Friday, April 09, 2010


The Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir, The World Publishing Company, 1956, 610 pp

I read the #9 bestseller of 1956 while vacationing in wintertime Sedona, AZ. Long, wordy, philosophical but with a compelling story, it was just great.
Located in Paris and later in America, the story begins on Christmas Eve, 1944, at a party to celebrate the liberation of France from Germany. The gathering includes the main characters, all leftists, writers,  and publishers who were involved to one degree or another in the Resistance against the Germans. They are now dreaming of the possibilities for the future of France.

De Beauvoir does a marvelous job of juxtapositioning the personal with the political to create a novel of love and ideas. She is equally good at portraying the men and the women, all of whom are well-read intellectuals. The book speaks to intelligent readers as all of her books do.

The critical literature about The Mandarins names real life personages as the ones behind its characters. Robert, the philosopher and writer, is Jean Paul Sartre; his wife Anne is de Beauvoir herself; Henri, young novelist and journalist as well as student of Robert, is Albert Camus; and Anne's American lover Lewis is Nelson Algren. All of that is interesting enough but what I enjoyed was the author's ruminations on how much influence intellectuals and writers really have on the course of history and political/societal change. As a reader, that is a question I ponder daily and the underlying purpose of My Big Fat Reading Project. The other conundrum addressed is the role of romantic love and how that differs individual by individual and between men and women.

I doubt The Mandarins would even sell in today's world, let alone become a bestseller. The fact that it did so in the mid 1950s says to me that the decade was not the intellectual dark age that many like to claim it was.

(The Mandarins is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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