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The Mandarins

de Simone de Beauvoir

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An unflinching look at Parisian intellectual society at the end of World War II, fictionally relating the stories of those around her--Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, and Nelson Algren.
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Nothing to do with China but everything to do with France.

An intellectual is an educated person whose interests are studying and other activities that involve careful thinking and mental effort. Simone de Beauvoir was proud to be an intellectual and for much of her adult life she operated amongst the intellectual elites in France, often being the only woman in the group. The most challenging periods for her cadre of left wing thinkers was after the liberation of Paris in 1944, when some of them who had been leading figures in the French Resistance, had to come to terms with a new French Republic ultimately lead by General De Gaulle a right of centre politician. She covered this period in the third part of her autobiography [La Force des Choses] published in 1963, however earlier she had written [Les Mandarins] published in 1954 a novel based on those events immediately after the war, which became an international best seller.

In her novel Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, De Beauvoir herself, the American Nelson Algren and Arthur Koestler are portrayed as thinly disguised characters acting out some of the imaginary events based on incidents from De Beauvoir's own life. It was an exciting and stimulating time for those characters who were desperate to play a part in politics and literature after the end of the second world war, it was also a time when those people found a new freedom to think and act after the German Occupation, although still bearing the scars of the war years. Simone De Beauvoir catches this brilliantly as a person who lived through those times: it reeks of authenticity. There are two main threads to the novel: the first is the battle to keep a war time left wing newspaper in circulation after the end of the war with Henri Perron and Robert Dubreuillh (based on the characters of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre) struggling to keep their paper out of the hands of the Communist Party; the second thread is Anne Debreuillh's (De Beauvoir) affair with the American author Lewis Brogan (Nelson Algren). The storylines of these two threads are told in alternate chapters with the battle for the newspaper told in the third person and the American affair told in the first person, with the stories overlapping.

The private lives of the characters are explored in some detail. Henri Perron's partner Paula leads a life that she devotes to Henri, willing to accommodate his affairs with younger women, but ultimately heading for a nervous breakdown. Anne Debreuillh's daughter Nadine a strong independent young woman who has an affair with Henri, but strictly on her terms. Henri also has an affair with Josette a beautiful young starlet whose mother may have collaborated with the Germans, this will come back to haunt Henri and although he is portrayed as a man of integrity much admired by younger acolytes he is compromised by events as are all of the characters in this novel. Anne's affair with the American author is a love story, but one that cannot bridge the gap between the new/young Americans and the old Europeans. De Beauvoir writes with painful honesty here and as in all the love affairs that she details; the battle of the sexes are picked clean through her brilliant character portraits. As well as the love stories, disturbing events lurk in the background; there is a gang seeking out and murdering war time collaborators that gets too close to Henri and Nadine. There is a spiteful war of words between left wing writers and thinkers that aims at character assassination and then there is the struggle to hold at bay those frenchmen and woman who were sympathetic to the German invaders and who are encouraged by the political drift of the French government towards the right.

The busy intellectual lives of Henri and Robert Dubreuill are depicted by an author who had an immense admiration for hard work. The two men are forever dashing to meetings, heading of crisis, re-inventing themselves, dreaming of a life less busy, but forever denying themselves the opportunity of resting when the chance arrives, they are both scared of not being able to make a difference. It was a world where men were in control and women were very much on the sidelines as one of the characters is heard to say:

Women? Either they are idiots or they’re unbearable.

However this is said by one of the rich young men before he tangles with the ferocious Nadine. De Beauvoir's female characters are strong in their own way, but they had little opportunity to work at the same level as the men in 1950's France. Above all this novel feels like a realistic representation of the life and times of artistic or politically motivated people.

Because it is a novel about the so-called intelligentsia De Beauvoir has plenty of opportunity to rehearse political and philosophical thoughts of people on the left wing of society. She does this through some lively conversation as her characters ruminate on their own ideas and try to influence others. She gets this so right (even in the English translation that I read) that it is no stretch of the imagination to surmise that she is recording snippets of actual conversations that she was party to at the time. Certainly Anne's conversations with Lewis Brogan feel like she is putting the record straight, even if in real life De Beauvoir did not have those actual conversations with Nelson Algren, obviously she has no trouble in getting inside the heads of her characters.

