrath. Thus although France declared war on Germany in September 1939 ostensibly in order to help Poland which Germany had just invaded, the French army only advanced a few miles into the German Saar land and then stopped. Plenty of foreign observers came to see the French soldiers peacefully camped out on hillsides watching German soldiers bathing in the river. ‘Why don’t you shoot at them?’ asked the American or British journalists. ‘Well, then they’d shoot back,’ replied the puzzled French officers. Commentators were amazed at the lack of French spirit. Meanwhile, Poland was cut in two between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, its people subjected to six years of barbarity.

Old timid leaders The High Command was led by General Gamelin, aged 68. The new French premier, Paul Reynaud,  wanted to sack him for his lack of aggression, but Reynaud needed to keep the former premier, Daladier and his faction in the cabinet to support his new government and Daladier stood by Gamelin and so… Reynaud’s attempts to get rid of Gamelin were blocked.

In fact, on the eve of the war, Horne shows that there was a massive cabinet fight over Gamelin and, discovering that he couldn’t sack him, Reynaud instead resigned. Once again France had no government. That was on 9 May. Germany attacked in the early hours of the next day, whereupon Reynaud was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw his resignation, and reluctantly forced to work with Gamelin – who now knew that his political boss didn’t trust him. What a mess.

No wonder the country at large referred to the national Assembly as ‘the swamp’ and all its politicians as corrupt crooks.

Out of touch Gamelin was not old-fashioned in his approach but criminally out of touch with his forces. He and his staff never visited any of the troops during the long, long period of the Phoney War, between September 1939 when France declared war on Germany and May 1940 when Germany attacked. We now know that Hitler had kept very few forces on his western flank when he invaded Poland in September 1939. If France had attacked in overwhelming force in September 1939 she would have swept aside Germany’s token defences and in all probability pushed on to Berlin and ended the war before it had properly begun. But she didn’t. She didn’t want to risk it, or risk anything.

Timid Gamelin and the rest of the general staff preferred to hunker down behind their impenetrable defence of the Maginot Line and wait for the enemy to come to him. Horne’s book reveals that Hitler actually wanted to attack France as soon as Poland was pacified, in November 1939, but was put off by his generals who were convinced they didn’t have the manpower or tanks – and then by the intervention of winter weather. And then in the spring of 1940 there was the side show of Norway, which Britain tried to help and Germany decisively invaded and occupied.

That takes us through to April, then into May 1940 as the Germans prepared their plan to invade France. This was initially named the Manstein Plan, or to give it its full title – Aufmarschanweisung N°4, Fall Gelb. Horne gives a fascinating account of how the plan went through a large number of iterations as a result of discussions, and arguments among the German General Staff – moving from an initial aim to thrust through Belgium as in the First World War, then the slow growth of a different strategy – an armed thrust through the supposedly ‘impenetrable’ Forest of the Ardennes, south of the Belgian border. This turned out to be a lucky decision as the French had posted their weakest units there, sending the stronger ones north to Belgium where they thought the attack would come. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of France’s best soldiers seeing little or no action until they were cut off and surrounded.

Among all its other virtues To Lose A War is a riveting insight into how a modern army strategy is developed and managed.

No communication Meanwhile, Gamelin’s headquarters in a chateau at Vincennes had no radio communication with his troops. Every day at a set hour despatch riders rode off with the orders of the day to a nearby radio station. Obviously this proved completely useless once the battle started. Quickly the joke went around that Gamelin’s HQ was like ‘a submarine without a periscope’ (p.440).

Terrible French morale There are scores of eye-witness accounts of the surly, unco-operative, insubordinate attitude of the French troops. The widespread strikes of the 1930s, the ubiquity of bolshy socialism and the arrogant aloofness of their officers had created a terrible attitude among the bulk of the French army. Sartre’s novels are ostensibly a fictional embodiment of his existentialist philosophy, but – having just read them – what comes over most powerfully is a portrait of an entire society paralysed by indecision and futility, by lack of focus or direction, by a shabby unhappiness.

And an army reflects its society. The picture of the common soldier given by Horne – working from countless eye-witness accounts of the time – is of men who refuse to salute officers, reluctant to obey orders, keen only to take leave where they could get blind drunk (special sobering-up rooms had to be created in train stations behind the Maginot Line to cope with the epidemic of drunk soldiers returning from leave).

Within days of the German attack (on 10 May 1940), French troops began surrendering in their thousands, laying down their arms and trudging wherever they were told, policed by a only handful of German soldiers. Or gave way to blind panic, inflamed by rumours that they were surrounded – ‘The Panzers are here!’ – and the almost universal cry that they were ‘betrayed’, had been sold out by traitors, by fifth columnists, blaming everyone – except themselves. They just wanted it all to be over. They just wanted to go home.

It is these defeated sheep who are portrayed in Sartre’s novel Iron In The Soul, a novel written from experience as Sartre himself served in a second-line battalion which surrendered and was imprisoned without a fight.

Subjectively, from the inside of his characters, Sartre depicts the defeat as an inexplicable catastrophe in which each man is thrown back on his own resources and must make an existential choice about how to live, about how to act, about who he wants to become.

