Commentary Magazine

The New Wave in French Culture

A tiny but significant piece of cultural news from France earlier this year was the report that Jean-Paul Sartre had said of one of the latest nouvelle vague (“new wave”) films, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (A Bout de Souffle—not yet released here), that it was très beau. It is remarkable that the champion of “commitment,” the theorist who has always emphasized that moral choice is the essential human act and who has just produced another immense and closely reasoned volume on his favorite theme, should praise a film which is in effect the most complete expression of romantic nihilism we have seen for some time. I doubt whether such a film could have been made ten years ago, and I am fairly sure that, if it had, Sartre would not have spoken well of it then. Without having consciously changed his principles, he must have been affected by the shift of mood that has occurred during the last year or two in several departments of French life.

When I first read Sartre’s remark, it occurred to me that he might be taking the hero of Breathless to be (like the central character of his own early masterpiece, Nausea) a specimen of pre-existentialist man: a consciousness groping its way toward a philosophy of life. But such an interpretation of the film is hardly possible, as will be clear from a short summary of its contents.

The central character is Michel, a chain-smoking, heavy-lipped young man, whom we first see in Marseilles stealing a car with the help of a girl friend. He drives off northward to Paris at an extravagant speed, talking to himself, singing snatches of song, making comments on the people he passes, firing his revolver through the car window into the trees, and so on. It is obvious from the start that he recognizes no law other than the instantaneous satisfaction of impulse. When a policeman on a motorcycle finally corners him, he shoots his way out and finishes his journey as a hunted murderer. Once in Paris, he steals money from another girl friend, while waiting to collect his share from some unexplained robbery. We then see that he has only one ambition : to go off to Italy with the loot and with a third girl friend, an American who sells the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysées. This American girl is the only chink in his armor. He loves her, or what comes to the same thing, he cannot do without her physically. She has been his mistress and is, indeed, pregnant, but she has an unsettled, unreliable character. What does she want out of life? Perhaps to be a journalist; she is, at any rate, prepared to sleep around to achieve this end. Finally, for no obvious reason except general bewilderment and weakness, she betrays her lover to the police. He is shot down in the street and dies, quite self-possessed and with a contemptuous sneer on his lips.

That he is meant to be a hero there can be no doubt. The film is biased in his favor. He is not a criminal who is eventually brought to justice; he accepts death voluntarily and elegantly, after being betrayed by the only person he was attached to. He is always racy and elliptical, insolent and virile. When a passer-by asks him for a light, he presses a coin into the man’s hand and says: “Go and treat yourself to a box of matches.” He persuades the American girl to get into bed with him, and they disappear under the sheet, which jigs significantly up and down as the radio plays “Music While You Work.” He never rides in a bus or subway; he simply appropriates the most luxurious car that happens to be at hand by lifting up the hood and establishing contact with a piece of wire. Every detail of his behavior emphasizes his superb indifference to society: when he asks for a telephone number he gives the figures confusingly in Belgian French; when a pedestrian is knocked down in front of him, he crosses himself ironically and moves on; President Eisenhower is in Paris on his state visit, but Michel and his girl friend move through the crowds without as much as a glance at the official procession.



This deliberate flouting of generally accepted convention produces some remarkably realistic effects. Many of those small inconsequential quirks of human nature, such as Fellini and Bergman are so good at suggesting, find their way into a French film, perhaps for the first time. The emotional relationship between the young man and the girl, precisely because it is in some ways so unemotional, so ill-defined, so improvised at each step, although they are technically lovers, has an unusually exciting tang.

