Commentary Magazine

Paul Nizan, by W. D. Redfern

A Neglected Modern

Paul Nizan: Committed Literature in a Conspiratorial World.
by W. D. Redfern.
Princeton University Press. 232 pp. $9.00.

It often happens that we come to the work of a neglected writer through the tributes of an eminent one: T. W. Adorno on Walter Benjamin, Saul Bellow on Isaac Rosenfeld, and in Paul Nizan's case, Jean-Paul Sartre. Not that these writers' reputations depended on posthumous resurrection; during their own lives what they wrote circulated among a critical and appreciative, if limited, circle, although all three tended to enjoy a more numerous readership in their journalism than in their other, less ephemeral work. When their close friends have been called on to remember them, the portraits that emerge seem on occasion to conceal ambivalence, guilt, and the sense of a terrible, silent loss. In reading them, the thought of ever possessing these writers on our own threatens to become impossible, simply because their effect on those who knew them in their time was so intense, their active relationship to their own moment so intimate. If this is true of Rosenfeld and Benjamin, it is even more true of Nizan, who could be said to have distilled, in both his acts and in his novels, the essence of Europe's most complicated modern era, between the two world wars.

Unlike that of the Surrealists, whose activities have been over-documented in America, the literature produced by writers directly involved in French politics during the late 20's and 30's, whether as Marxists or fellow-travelers, tends to be passed over. Sartre and Merleau-Ponty are considered philosophers, Simone Weil a theologian, Henri Lefebvre a political theorist. It should be recalled, though, that these writers responded to the European crisis with overt political action; all either joined the Communist party, or at least discerned in Marxism a plausible mode of salvation. Simone Weil became a political organizer, while the others devoted themselves to journalism. None of them, however, possessed Nizan's sheer political intelligence, his anger, or his awareness of the general as it appeared inscribed in the specific, immediate situation; none, in other words, could have been called a revolutionary. Perhaps it is because Nizan didn't live long enough to become a survivor, to witness what Sartre calls the “deep-rooted impotence” experienced among left-wing intellectuals after 1945, that (with four exceptions) his work remains untranslated and unread.


When Nizan was killed in World War II, he was thirty-five, and had published three novels, a memoir, and a polemic against the French philosophical establishment, as well as Chronique de septembre (on the Munich Pact in 1939) and innumerable articles and reviews written in haste for L'Humanité, Le Monde, and Ce Soir, a Communist “Front” paper. Since his days as a student at the École Normale Supérieure, where he was a classmate of Sartre, Nizan had been a brilliant and prolific writer, quick to sense the sources of his own hostility and articulate them in print. It was a time when, as he wrote in La Conspiration, a disguised portrait of Nizan and his radical companions in their early twenties: “A young man feels so insecure that he wants to imprison the future and get some reliable assurances; he's the only one with guts enough to demand everything and to think he's been robbed if he doesn't get it.” As a normalien, the son of a lower-middle-class railroad engineer (later depicted in Antoine Bloyé), Nizan had chosen what was then a more conspicuous, less strenuous model of revolt: Baudelaire, the decadent flâneur in fine clothes. In the charged atmosphere of Paris, though, Nizan's natural inclinations toward the concrete conspired with his impatience before the rather doctrinaire, abstract qualities of his instructors and a vivid hatred of the bourgeoisie to promote a heightened social consciousness. Nizan's real conversion to Marxism occurred soon after, when he lived in Aden as a tutor during 1926-27. The result, related in Aden Arabie, a rude, animated diatribe against colonialism, capitalism, and European culture, was a sharpening of Nizan's ideological tendencies, in his own words, a desire “to come back stripped for action.”

During the years that followed, Nizan's life, though distinguished by an exceptional discipline and energy, was not untypical of intellectuals in that era; like Aragon and other Communist writers, Nizan taught in the Université Ouvrière, worked with the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires, lectured, traveled to Russia, and contributed without respite to the periodicals. What elevates Nizan is something else; amid all this, and in opposition to the Socialist-Realist line which marred the works of his contemporaries, he wrote three novels that deserve the same serious regard awarded to Sartre's Les Chemins de la liberté and Malraux's La Condition humaine. Not only was Nizan innocent of betraying his adherence to Marxism in these works, he demonstrated the possibilities available in writing a “committed” literature.