But from the outside, to us looking at French society and this debacle 70 years later, the novel reads like a complete collapse of national will, a lapse into comfortable nihilism, the utter failure of an entire society.

And in other ways Sartre was very representative of his generation which blamed the British for not fighting harder, blamed the Americans for not coming to their aid, blamed the Soviet Union for signing the Nazi-Soviet pact with Hitler – in fact, the French blamed everyone except themselves. Even when they had been liberated by the British and Americans four years later, they carried on hating us. They couldn’t forgive the British for liberating them. But they reserved their main hatred for the Americans, the key force in their liberation from Nazi rule.

It’s hard to come away from this book without really despising the French.

Quotes which convey the French attitude

For sheer arrogant folly, the Barthou declaration of 17 April 1934 [‘France will henceforth guarantee her security by her own means’] is hard to beat; A.J.P. Taylor remarks: ‘The French had fired the starting pistol for the arms race. Characteristically, they then failed to run it.’ Yet it has its parallel in more recent times, when in 1966 de Gaulle informed the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance that henceforth he felt strong enough to dispense with its benefits. There are moments when one feels that – like the Bourbons, only worse – France has learned nothing and forgotten everything. (p.83)

The British Air Force representatives were driven mad by the reluctance of the French Air Force to take to the air and attack the invading Germans.

By the end of the 10th [May] Air Marshall Barratt’s temper was barely under control, his view of his apparently torpid ally all but unprintable. (p.278)

Counter-attacks on 13 May were repeatedly postponed or cancelled because the Corps or Division in question said it couldn’t make the starting point in time or couldn’t be ready amid a welter of hopeless excuses.

The sluggishness and lack of punch with which these first ripostes were executed characterised almost all the French counter-attacks subsequently carried out at various levels. (p.331)

The battle at Sedan on 14 May was over so quickly there are hardly any records of it.

On the French side , there would be but little time to enter up the regimental diaries; whole pages of the story that day have disappeared forever with the participants. Others are, alas, so shaming to French amour propre that, like the details of the mutinies of 1917, they will probably lie forever hidden from sight in the archives contained in the gloomy dungeons at Vincennes. (p.345)

In attempting to isolate the reasons for the breaking of the Sedan gunners, one comes face to face again with the twenty-four corrosive years separating the poilus of Verdun from the men of Sedan; here is the terrible harvest of those years of mutual mistrust, disunity, despair at the losses of 1914-18, je-m’en-foutisme and defeatism in France. (p.361)

There’s a typical vignette about the 47mm anti-tank gun sent up to Monthermé to face the advancing Panzer tanks, and which was discovered by them, abandoned by its French crew without having fired a single shot. (p.381)

A few days later, as the Panzers break out into northern France, Karl von Stackelberg, travelling with the 6th Panzer Division, is astonished to meet French troops marching towards the Germans in perfect order, having thrown away all their weapons, and politely asking who to surrender to. Eventually this amounted to 20,000 French troops – French soldiers who just gave up without a fight and handed themselves over to the enemy.

‘It was inexplicable. How was it possible, that after this first major battle on French territory, after this victory on the Meuse, this gigantic consequence should follow? How was it possible, these French soldiers with their officers, so completely downcast, so completely demoralised, would allow themselves to go more or less voluntarily into imprisonment?’ (quoted on p.416)

And the French Air Force?

Typical of the feebleness of the French air effort on the 15th [May] was the nocturnal bombing of one Heinkel base by a solitary French aircraft, which dumped its missiles in woods more than a quarter of a mile from the barracks and then headed home. (p.432)

On 16 May Churchill flew to Paris to meet the French leaders and try to put some backbone into them. Horne’s depiction of the scene is hilarious. For all his manifold failings Churchill comes across as the only man in the room, as the various French leaders, civilian and military, flop in their chairs and burst into tears.

Turning back to Gamelin, Churchill asked point-blank: ‘When and where are you going to counter-attack the flanks of the Bulge? From the north or from the south?’ Gamelin’s reply was: “Inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method” – and then a hopeless shrug of the shoulders.’ There was no argument. Here was the admission of the bankruptcy of a whole generation of French military thought and preparations. (p.459)

Rommel’s lightning attack through North France on 16 May, continuing all through the night, took the French completely by surprise.

One of Rommel’s Panzer commanders recalled simply shouting, loudly and impudently, at the French troop columns to throw away their weapons: ‘Many willingly follow this command, others are surprised, but nowhere is there any sign of resistance.’ (p.478)

Surrendering just by being shouted at! By May 19 the Ninth Army had ceased to exist. As one of Gamelin’s liaison officers recorded;

‘Complete disintegration. Out of 70,000 men and numerous officers, no single unit is commanded, however small… at most 10 per cent of the men have kept their rifles… However… there were no wounded among the thousands of fugitives…’ [No wounded because none of them fought] (quoted on p.518)

A complete shambles. A shameful humiliation. I’ve noted the rage of Britain’s Air chief Barratt at French inability to organise air raids on the long vulnerable Panzer columns. In the final stages of the battle Horne turns his attention to the growing frustration of the British Army’s two leaders, General Edmund Ironside, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and General Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. When Ironside visits General Billotte, the commander of the French 1st Army Group, he has to literally shake him to rouse him from his defeatist stupor. Later, Ironside wrote in his diary:

‘I begin to despair of the French fighting at all. The great army defeated by a few tanks!…. God help the B.E.F… brought to this state by the French Command.’ (quoted p.573)

It was only on 19 May, as the German Panzers approached the Atlantic coast, that they first encountered British troops for the first time, and found them a different quality from the defeatist French.