This is the second time I have read this novel; I probably read it first time round for the salacious episodes concerning the private lives of her characters, but at over 700 pages there has to be more to a novel than gossip and sex and even on my first reading I was mightily impressed with the story and the reading experience. This time around I am convinced it is one of the best novels I have read. I found myself fully immersed in the lives of Simone's characters as they attempted to come to terms with post war France. These are real people albeit at a certain elite level of society, but they are people who cared about their country, about the human condition, but like nearly everybody they could be corrupted, manipulated or just let their emotions lead them by the tail. Real people, real lives and so much to think about makes this a 5 star read. ( )
3 vota baswood | Oct 14, 2020 |
I didn't even make it to 100 pages, just a tad over 50. I woke up thinking, "I can't read this book. I don't want to read this book." It isn't fair -- my guess is that the novel is entertaining enough in its own way, capturing the postwar era for French and (some) American intellectuals, drawn to what will evolve into the moderated socialist ideas current in the present-day. Also showing how an educated and intellectual and politically oriented woman would manage (or not). (Almost convincing myself to pick it up again!) Deciding not to read a book is an uncomfortable thing. Often you find yourself surprised and edified in unexpected ways. But not this time.
1 vota sibylline | Jan 20, 2019 |
A book I started and disliked. I simply can't get through: too political, a bit old fashioned,very small print... All this together made me decidevat around page 100 that I really didn't want to plough any further.
  BoekenTrol71 | Sep 27, 2017 |
A fascinating insight into the world of the French intellectual elite, coming out of World War Two and attempting to build a future in a country rapidly becoming marginal to the greater concerns of the cold war. Relevance is a major theme here - the political struggles to form a credible left in France being overtaken by the actions of STalin and of the nuclear powers - and these are counterpointed by the characters' efforts to build emotional and romantic relationships while still scarred by the privations and betrayals of the occupation and the war years. De Beauvoir does not idealise, or consider it her job as a feminist to make her female characters more admirable than the male - spoilt, delusional and venal women walk the pages of her novel alongside weak, violent and treacherous men. But the book has a beating heart of love and passion, and a passion that is both personal and deeply politically engaged. Parochial and dated some of it may seem, but the rage and commitment - and the efforts to build better lives and communities - should resonate with us all.
1 vota otterley | Oct 12, 2014 |
It’s a horrible thing, a woman who labors to lead a man’s hands to her body by appealing to his mind.

The irony of the author of [The Second Sex] having published this five years after the previous kills me, it really does. What's worse is her having won the Prix Goncourt for it, a weighty stamp of approved literature prowess that says nothing less than, yes, this is how you discuss philosophical theories in the midst of love and warfare: trot the men out trigger happy and reduce the women to self-hating despair. I can imagine a younger self of mine picking this up before TSS; imagining what would have inevitably resulted makes me sick.

Beauvoir did not publicly declare herself a feminist till 1972. I don't envy the life that made her forbear from such a declaration until TSS was nearly a quarter of a century old. I don't envy what ignorant bliss the characters in this book must have been in until WWII rolled around and the world transformed into a geography of atomic bombs and concentration camps. I don't envy the balancing act they all had to maintain, bandying political agendas and philosophical jargon and standing up for the oppressed via paper, all the while dehumanizing every female within reach and then some. Women and men alike, self-contempt for one and indulgent solipsism for the other, a mutilation that cannot help but be inextricably mixed with any and all of their good intentions. If Beauvoir's portraits of her fellow thinkers are as keen as some say they are, their crises of existentialism and absurdism don't surprise me. It's hard to live with yourself when your definition of freedom is psychopathology

.“If others don’t count, it’s meaningless to write. But if they do count, it’s wonderful to gain their friendship and their confidence; it’s magnificent to hear your own thoughts echoed in them.”

"All that writing about the melancholy of the Portuguese and how mysterious it is. Actually it's ridiculously simple: of seven million Portuguese, there are only seventy thousand who have enough to eat."

When I was a child, a teacher seemed to me a much greater person than a duchess or a millionaire, and through the years that hierarchy had not changed appreciably.