One’s first reaction, then, is, “What a fine new talent!” There has been a lot of talk recently in France about writing being finally superseded by the cinema, although novels still come rolling from the press. The “camera-fountain-pen” (caméra-stylo) has become a common expression, and we are told that Godard carried still further a practice initiated by some other “new wave” directors: inventing his picture as he went along, without relying on any script at all. By making no concession to “beautiful” photography and disregarding all the rules, he produces an astonishing impression of immediacy. But the first glow of satisfaction soon wears off, and it is not long before the shoddiness of the hero reduces the film to mere entertainment. He is not unrealistic; indeed, at the very moment when Breathless was first being shown, the papers were full of the trial of a certain “Monsieur Bill,” a young man of good family who had behaved more or less in the same way as Michel. The trouble is that Michel is just not as impressive a human being as the overtones of the film seem to imply. He cannot really be a hero because his suicidal behavior during the course of the film argues a totally incoherent mind and a complete divorce from reality. We are being asked to feel tragic sympathy with someone who is no more than a shallow-minded delinquent and who might not, we suspect, be capable of some of the more intelligent remarks his creator puts into his mouth. The romanticism of the conception comes out very clearly when Michel pauses in front of a cinema poster advertising a Humphrey Bogart film and whispers reverently to himself, “Bogey!” I don’t think the exclamation is ironical, but if it is not ironical, it is certainly silly, because the hero has taken as his prototype not a real adventurer but an actor who impersonated adventurers. And of course he smokes, wears his hat, answers the telephone, strips to his undershirt, drives, and lounges about in a style which shows that all his life he has been fed on a diet of American films. The cinema may or may not be superseding the novel; it is undoubtedly like the novel in that it imitates itself as much or more than it imitates real life. In this case the impression of immediacy is all the more deceptive in that American conventions are being imposed on a French background. Admittedly such transfers now occur constantly in real life and not only in France; a number of young English people, for instance, have made very concrete fortunes through being the shadows of American shadows. But a good, serious work of art would take this psychological flimsiness itself as its theme. It would not be chiefly, like Breathless, an enjoyable, sophisticated example of such flimsiness.



I have described Breathless at some length, partly because Sartre praised it and partly because it shows a combination of several tendencies present in both the cinema and the novel. On the one hand, it is a product of Americanization in its portrayal of the gangster-adventurer type; on the other, it is connected with the long tradition of anarchic individualism running through French literature, a tradition which has re-emerged in various forms since commitment began to go out of fashion.

How far back we should go in searching for the origins of the anarchic individual is a debatable question. If we are academically thorough, we shall trace him at least to the Middle Ages and see his first delineation in the vagabond-adventurer, the feudal misfit. Later, for about two and a half centuries, the picaresque hero romped through several literatures and a still larger number of countries. Sometimes he died in isolation and failure; at other times he won a place in society and became a pillar, of the established order. 18th-century France was alive with pícaros, and it was the most famous of them, pícaro-Figaro, who delivered the great monologue which immediately preceded the Revolution. Napoleon then shot through European society and provided the perfect tragic model of the unintegrated individual who finds it simpler to remake the world than to adapt himself to it. In literature he spawned the Julien Sorels and the Rastignacs who have haunted the imagination of practically every vigorous young Frenchman to this day.

About three-quarters of all French novels deal with the problem of the young man who wants both to assert his personality against the world and to conquer his niche in society. Only rarely, it must be admitted, does this primal urge develop into a comprehensive philosophy; it usually falls short of anything approaching total organization. But since the war, Sartre and Camus at least have been notable for their sustained and ingenious attempts to move from the individual consciousness to general statements about society, without sacrificing either the private personality or the public weal. Since their endeavors failed there has been a new, confused, and confusing outburst of individualism on the part of lesser, although sometimes very gifted, men. It is in this context that one should place Breathless. There has been a retreat from commitment, if one understands the term in its broadest sense, which is (I take it) the belief that the individual can be in a significant and operative relationship of solidarity with society as a whole. This retreat can be traced in the contradictions of the “new wave” films, the plethora of insolent “young” novels, the obsessive Stendhalianism of some older writers, and the technical peculiarities of the new experimental novel.