At 1300 [on 20 May] they [General Reinhardt’s Panzer Corps] ran into their first British at Mondicourt, who – in the words of the 6th Panzer War Diary – ‘in contrast to the French, cause surprise by their tough way of fighting and are only overcome by a one-hour battle.’ (p.561)

After the Germans had reached the Atlantic coast, cutting off key divisions of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force into a shrinking pocket of territory along the north coast of France, the French placed their hopes on some kind of counter-attack to cut through the ‘Panzer Corridor’.

This ‘counter-attack’ was associated with the new Army Chief Weygand, who by now – in mid-battle – had replaced the discredited Gamelin – but three days were lost in indecisiveness as Weygand insisted on  flying into the ‘pocket’ to get first-hand knowledge of the situation. During these crucial few days the head of the B.E.F., Gort, received no information or instructions whatsoever from the French and, driven to ‘despair’ by French inaction, and in the absence of any other orders, finally realised that he would have to evacuate the B.E.F. (and as many Frenchmen as he could) back to Britain.

This is the background to the famous episode of Dunkirk (Horne doesn’t go into ‘the nine-day epic of Dunkirk’, as he calls it (p.631), being outside the scope of his book). As Churchill, progressively more disillusioned by French defeatism and incapacity, put it:

The whole success of the Weygand plan was dependent on the French taking the initiative, which they showed no signs of doing. (p.604)

So it didn’t happen, and we withdrew as many men and planes as we could from France, in order to defend our island.

French despair

The tendency of the entire French military leadership to shrug their shoulders, collapse onto chairs and burst into tears, their tendency to give way to fathomless despair at almost any setback, sheds really profound light on the hold the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre had over an entire generation of French intellectuals.

‘Boo hoo’ might well sum up the attitude of both French military and cultural leaders.

As the German army, having liquidated the last pockets of resistance in the north, approached Paris, on 11 June Churchill made his fourth and final trip to France, to see the French government which had now fled to the provinces. Weygand was now ‘all defeatism’, claiming he didn’t have enough troops, he didn’t have enough resources etc. He blamed the entire idea of fighting a 1940 war with 1918 forces and equipment, he blamed the Belgians for capitulating, he blamed the British for evacuating at Dunkirk. He blamed everyone else. Churchill’s emissary, General Spears recalls:

The Frenchmen [the French government and senior military] sat with white faces, their eyes on the table. They looked for all the world like prisoners hauled up from some deep dungeon to hear an inevitable verdict. (p.650)

Reading this enormous book, soaking yourself in the political chaos, military mismanagement, je-m’en-foutisme and universal defeatism of the French character, makes you wonder whether, when Sartre describes the futility of human existence, the ‘anguish’ caused by realisation of our complete freedom, the paralysing sense of ‘abandonment’ in a world without God, and the agonising need to make decisions which you find so difficult to take – he is not describing the wretched ineffectiveness of ‘the human condition’ at all. He is solely describing the wretched, spineless French character of his day.

After the meeting [with Churchill], Reynaud was violently reproached for raising the peace issue, by Mandel and the president of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, Jeanneney and Herriot; the latter was in tears. (p.657)

What a shameful disgrace. I never appreciated what a debacle it was until I read this stunning book.

P.S. Don’t believe newspapers

At the start of each of the 12 or so chapters which deal with the actual battle Horne quotes a clutch of newspaper reports from the relevant day, from papers like the New York Herald Tribune, the Sunday Chronicle, the New York Journal, The Times, Le Temps, L’Époque, Havas, the Manchester Guardian and so on.

These reports were generally based on French government accounts, a government which initially was itself hopelessly out of touch with events on the ground, and then put a deliberately optimistic gloss on the situation.

The newspaper reports are, in other words, hopelessly wrong and misleading. As such they become an increasingly ironic chorus to the main action – as the Allied papers give increasingly glowing accounts of the battle, assuring their readers that the German advance has faltered, or the French counter-attack has succeeded or that Allied air forces dominate the skies – while in fact the Germans were breaking through, breaking out and taking territory at record speeds.

As the book progresses, the newspaper reports veer more and more wildly out of kilter with the reality on the ground, and this modest narrative device reminds you for the umpteenth time that you really shouldn’t trust anything you read in the newspapers – particularly in times of crisis or conflict.

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Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre (1949)

He felt himself filled with a sense of vast and pointless freedom. (p.92)

349 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition, Iron in The Soul repeats the format of the previous two novels in The Roads To Freedom trilogy by following a set of French characters over a very specific, and short, timeframe connected with the Second World War, in this case right at the end of the Battle of France.