However. Those up there are only a few of many of the wonderful things Beauvoir pens in regards to education, literature, the intersection of humanity with the written word. A few years ago, for the sake of these pearls, I might have excused her atrocious double standards when it came to characterizing both shell and core of the gendered dichotomy. I even gave her the benefit of the doubt until the last page was turned, hoping this all too rigorous misogyny would be flipped over, left wriggling and wailing on its thickened carapace with its soft and sickening underbelly all too clearly exposed. There are instances, perfectly gorgeous instances where the author could have stepped forward and outfitted phrases like these:

To maintain that I alone hold our affair in my hands is to substitute a puppet for Lewis, to transform myself into a ghost and our past into anemic memories. Our love isn’t a story I can pull out of the context of my life in order to tell it to myself. It exists outside myself; Lewis and I bear it together. Closing one’s eyes isn’t enough to do away with the sun; disavowing that love is only blinding myself. No, I rejected cautious thinking, and false solitude, and sordid consolations.

“You throw men into a war and then, at the first rape, you hang them!”


with the sharp and incisive insight I knew in TSS that they so rightfully deserve. Instead, the malaise extends to all reaches of the third person man and the first person woman, generating a plot with girlfriends in a refrigerator, male characters with not a physical description or unsubstantiated denigration in sight, and the good old colonialist mindset. Practice reducing those around you to ciphers long enough, and something's gotta give.

"I don't want to think about myself any more," she said violently. "I've had enough of thinking about myself. Don't give me bad advice."

You can't think yourself out of feeling alienated. You can think yourself into it right quick if you insist on dressing it up in the word "freedom", treating your interpersonal relationships like trash, and pretending your work and your money will see fit to care when you're lost and alone and thinking of ending it all. You'll be free when you're dead, not only dead but forgotten, not only forgotten but negligible in the impact you made on the reality of others through your ideologies, your habitus, how you lived and what you learned and the whys and wherefores of the things you said. You'll be free when what you did in the name of what you held dear is so warped by the ones who come after you that no one will believe the origin of it all was you, and you alone.

"The freedom of a writer—it would be interesting to know what that means,"

Beauvoir wasn't free, and so I don't blame her. I don't blame any woman who views thought as equivalent to self-immolation and conducted/conducts/will conduct herself as such. What I will do is remember my introduction to feminism, when it first became clear that it was not and had never been just me. What I will do is not sacrifice my political ideals just because I can't sway millions in a day. What I will do is better myself with the ideas and live for the humans, for at the end of the day and the triumphs and the horrors and the same old same old, it is awfully nice to sit down and reaffirm one's existence with someone who cares. ( )
1 vota Korrick | Aug 29, 2014 |
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Nom de l'autorCàrrecTipus d'autorObra?Estat
Beauvoir, Simone deautor primaritotes les edicionsconfirmat
Altena, Ernst vanEpílegautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Altena, Ernst vanTraductorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Ücker-Lutz, RuthTraductorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Corr, ChristopherIl·lustradorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Friedman, Leonard M.Traductorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Hardenberg, JanTraductorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Lessing, DorisIntroduccióautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Montfort, FritzTraductorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
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Henri found himself looking at the sky again—a clear, black crystal dome overhead.
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Era impossibile non abbandonarle, di tanto in tanto, una frase incoraggiante o un sorriso. Ed ella imbalsamava queste reliquie nel proprio cuore, ne spremeva miracoli quando per caso la sua fede vacillava.
No, non sarà oggi che conoscerò la mia morte; né oggi, né alcun altro giorno. Sarò morta per gli altri, senza essermi mai vista morire.
Capivo come Lambert avesse a noia questa pace che ci rendeva alle nostre vite senza restituirci le ragioni di vivere.
Non sapeva più cosa volessero dire le antiche parole: felicità, piacere. Non abbiamo che cinque sensi, e s'annoiano così presto. Già il suo sguardo s'annoiava di scivolare senza fine su quell'azzurro che non finiva mai d'essere azzurro.
– Dopotutto, – riprese Lambert con veemenza, – si è fatta la resistenza per difendere l'individuo, il suo diritto a esser se stesso e a esser felice; è tempo di raccogliere quel che s'è seminato. – Il guaio è che c'è un paio di miliardi di individui per i quali questo diritto resta lettera morta, – disse Henri.
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An unflinching look at Parisian intellectual society at the end of World War II, fictionally relating the stories of those around her--Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, and Nelson Algren.

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