The term “new wave” has been applied rather indiscriminately to a number of films, from Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras, to The Four Hundred Blows by François Truffaut, both of which, at first sight, appear to be “committed.” The new mood emerges most clearly, however, in The Lovers by Louis Malle, The Cousins and A Double Tour (“Doublelocked”—unreleased) by Claude Chabrol, Plein Soleil (not released) by René Clément, and Pickpocket (not released) by Robert Bresson (although the last two do not belong to the young generation). In each case the formula—probably unconscious—is a compound of anarchism, romantic glorification of the individual, insolence, and a rather muddled appreciation of “authenticity.” It would be tedious to recount the various plots which, for commercial reasons, sometimes veer into eroticism or thriller sequences, or which may end happily or unhappily. The point is that the central figures are always uneasy young people with whom we are obviously expected to sympathize, but who have only a limited understanding of their situation. This would not matter if the limitation were understood and transcended by the film makers, but one suspects that it is really in their own minds.

The Lovers deals with a dissatisfied young woman of the upper class who deserts her husband, and her current conventional lover, to run off with a comparatively poor young man who strikes her as being genuine. The stiltedness and artificiality of the grande bourgeoisie are well described, and the implication is that we, the spectators, understand the young woman’s discovery of genuineness and must approve of her choice. Actually, all the moral issues are scamped. If the young man is as decent and circumspect as he is supposed to be, he would not go to bed at once with the young woman under her husband’s roof. If the woman had seen the light, she would not abandon her child as easily as she does. Where we would expect some artistic expression of the human dilemma, we are given instead a long, pseudo-poetic walk in the moonlight, followed by a copulation scene. The sophisticated details are not matched by any central grasp of the subject.

The Cousins and A Double Tour show the same preoccupation with upper-class luxury accompanied by confused assertion of the self. The first contains a very good portrait of an up-to-date Parisian dandy, elaborate in speech, outrageous in behavior, intelligent, yet with no interest or purpose in life. He is contrasted with his country cousin, who is keen to pass examinations and enjoy the love of a good woman. But the country mouse represents the most unintelligent type of sentimental conformism, and the film ends inconclusively and pretentiously with the sophisticated cousin accidentally shooting the naive boy, while the gramophone plays some portentous Wagner. As for A Double Tour, like The Lovers, it is partly an excellent satire on upper-class life, which at the same time contains an unconvincing representative of genuineness, in the person of a foul-mouthed, badly behaved young man, whose function seems to be to live parasitically on the bourgeoisie and to insult it while he is doing so. The young actor, Belmondo, who played this part, gave such a dazzling performance that he was at once established as the main “new wave” star (and the hero of Breathless). But the film itself, for all its cleverness, is quite incoherent. It dwells lovingly and fascinatingly on the most expensive type of interior decoration at the same time as it invites us to be, like the parasitical young anarchist, bluff, outspoken, and contemptuous of money.



One sees a similar irresponsibility even in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which is obviously meant to be a major propagandist statement in favor of peace and social harmony. It is clearly a goodhearted film and it transcends national barriers; the French heroine has a love affair first with a German soldier of the army of occupation in France, and many years later with a Japanese ex-soldier in Hiroshima, where she is making a pacifist documentary. What spoils it is the violent, self-centered romanticism of the personal relationships, which are so uncontrolled that they hold out little hope for the eventual peaceful reorganization of the world. There is no presentation of the moral problem of having an affair with a German in occupied France, or of the possible repercussions of a love affair between two already married people in Hiroshima. The assumption appears to be that powerful individual emotions of this kind are a law unto themselves, but if so, no moral systems are possible.

A similar fascination with incoherent self-assertiveness can be traced in Plein Soleil by René Clément, and Pickpocket by Bresson. The only recent French film I have seen which deals fairly with the question of social maladjustment is The Four Hundred Blows (although I am told that many of the details about primary schools and reformatories are out of date). It is not that the others present unrealistic types: the characters are quite often convincing and subtly observed. The mistake is that (apart from Truffaut who remains impartial though sympathetic) the “new wave” directors seem to want us actively to applaud social attitudes and behavior which are inadequate and often self-contradictory. Their anti-bourgeois dandyism is, at the same time, self-pitying and strangely bourgeois.