Part one

Part one is 200 pages long, its first chapter has the dateline ‘New York: Saturday 15 June 1940 9am’ and the final chapter is dated ‘Tuesday 18 June 5.45am’. So it covers four days towards the end of the Battle of France.

In part one there is not much of the ‘experimental’ technique Sartre used to such effect in The Reprieve. In that novel I counted some 130 named characters, and the text made a point of cross-cutting unpredictably from one character’s actions and thoughts to another’s, from one scene to another, continually introducing new characters, sometimes just for brief cameos. This made it quite a challenging read but the reward was in the quite wonderful, almost musical, sense of rhythm in the interleaving of episodes, people and their deepest thoughts.

Part one of Iron in the Soul is more traditional, establishing fixed and static scenes and then following characters within them for substantial lengths of text, before starting new chapters or chapter sections to reflect new scenes and characters. Much more clear and comprehensible.


Maybe a recap of the historical background would be useful. In spring 1940:

May 10 Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
May 11 British and French forces begin a long line of strategic defenses to defend Belgium
May 12 German General Guderian with his three divisions reaches the Meuse River
May 13 the first German forces emerge from Ardennes onto the Meuse
May 14 German Panzer Corps fifteen and nineteen break through Allied defenses at Sedan allowing German forces to bypass the Maginot line
May 15 German forces push on toward Paris and the English Channel
May 20 General Weygand replaces General Gamelin as Allied commander
May 17-18 Antwerp and Brussels fall to Germany
May 21 Allied forces try to counter attack German forces but are repulsed
May 24 The Luftwaffe bombs Allied defensive positions around Dunkirk
May 25 German forces take Boulogne as more retreating Allied forces reach Dunkirk
May 26 850 British civilian ships and vessels help Allied forces evacuate Dunkirk in the largest military evacuation in history
May 28 King Leopold of Belgium orders his army to surrender to German forces
May 29 around 47,000 British forces are evacuated from Dunkirk
May 30 around 120,000 Allied forces evacuated from Dunkirk
May 31 around 150,000 Allied soldiers arrive in Britain

June 3 The German Luftwaffe bombs Paris
June 4 Allied forces continue evacuation of the coast. In all some 338,326 British and 113,000 French forces are evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain
June 5th Second part of the Battle of France begins with the German striking south from the River Somme
June 9 German forces launch an offensive on Paris
June 10 Norway surrenders to Germany and Italy joins the war by declaring war on France and Great Britain
June 13 Paris is declared an open city by the French government which flees to Bordeaux
June 14 German troops enter Paris
June 16 Marshal Petain becomes Prime Minister of France
June 17 French government asks Germany for armistice terms. Germans cross the river Loire in the west and reach the Swiss frontier in the south-east
June 18 General de Gaulle broadcasts on the BBC telling the people of France to resist
June 22 France signs an armistice with Germany
June 23 Adolf Hitler begins a tour of the captured city of Paris
June 24 The French officially surrender at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918
25 June All hostilities cease. France has fallen

Part one of Iron In the Soul tracks its characters over the four days during which Parisians flee their city before it is taken by the Germans and when retreating Second Tier armed forces are abandoned by their officers and find themselves at a loss what to do. the key characters from the first novel recur:

  • Gomez is in New York scrabbling for a job in the art world.
  • His wife, Sarah, and son Pablo are caught in the huge stream of refugees fleeing Paris.
  • Daniel, the gay banker who married Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, has packed her off and roams the streets of an empty Paris like the last man in the world – until he encounters Philippe, the spoilt youth we met in The Reprieve, and sets about seducing him.
  • Boris Serguine, who we saw join the Army in The Reprieve, was wounded in the fighting but is well enough to go to the apartment of his mistress, the nightclub singer Lola Montero who, however, has been diagnosed with a stomach tumour but can’t bring herself to tell him.
  • We saw Boris’s sister, the prickly Ivich, give herself to a unnamed man in The Reprieve partly as rebellion against her bourgeois parents, partly because she thought war was about to break out and the world end. Nearly two years later, we discover she got pregnant, the man married her, she had a miscarriage, he’s off at the front fighting where, characteristically, she hopes he gets killed.
  • Mathieu’s intolerably pompous self-serving brother, Jacques, a lawyer, forces his wife to pack in a hurry and flee from Paris only to get half way across France and realise he wants to go back, and blames the whole thing on her. She is livid. She goes to sleep in the car dreaming of Mathieu.
  • And the ‘hero’ of the first book – over-sensitive, over-thinking, angst-ridden but ineffectual philosophy tutor Mathieu Delarue?We find him with a platoon of Second string infantry who never saw any fighting. For 200 pages they laze around wondering what to do after their officers have treacherously abandoned them, smoking and getting drunk – until a platoon of Chasseurs arrive who are battle-hardened and disciplined. On a whim – or more accurately, as a result of the incredibly complicated and tortuous meditations about the nature of ‘freedom’ which have filled the previous 800 pages, Mathieu decides to join them, is given a rifle, sent with a squad to be sharp-shooters up a church belfry and when the Germans finally arrive, is involved in a fierce firefight which ends with the belfry being blown up by artillery and Mathieu blazing away till the last minute like a Hollywood hero.