Nizan achieved real prominence during the 30's in France. Antoine Bloyé was applauded upon publication in 1933, and came close to winning the Prix Goncourt, which went to Malraux; his political writings reached a wide audience; and all radical students in Paris read Aden Arabie. But his name is seldom mentioned in comprehensive studies of Marxism and literature like Peter Demetz's Marx, Engels, and the Poets or Jürgen Rühle's Literature and Revolution. Moreover, until the recent publication of Antoine Bloyé1 only Les Chiens de Garde, Aden Arabie, and Le Cheval de Troie (in 1937) had appeared in English translation. Not until the publication in 1960 of two crucial documents, a chapter in Merleau-Ponty's Signes devoted to Nizan, and Sartre's Preface to the second edition of Aden Arabie, was a modest interest reawakened in this “vigorous corpse” (the words are Sartre's). Now we have W. D. Red-fern's sympathetic investigation.


What informs Redfern's portrait is the sense of Nizan's “tragic optimism,” and it is through the lens of his own political hopes that Redfern examines why “his kind of integrity is often undervalued or overlooked.” Quoting Nizan, Redfern admits in the introduction that his “own stance is partisan: ‘Why be coy? Why shouldn't we sing?’ Modesty has always struck me as a suspect quality.” Thus warned, we shouldn't be surprised when, later on, he demolishes Sartre's character, silences the loud slanders that erupted when Nizan resigned from the Communist party in 1939, or insists that “Nizan is the only French Communist novelist who expressed a genuine sensibility and intelligence.” Because Nizan did sponsor violent sentiments among those who knew him, and because his own writings exhibit such a rebellious tension, Redfern's partial, idiomatic voice appears wedded to the subject. Even now, Nizan needs to be defended in this way, and Redfern has been intrepid in entering the warren of opinions which surround his political conduct during the war. After his death, a campaign was instigated to denounce Nizan; he was accused of espousing “national Communism,” of having been a police informer, while Henri Lefebvre didn't hesitate to interpret Nizan's novels in the light of these suspicions, purporting to discover in them evidence of the writer's inward vacillation.

Once having disposed of these charges, Redfern feels called upon to extricate Nizan from Sartre's portentous evocations; his complaint is that Sartre's celebration of Nizan reveals ambivalence, even unconscious condescension, and proposes that “He, not Nizan, is ‘the negator par excellence,’ the gaping hole in the core of 20th-century European literary and philosophical being, which, like a building excavation in the city, attracts crowds of gaping spectators.” What motivates this bitter critique? The causes, I think, are two; Nizan's engagement, the resourcefulness and imagination with which he reconciled politics and literature, while Sartre dilated; and the schematic, excessively psychoanalytic method Sartre used in remembering Nizan, the same dubious omniscience evident in his books on Flaubert and Baudelaire. If Redfern's intention is “to sort out the apocryphal from the indulgent and spiteful and to find the plausible,” then he has pursued his cause with admirable verve.

Paul Nizan is more than a vendetta, though, more than a simple exercise in vindication; Nizan's novels receive close scrutiny, a chapter being devoted to each. Perhaps these discussions are over-elaborate, in that Redfern decided to summarize the novels' plots at length; perhaps also the digressions, in which Irving Howe's Politics and the Novel and other random, though valuable, texts are explored, could have been excised. Nevertheless, such exegesis is warranted, since the novels conceal within themselves Nizan's own situation, the lived realities which he borrowed in their composition. Nizan's relation to his material was both delicate and complicated, especially so in Antoine Bloyé, where the autobiographical elements are subverted, the life chronicled being not his own, but his father's. What comes to be remarkable about Antoine Bloyé, a railroad worker whose entire life is embraced within the narrative, is the recognition that he possesses no remarkable qualities at all; in Redfern's words, “He is ordinary, and complicated, unfulfilled and yet deserving to be described.”

Nizan's intention, and the politics which informed it, was to reveal the texture of alienation. Denied “une affirmation de l'homme,” Bloyé exists and dies without ever having lived, and Nizan clarifies the specifically social character of this death-in-life through the repetition of economic motifs: the worker “fastened to a dying animal,” capitalism; the sense that “his life is a permanent transaction”; above all, the “useless image of himself” mirrored in nonproductive labor. Through Nizan's father, rather than through that special Angst which obtained among intellectuals like the son, it was possible to locate oppressive capital's actual victims within the working class.

Eloquent, human, meditative, in no sense could Nizan's novels be labeled Naturalist or Social Realist; Redfern compares them to Stendhal, and notes that Nizan “forms a bridge between the political novels of Stendhal and those of Koestler.” The reference to Stendhal is more appropriate; Nizan deserves to be classified among those writers who comprise the tradition of European realism.


1 Translated by Edmund Stevens, Introduction by Richard Elman, Monthly Review Press, 250 pp., $6.95.

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