There is no need to insist on the pattern of romantic anarchism in the novel. Since Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Balzac’s Père Goriot, the young man on the make—both socially and sexually—has been the typical French hero. French literature in the 20th century can boast several remarkable Bildungsromane before the period of “commitment”: Ro-main Rolland’s Jean Christophe, Roger Martin du Gard’s The Thibauts, Gide’s complete works which are a kind of lifelong, autobiographical roman d’apprentissage, Jules Romains’ Men of Good Will, and so on. Whatever unorthodox opinions these books may contain, their tone is far more serious, and their matter more complex, than is the case with the many recent novels about crazy mixed-up kids and rebels without a cause. The new trend began actually with Roger Nimier, when Sartre was at the height of his fame. It has continued in the novels of Antoine Blondin, Christiane Rochefort, Jacques Serguine, and Bertrand Poirot-Delpech, to mention only four. These are symptomatic works, sophisticated yet streaked with sentimentality, full of drink, sex, easy money, and confusion. So alike are they in atmosphere that when you open yet another, you feel that they are not written by individuals but by the Zeitgeist.

Much more curious is the form of retreat from the total problem of living that has been adopted by some older and better-known writers. Giono, who used to be the poet of the simple Southern agrarian life, was a pacifist during the war; Roger Vailland was a Communist sympathizer; Aragon still is an active Communist; yet they have produced—in Angélo (not translated), The Law, and La Semaine Sainte (also not translated)—literary exercises which read like pastiches of Stendhal. They show in a particularly concentrated form an influence which is perhaps the most potent in modern French literature. This archaizing tendency is, on reflection, quite comprehensible. Stendhal was very much the sensitive, intelligent individualist, struggling to administer his private happiness and to maintain his balance and self-respect in an era of social upheavals comparable to our own. He was cynical yet lyrical, introspective yet gay, and in the long run he has perhaps proved most important as the inventor of a certain tone: rapid, shrewd, tremulous, yet off-hand, it provides a ready-made solution in a world of shifting problems and uncertain horizons. But artistically it is always wrong to adopt ready-made solutions, and the three books I have mentioned have no more substance than an echo. Stendhal’s tone is authentic for himself because he was committed to a certain conception of honor and good behavior. He went bobbing through the waves of contemporary history like a gallant and rather ridiculous duckling, and his tone is determined by the resistance of his temperament to the surrounding pressures. But the Stendhalianism of Giono, Vailland, and Aragon is a form of abdication. Angélo and La Semaine Sainte are historical novels about the Stendhalian period (which was not, of course, historical for Stendhal); The Law is better, being modern, but it is set in Stendhal’s Italy and peopled by characters who derive partly from him and partly from Laclos. It is strange to see talented men writing at such great length and, consciously or unconsciously, letting their talent freewheel.1



It may at first sight seem fanciful to include the new experimental novel (le nouveau roman) in the general retreat from commitment. The works of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor are austere, intellectual compositions which, far from representing a retreat, claim to be breaking new ground. They demand a concentrated effort on the part of their readers; each word has obviously been weighed with great care, and they have no apparent link with the facile anarchistic excitements of the “new wave” films. Yet they come with suspicious neatness just after the wave of “committed” literature, rather as, in the 19th century, Parnassian impassibility succeeded romantic fervor. Sartre, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir were concerned with the large questions of the destiny of man in the world; the new highbrow novelists avoid general issues and concentrate on minute particulars, seeking only to give them internal connections within the context of the individual work. And this concentration on internal organization can be seen as a desire to create an autonomous “object,” an aesthetic whole, which is sufficiently complex—indeed sufficiently obscure or incomprehensible—to be an end in itself.