Part two

is significantly different. It took me a few pages to realise that the entire part – all 120 pages – consists of just three paragraphs. With the exception of just two small breaks, these 120 pages make up a solid block of print, with no incidental breaks or indentations. Possibly this is to reflect the subject matter. (Craig Vasey’s introduction to The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV tells me that in the original French there weren’t even the two small breaks: the entire 120 pages consisted of one paragraph; and that all the verbs were in the present tense, something the English translation here rejects.)

The ‘plot’ picks up (with savage irony / comedy  / bleak farce) at exactly the point where Mathieu is killed – for taking refuge in a cellar of a house off the square is his friend and contemporary, the strong, manly Communist Brunet. In The Age of Reason, there’s a passage where Brunet tries to persuade Mathieu to become a communist, but the timid philosopher, as with everything else in his life, hesitates and puts the decision off.

Anyway, Brunet has no idea Mathieu is up in the church tower about to be blown to smithereens. He has his own concerns. he fought bravely, most of his platoon were killed. Now he surrenders to the Germans as they finally take the village. He falls in with a trail of French POWs which grows and grows till it is maybe 10,000 strong, a vast concourse of knackered, defeated, demoralised men stumbling along dusty roads in blinding heat. Finally, they arrive at a disused barracks which has become converted into a POW camp.

Here the French are easily shepherded inside and locked up. The next hundred pages give in great detail the dialogue between a cast of about a dozen peasant and proletarian infantrymen, while Brunet makes his plans to create a Communist cell among them. While they fuss about food and the weather and gossip, Brunet is planning for the future.

In this he is sort of helped by Schneider, a tough, surly man who is not exactly a Communist, but agrees to help him. The spine of the section is the wary dialogue between these two men, with Schneider proving himself both more of a man of the people, and smarter than Brunet in various situations. It is difficult to know what this section is ‘about’. Possibly it is a prolonged examination of the nature of a ‘Communist Activist’, with Brunet given Schneider as a foil to dramatise different approaches to handling men, creating a cell, combating cynicism and fatigue, and so on.

Whatever the precise intention, the overt or political purpose of the section now feels completely redundant, part of a long-lost history. It doesn’t even – as with so much Sartre – lead to any real action, for next to nothing happens to this vast concourse of freed men. After five or six days without food, trucks eventually arrive with soup and bread. One madmen runs amok screaming and the Germans shoot him. For the rest the defeated Frenchmen adopt a holiday mood, sunbathing, playing cards, establishing billets in every available building, nicking stuff, squabbling. Both Brunet and Schneider find it almost impossible to motivate anyone. No Germans of any authority appear. They don’t confront the camp commandant or organise a strike or anything really decisive or dramatic. Instead Brunet and Schneider squabble with each other, and with the dozen or so named characters around them.

In the last of the three sections, the setting jumps a bit to aboard the massive train of cattle trucks in which thousands of POWs have been packed as it rattles north through France. A teeny tiny bit of suspense is given to this passage because the more intelligent among them (i.e. Brunet, Schneider, a few others) are pretty sure they’re being taken to Germany to become slave labour. The section shows the various forms of denial, fear, and panic among the POWs as they wonder which way the train will turn at the fatal set of points which will steer them either further north into France or East across the border. One character, a young printer who Brunet had recruited for his Communist cell, panics, jumps from the train when it slows at a cutting, runs away a little, then panics more and tries to return and catch up – only to be picked off by the German guards and fall dead beside the rails. That’s as dramatic as it gets.

When the train reaches the points they are set East, confirming Brunet and Schneider’s gloomy assumptions. They are heading East to a dark future. The final words are:

Above the dead body, above the inert freight-van, the darkness wheeled. It alone was living. Tomorrow’s dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. Tomorrow the black birds would come. (p.349)


The futility of life

As to the mood and feel of the text, we are back in bleak Sartre-land where the sunshine is futile, life is pointless, breathing is an effort, and the hyper-sensitive characters are oppressed by life, by other people, by other people looking at them, dammit – and everyone agonises about their ‘freedom’, panting after this mystical chimera without ever quite grasping what this much-abused term actually means.

Gomez, the artist has escaped to New York, where he walks around hating the heat, the sunshine, the big buildings, the streamlined cars, the adverts, the magazines and, everywhere, pictures of happy smiling people – Not to grin is a sin, he thinks bitterly – while ‘over there’ i.e. back in Europe, people are suffering, suffering I tell you! This is intercut with the plight of his wife, Sarah, a Jewess, and small son Pablo, who are caught in a vast traffic jam of refugees fleeing Paris. These are Gomez’s thoughts:

He looked at the street, at the meaningless sun, at the whole meaningless day. There would be nothing now, any more, but meaningless days. (p.9)

These are Sarah’s thoughts:

We are no more than the feet of an interminable insect. Why walk when hope is dead? Why live? (p.25)

Sartre’s novels could almost be designed to validate teenage depressives’ most suicidal thoughts and, above all, to make the depressive feel special, superior to what Gomez calls the ‘human tide’ of people in New York with their ‘bright dead eyes’, and Sarah’s description of the refugees as ‘insects’ (a favourite insult term of Sartre’s; he memorably describes Hitler as having an insect face; Mathieu looks down from the church tower on the villagers like ‘frightened ants’; Lola feels that Boris while screwing her is like an insect, when the Germans arrive in the village Mathieu feels they have ‘the eyes of supermen and insects’, p.212).

