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The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir

- Abstract

The Mandarins is unquestionably an important book. Two winters ago in Paris it shared honors with Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse as the most discussed novel of the season. A public accustomed to short novels—or vast romans fleuves appearing in 200-page installments—for once showed itself capable of sustaining interest in a thick volume, dense with personalities and argument. But to say that Simone de Beauvoir’s new book is important is not to maintain that it is a great, or even a good, novel. It may actually be no more than a phénomène.

Although full of cleverness and shrewd observation, The Mandarins shows only scatterings of humor. And in particular it lacks the quiet irony that comes from an awareness of the comic aspects of one’s own behavior and that of one’s friends. Aside from a few burlesque episodes in which the rich and their hangers-on are satirized with calculated malice, The Mandarins maintains a tone of strenuous earnestness—one is tempted to say, solemnity. The author may laugh at those outside the privileged circle. But inside, in the world of the mandarins themselves, all is muted respect. The ironic promise of the title is never fulfilled.

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