Robbe-Grillet, in writing his three major books—The Voyeur, Jealousy, and In the Labyrinth (to be published in English later this year)—has obviously borrowed something from the cinema and the detective novel, but not their concern with immediate social reality. His attention dwells on the external world with the insistence and impartiality of a cinema camera making a documentary exploration. Often when we are watching the wordless part of a documentary, a feeling of numbness sets in; what are we to think about a branch outlined against the sky or a flower nodding in the breeze? Robbe-Grillet produces a similar effect by removing all metaphors from his descriptions, all suggestion of a comprehensible relationship, not only with the world of things but also with the human world, since people, in his writing, being no more than a series of sterilized appearances, become as remote as inanimate objects. From the detective novel he has taken the concept of suspense; the numb, mysterious world he is describing—an island off the Breton coast in The Voyeur, a tropical bungalow in Jealousy, a snowy urban landscape in In the Labyrinth—seems in each case to be moving toward some resolution. Is the hero of The Voyeur an assassin? Has adultery been committed in Jealousy? Will the soldier in In the Labyrinth accomplish his mission, and what is the importance of the parcel he is carrying? But a resolution would suppose, as in the detective novel, a distinction between good and evil, the acceptance of some collective judgment about life, an explanation of motive, an emergence into rationality. Robbe-Grillet clearly wishes to avoid any explanation of this kind, partly no doubt because he thinks that all explanations are inadequate to total reality, about which there is nothing to be said except that it exists, and partly because an explanation demolishes, aesthetically, what has gone before. He does not say so, but perhaps he feels that one of the reasons why detective novels do not go on repeating in the imagination is that they are killed by their conclusions. Therefore his suspense remains unbroken, and the ends of his books are as noncommittal as the beginnings. One suspects that he would like to make a book that could be approached from any direction, like a piece of sculpture. The chronological sequence, inseparable from any linguistic exposition, is irksome to him, and he tries to nullify it by the deliberate introduction of incoherence. The result is at once fascinating and acutely boring. Robbe-Grillet succeeds in creating an object which is valid in the sense that it has a dreamlike heaviness, but which is irritating, because it seems in the last resort to be no more than a high-class puzzle on the margin of life. He creates a vacuum which has a kind of frustrated exciting-ness, because life is trying to rush back into it and each possible leak has been carefully stopped. This austere poetry of negation can appear as an absolutely symmetrical recoil from commitment.

Butor is a good deal more “normal” in that he invents recognizable plots. L’Emploi du Temps (not yet published in English) is about the experiences of a young Frenchman in England; Change of Heart is an account of a train journey between Paris and Rome, during which the traveler decides that, after all, he will not leave his wife to set up house with his mistress; Degrés (also not translated) relates the unsuccessful attempt of a Parisian schoolmaster to recapture the reality of an hour of school life. Yet, except in the first part of L’Emploi du Temps, where Butor appears to be translating his own immediate reaction to the dreariness of the English Midland landscape, the human content is spread very thin and fades out of the mind almost the moment the books have been read. What remains, here, too, is the impression of an elaborate puzzle-like structure, which the novelist has created as a way of celebrating a private poetic rite. His characters are dim and commonplace, and are set in motion chiefly to allow him to play games with the concept of time. L’Emploi du Temps is a double entry diary which stops at the point where the retrospective notes catch up with the contemporary ones; Change of self-discovery is a movement through time and space toward self-discovery; Degrés seems to be based on the belief that the more one tries to grasp a fragment of time, the more complex and elusive that fragment becomes. In each case the idea is brilliant, but the completed work is an impressive construction with little or no content, as if Butor were not coming to grips with anything, but merely letting his mind amuse itself with an immense and arduous doodle.



Unlike Robbe-Grillet and Butor, Nathalie Sarraute appears to be entirely absorbed in the psychology of behavior, and therefore it would seem impossible to fit her into the general pattern I am describing. She is certainly a woman who, on the level of ordinary living, has political opinions, and she was at one time very close to Sartre. But if the reader did not know this, could he deduce it from her writing? Her basic interest is in “tropisms,” the tiny impulses of the organism which form, as it were, the molecular composition of the emotional phenomena crudely referred to in ordinary language as “love,” “hatred,” “fear,” and so on. Her aim is to take a microscope to human nature and to carry still further the kind of analysis already pursued by Dostoevsky and Proust. In her theoretical statements she goes so far as to imply that such analysis must eventually bring to light the basic sameness of human nature from individual to individual. Her recent and most elaborate book, The Planetarium, corresponds to her theories in the sense that all the characters are embedded in a nameless psychological flux, from which they only partly emerge. It is as if we were looking at a pointilist picture from rather too close a range. This is, in itself, an interesting experiment which may well lead to an enrichment of the novel, but so far Mme. Sarraute has applied her method to material of comparatively little importance. The blurb on the cover of The Planetarium states that the plot does not count; insofar as it becomes clear, it concerns a young couple who want to find a new flat and who have uneasy relationships with their family and their social superiors. The details, though minute, appear to relate more to the nervous fringes of their personalities than to any central preoccupations, so that what Mme. Sarraute gives us is really a “bourgeois” novel about frivolous characters, and the seriousness lies only in the experimental presentation. The thinness of the plot does count; we do not find here, as in Proust, such a deep and serious analysis of frivolity that the shoddy characters become universally representative. And so it is possible to feel the same sense of frustration with Mme. Sarraute as with Robbe-Grillet and Butor. Subtlety of notation is not subordinated to any general, implied system of values.