Everyone else is an insect, or an inane grinning American with dead eyes, part of the machine, part of the bourgeoisie – I, I alone, suffer – look how I suffer – look how special I am!


Both The Age of Reason and The Reprieve contain extended sequences describing the thoughts and sensations, the hyper self-awareness, of two men on the brink of committing suicide – Daniel with a razor and Mathieu jumping into the Seine, respectively. Having tried to kill myself, I can vouch for the exquisite sense of self-pity you feel at such a moment, looking at your doomed hands, your tragic face in the mirror, afflicted by sentimental thoughts that this is the last time you’ll look at your face, the last time you’ll turn out the bedroom light (or whatever), after you slash your wrists, take an overdose etc.

So, Ivich invites her brother, Boris, to join her in a suicide pact (p.72) though she isn’t really a serious character, just a spoilt wilful girl. Daniel comes across Philippe, the spoilt son of bourgeois parents, hesitating on the brink of the Seine, trying to nerve himself to throw himself in. Various other characters – for example Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, who is secretly in love with him – think they can’t go on, life is so damn pointless. What’s the point?

In Sartre’s novels, death, and suicide, are all around us. Describing the plot to my son he said, ‘sounds like teenage angst on steroids’.

Rootless, directionless, abandoned

What these people need is a sound spanking (as Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, memorably puts it). Or maybe just the support of a loving family, a job, some stability, something to focus their energy on. But their characters are all carefully chosen to be bohemian types, drifters, people without settled jobs or any real family commitments. Sartre selects a group of people with very few responsibilities and who we never see doing a single day’s work in their lives – thus allowing them all to give vent to maximum feelings of alienation and anomie, thus permitting them all to have lengthy and repetitive soliloquies about the pointlessness of life, about their feelings of abandonment.

As a married father of two, I see both marriage and especially fatherhood, as extremely demanding, responsible roles. Significantly, none of Sartre’s characters are married or have children in the traditional manner –

  • Gomez is married but has dumped Sarah and his son to run away and fight in Spain, then flee to America.
  • Daniel only married Marcelle as an existential dare, in reality he hates her and can’t wait to get away from her.
  • Boris is going out with Lola the singer, but routinely hates her, and in fact dumps her for the army.
  • Ivich got married to Georges after he got her pregnant but, inevitably, hates him, and hopes he’s killed in the fighting (p.66). Ivich loathes her in-laws, and she ‘detests’ the French (p.68), but then she hates more or less everyone.
  • Sarah looks at her crying son and realises she hates him (p.25).
  • The villagers hate the French soldiers who’ve been billeted on them (p.97).
  • Mathieu realises he hates his drunken comrades (p.132).
  • Philippe tells Daniel that he hates his step-father, the general (p.149).
  • Pinette’s girlfriend hates Mathieu (p.157)

In fact, most of the characters hate most of the other characters most of the time. Do all French people hate all other French people? Would explain their surliness.

So if you’re a drifter without a proper job, without any family ties or support, who hates everyone and despises bourgeois society, this is how you will end up feeling: full of despair and anomie. It’s hardly rocket science.


It is a key axiom of existentialism that every individual is alone, completely alone, and condemned to complete freedom. We are not hemmed in or supported by social structures or traditions or morality, for we choose whether or not to accept those: to blame society or others in any way for any of our acts is bad faith, is a denial of our utter freedom.

But Sartre’s philosophy of life – or his melodramatic poetry about the horror of existence – all begins in this primal, fundamental sense of your complete solitude, the basic feeling of alienation from others, from your fellow soldiers, or your family, from everyone else in the bar or cafe or nightclub, some sudden feeling of your complete aloneness in the face of an utterly indifferent universe.

This is the moment in the characters’ lives which the text keeps returning to like a moth to a flame.

  • He shivered. He felt suddenly naked and alone, a man, I. (p.102)
  • No one needs me. he sat down on the edge of the road because there was nowhere for him to go. Night entered into him through mouth and eyes, through nose and ears. He was no one now; he was nothing – nothing any longer but misery and darkness. (p.162)
  • Mathieu saw the smile and felt utterly alone. (p178)
  • She felt lost in a world of which she could make no use. (p.191) [Odette]
  • She thought: ‘I am alone.’.. He speaks to me and kisses me, but when I come to die I shall be alone… (pp.205-6) [Lola]
  • Where are the Comrades? Brunet felt lonely. Never, in all the past ten years, had he felt so utterly alone. (p.239)
  • [When the French prisoners of war arrive in a huge fences barracks] They were going to bury their filthy old war among these high buildings, were going to stew in their own juice, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone. (p.241)

Even sex doesn’t unify people, it merely emphasises their inescapable isolation. There are two memorable acts of sex in the book and both of them emphasise the essential loneliness of the male protagonist: first the peasant Pinette screwing the post office girl he’s picked up in a field outside the village where Mathieu and the other soldiers are mooching about; then handsome young Boris making love to Lola the ageing singer. Lola has discovered she has a tumour of the belly and/or the menopause, both of which conspire to make sex very painful, but not as painful as the self-image she has, loathing her dry husk of a body and thinking of Boris as a repellent insect squirting her with sticky fluid. Lots of disgusting, viscous fluids in Sartre.

It is through a wound that you will enter me. When he used to touch me in the old days, I became like velvet: now, my body is like dried earth: I crack and crumble under his fingers… He rent her to the roots of her belly, he was moving in her belly like a knife. On his face was a look of loneliness, of morbid concentration. She saw him as an insect, as a fly climbing up a window-pane climbing, falling, climbing again. She was conscious only of the pain he was causing her… (p.204)

No, not even sex is an escape from the ubiquitous sense of aloneness, of abandonment, which Sartre sees as the permanent basis of the human condition.

In the climaxes of the two parts, the male protagonist is invincibly alone. Mathieu, wounded, and the only survivor of an artillery shell which has brought the roof of the church tower down on all his comrades, struggles to continue shooting for just a few seconds more before being obliterated. In those moments:

He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free. (p.225)

On the last page of part two, after the little printer has been shot dead and the train moves mechanically onwards.

Brunet was alone, rigid and uncomfortable. (p.349)

It is an oddity than a man so obsessed with the fundamental and irreducible aloneness of each human being became a Marxist, devoted to the idea of international solidarity. And that a man so obsessed with man’s terrifyingly absolute freedom, adopted the Marxist worldview which is characterised by the inevitability of History, that Marx had uncovered scientific laws of History which dictated that a Communist revolution was inevitable i.e that at some deep level human beings are not free. I leave this to the scholars to disentangle: it would certainly be good to reach a better understanding.

Science fiction states of mind

Not much happens in a Sartre novel. Page after page is filled either with lengthy dialogue between its ineffectual characters, or with even lengthier descriptions of their feelings of abandonment and futility. The firefight at the climax of part one, and the death of the printer at the climax of part two, are very much the exceptions which prove the rule. They are more or less the only bits of ‘action’ in the entire trilogy.

Every page features descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, lengthy internal monologues but these are not as they would be in a comparable English novel. The distinctive and unnerving feature of them is the extent to which they develop into often almost delirious hallucinations of the world around them, with objects coming alive, with great abstract ideas entering the sky or room or drowning them, with parts of their bodies becoming external objects (arms and particularly hands often seem to their owners to have become alien objects). Here is Mathieu in the bell tower of the village church.

Under their feet was the fragrance of spices and incense, coolness, and the stained-glass windows feebly shining in the shadows of the Faith. Under their feet was confidence and hope. He felt cold. He looked at the sky, breathed the sky, thought with the sky. He was naked on a glacier at a great height. Far below him lay his childhood. (p.200)

In a proliferating multitude of ways, the world around Sartre’s characters, including their own bodies, including their own ideas and sensations, come alive, infuse their thoughts, colour the sky, invade the world.

The effect is often bizarre, surreal or even druggy. ‘He thought with the sky.’

And very often these hallucinations go one step further by infusing these trippy states of consciousness with poetic renderings of grand abstract concepts like Death or Defeat or Despair. Characters frequently become dead men, anticipating their death (by suicide or in battle), realise that they are a dead man walking or thinking. Or death invades whole scenes, the huge vista of prisoners of war becomes a sea of the dead (to Brunet’s eye) or Paris becomes a vast tomb (in Daniel’s imagination), and so on.

Thus Daniel wandering the empty streets of Paris experiences what amount to such intense imaginative transports that they are effectively hallucinations. n a memorable simile the Boulevard St Michel becomes a vast beached whale. In fact, it was while reading the Daniel-wanders-round-empty-Paris section that it suddenly struck me that a lot of Sartre’s scenes have the feel of science fiction.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, was silence and emptiness, an abyss stretching horizontally away from him… The streets led nowhere. Without human life, they all looked alike. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, but yesterday a long southward spread of gold, seemed now like a stranded whale, belly upwards. He made his feet ring out upon the great, sodden, hollow carcass. (p.93)

This scene suddenly reminded me of all those science fiction novels in which a man finds himself more or less the only survivor of a disaster, a great plague or nuclear apocalypse.

Anyway, the passage quoted above could be categorised as a Level One hallucination, one which is still a metaphor of a recognisable state. But (as noted above) routinely Sartre’s characters progress to Level Two hallucinations in which the ‘reality’ around them becomes infused with great Abstract Concepts.

He looked at the empty bridge, at the padlocked bookboxes on the quay, at the clock-face that had no hands… A shadow slipped past the Prefecture of Police…Paris was not, strictly speaking, empty. It was peopled by little broken scraps of time that sprang here and there to life, to be almost immediately reabsorbed again into this radiance of eternity. (p.91)

‘Scraps of time reabsorbed into this radiance of eternity.’ This is a kind of philosophical prose poetry, in that it invokes ‘deep’ ideas, but without any systematic application, merely for effect. It is a kind of pseudo-philosophical lyricism for its own sake.