In making these comments on contemporary French films and books, I have assumed all along that the best form of art comes squarely to grips with “reality,” and that the dominant trend in present-day France is toward various sophisticated ways of avoiding a total grasp of “reality.” Perhaps I should add that these remarks do not depend on any simple view of commitment or the social function of art. Sartre himself sometimes confused the issue by making commitment synonymous with taking a stand on immediate political issues. It was foolish of him to attack Flaubert for not being socially active like Zola; Flaubert was committed in the sense that he always wrote seriously and with his whole mind, although his mind may have been regrettably limited. Nor does Sartre frankly admit that it is just as possible for a committed artist to be reactionary as it is for him to be progressive. Nor again does he make it clear that there may be more commitment in a fantasy such as Alice in Wonderland than in the latest political tract. He is right in his assumption that there must be total responsibility; wrong to conclude that this responsibility should be immediately translatable into action or that an anti-bourgeois attitude is automatically a sign of seriousness. He is not very helpful either on the question of distinguishing between good and bad committed works. According to his theories, two recent French novels which are in violent contrast to the trend I have been trying to define—Romain Gary’s The Roots of Heaven and André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just (to be published here in the fall)—should be good because each has a strong humanitarian thesis vividly worked out. The first is a parable in which African elephants are used to symbolize the non-utilitarian values which are being driven out of the modern world; the second a harrowing account of the persecution of Jewish mystics throughout the ages. However, I should say that The Roots of Heaven is definitely a failure, because the commitment is high-pitched and rhetorical (as it is in some of the poorer works of Sartre himself, such as The Devil and the Good Lord) ; while The Last of the Just, though a profoundly moving book, is imperfect because the horror of the subject is not always aesthetically controlled.

Not only does Sartre’s theory leave some points undecided; his practice, like that of Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, can also be seen as leading in some respects to the present mood. When we look back now over the major novels of these three writers, we realize that although they are serious, responsible, and in varying degrees aesthetically successful, they have no practical “solution” to offer, in spite of their didactic ambitions. Sartre’s first novel, Nausea (probably his finest piece of writing), presents a central character who is struggling to make sense of life, both philosophically and socially; in the end, he arrives at a conclusion which, if not “art for art’s sake,” is very near to “life for art’s sake”: he decides that he can come to terms with existence only by creating some work of literature which will give him the relief that was provided, in his moments of most acute distress, by a record of a Negro singer chanting “Some of These Days.” One feels that Nausea itself is for Sartre precisely that book, and like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, it ends at the point where the author is about to begin writing it. But Sartre was not content with this. He wanted to go on to show characters faced with the problem of choice within the context of contemporary French politics, and so he began on his tetralogy, Les Chemins de la Liberté (in English: The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Troubled Sleep), the title of which has all the optimism that appears at first sight to characterize his general existentialist position. Yet the message of the novel is tragic; the roads to freedom lead nowhere, so much so that Sartre has not published volume four and now seems unlikely to do so. His chief character, Mathieu, a semi-Bohemian schoolmaster (obviously very closely modeled on Sartre himself), drifts impotently along, bothered by a bad conscience about the Spanish Civil War and the Munich crisis, but inextricably involved in his own unsatisfactory love affairs. He is eventually called up in 1939, the French army is defeated, and Mathieu sacrifices his life in a futile attempt to hold up the German advance. Since he knows that the attempt is hopeless, his death is either a romantic gesture based on an old-fashioned patriotism that he normally does not accept, or a form of suicide through impatience and frustration. Sartre leaves the matter in some doubt and it may be that he himself is not fully conscious of the implications. But his other exemplary character, Brunot the Communist, who is contrasted all through with Mathieu as a man of faith and resolution, fails just as completely. He behaves heroically, rallies the men in the prison camp, and then discovers that the party line has changed in a way which makes nonsense of his previous career. How he finally reacts to this disaster we shall presumably never know, because it occurs in a fragment of the unpublished volume four which appeared in Sartre’s monthly, Les Temps Modernes. By a curious effect of paradoxical symmetry, the only major character in Sartre’s series who achieves anything approaching self-fulfilment is the third member of the trio of friends, Daniel, a homosexual anarchist. Once society has been really upset by war, he begins to feel at home, because his peculiarities flourish in confusion. He, of course, foreshadows the Jean Genêt type, with whom Sartre was to be so fascinated later, and who has obvious connections with the chaotic heroes of the “new wave” films and recent middlebrow novels.