I am here. Time, with its great fanning future, collapsed. All that was left was a tiny flickering patch of local moments. (p.108)

Suddenly this visionary quality reminded me of the prose of the great psychological sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard. In the 1960s Ballard famously rejected ‘space opera’, the whole sci-fi tradition of rockets going to outer space, aliens and death rays – in order to concentrate on weird mental states achieved here on decaying planet earth. His characters wander landscapes of entropy and decay littered with empty swimming pools, abandoned motels, are attracted to car crashes or go schizo in high-rise buildings. They explore the altered states of inner space. Like Sartre’s.

All about him was once more swallowed in a planetary silence. He must walk, walk unceasingly, over the surface of a cooling planet. (p.134)

Reading Daniel’s visions of abandoned Paris I suddenly saw the surprising similarity between Ballard’s psychological explorations and the many many passages in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels which obsessively depict mental states of hallucinatory intensity – not for any philosophic or propagandistic purpose, well, OK, partly to promote the feel of his existentialist world-view — but much more for their weirdness, to bring out the strangeness of what it’s like to be the animal who thinks, the animal with self-consciousness, the animal lost in the fever of its own compulsive hallucinations. Here’s Mathieu among his soldiers hanging round the village waiting for something to happen.

We are a vermin’s dream: our thoughts are becoming muddied, are becoming less and less human: thoughts, hairy and clawed, were scurrying around, jumping from head to head; the vermin was on the point of waking up. (p.102)

At which point it dawned on me that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom, the so-called existentialist philosophy, is maybe a rationalisation, an attempt to give a structure and a meaning to what in fact, in the fiction, on the page, comes over as an unstoppable torrent of weird hallucinations.

His mind felt completely empty. He was dead: the afternoon was bleached and dead. It was a tomb. (p.76)

Mathieu is not at all dead as he thinks this, just like none of the other characters who let thoughts of death and the dead ceaselessly invade their thoughts are actually dead. But then maybe ‘think’ is the wrong word. Maybe it would be better to say that this is a poetic description of an intense feeling which is passing through Mathieu’ consciousness. Mathieu is merely the vessel for these delirious psychological states.

All Sartre’s characters are. They are channels for Sartre’s uncontrollable gush of weird mental states. One of the soldiers hanging round with Mathieu begins to tell the others the armistice with Germany has been signed, but hesitates… and suddenly they all grasp the dreadful truth without having to be told.

A dazzle off steel, then silence. The blue, flabby flesh of the afternoon had taken eternity like the sweep of a scythe. Not a sound, not a breath of air. Time had become frozen; the war had withdrawn… (p76)

Is hallucination the right word for this kind of writing? Sometimes. Other times it’s just a peculiar, a very distinctive, way of conceiving human beings and human consciousness, in which ‘thought’ is perceived as an almost organic process and – this being Sartre – generally a revoltingly nauseating one involving slime.

At one moment he was just an emptiness filled with vague forebodings, at another, he became just like everyone else. His forebodings faded; the general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth… (p.97)

The vermin eyes had ostracised him, were looking up at him with an air of astonished solemnity, as though they were seeing him for the first time, as though they were looking up at him through layers of slime. (p.102)

The fact that the French prisoners of war are made to trudge through the heat for hours before reaching the camp, and then aren’t fed for five days gives Sartre the opportunity to let rip with the altered states caused by starvation and dehydration. For an extended sequence Brunet passes into a delirium somewhere between dreams and hallucinations. For example, he imagines all the soldiers are chimpanzees.

There were chimpanzees in the next cage, pressing inquisitive faces to the bars. They had sad and wrinkled eyes. Monkeys have sadder eyes than any animals except man. Something had happened, he wondered what. A catastrophe. What catastrophe? Perhaps the sun had gone cold? (p.274)

Note, again, the tinge of apocalyptic science fiction.

In fact this long second part is a strange mixture of very realistic slangy chat between rough Frenchmen, arguing, crying, going mad, blaming their officers, squabbling, cadging fags etc – and passages of quite stunning prose poetry. Sartre’s philosophy I leave to the experts on Husserl and Heidegger to nail down; it belongs to the European tradition which is difficult for us Anglo-Saxons to really understand.

But for me the revelation of these books is the surprising amount of purple prose and lyricism they contain, the extent to which they are truly writerly. As a last example, imagine a huge prisoner of war camp with thousands of dusty, downcast men lying, squatting, standing, leaning about everywhere, as far as the eye can see. And then:

The airplane passed overhead with a shattering din. The crowded faces lowered, then upturned, passed from black to white, like a field suddenly bursting into flower: in place of hard, black heads, thousands of camelias broke into blossom. Spectacles glittered like scraps of glass in a garden bed. (p.243)

There are lots of passages like this. Whereas his analyses of the political situation have passed into dusty history and his existentialist philosophy may or may not still have adherents – the vibrancy, the unexpected imaginativeness and continual weirdness of Sartre’s continues to haunts with its strange power.


La mort dans l’âme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1949. This translation is not by the translator of the first two in the trilogy, Eric Sutton, but by Gerard Hopkins. It was published as Iron In The Soul by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Iron In The Soul was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All references are to the 1967 Penguin paperback reprint, which cost the princely sum of five shillings (25p).

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