A review of Sartre’s other books would show the same pattern. While he remains theoretically optimistic in that he insists upon the freedom of choice, his works of art are tragedies, some good, some frankly bad; the good ones, such as Dirty Hands, are impressive precisely because they embody the tragedy of an attempted total relationship with society.



A similar pattern of movement from individual awareness to social responsibility, and then to ironical failure, can be traced in Camus’ novels. Meursault, the hero of his first book, The Stranger, is rather more muddled than Roquentin in Nausea. He feels no particular reason to do anything except carry on with his minor office job in Algiers, enjoy the sea and the sunshine in his leisure hours, and pass unthinkingly from one casual relationship to another. Through an accidental chain of circumstances he kills an Arab and is condemned to death; the book is to be taken as his retrospective meditation before execution. Much as I admire this work, I think it is open to objections on the ground of concealed sentimentality. Camus is biased in favor of his hero and, consciously or unconsciously, presents him as a sympathetic social alien. Yet within the context of the book, this is almost a contradiction in terms. If he is as indifferent to everything as he is said to be, why is he shown to be instinctively aware of the decency of certain human relationships, particularly between very humble, almost inarticulate people? Then the superbly satirical trial scene is to some extent irrelevant. The implication is that Meursault is being condemned for the wrong reasons, simply because he does not conform to conventional bourgeois morality. This is true up to a point; the law has to find a culprit for the crime that has been committed, and it does so in its usual approximate way. But Camus seems to want us to believe that since Meursault does not know why he committed his crime, he is innocent, while society, in condemning him, is in the wrong. The anti-social, anti-bourgeois effects are just a shade too facile in this concluding section, because Camus neglects the point that the law, in order to function, has to assume responsibility in the criminal (if he is not insane). It may be true that he is profoundly and obscurely non-responsible, but this is not a fact that the law can take cognizance of, and to reproach it, even indirectly, for not doing so, is to fall into unreality. The novel would have been better if Camus had shown more impartially how the law is, in the nature of things, clumsy and rhetorically formal. He shows this, but he is not impartial, and the romantic confusion of the last part of The Stranger, which has proved to be a tremendously influential book, may have helped to encourage the irresponsible trend in more recent writers.



The Plague, although it contains a doubtful passage on the death penalty, is more coherently successful. It is a beautifully austere and measured account of how human nature can face up to the horror of the plague and meet the malevolence of the universe with a despairing dignity. It has, however, a limitation about which Camus may not have been absolutely clear. The evil his characters are coping with is an impersonal, natural scourge, yet he seems at times to present it as being also symbolic of social, human evil. Admittedly, war and national enslavement, which were his immediate source of inspiration, can seem so incomprehensible that they take on the characteristics of an act of God, but they cannot be seen as such for long if one retains the concept of free will, which is obviously necessary in Camus’ didactic system. Germs are not the same things as Germans, and so the allegory is not as broad as he perhaps meant it to be. He is not describing the full drama of commitment in the 20th century; rather he is rewriting Voltaire’s Candide, and pointing an accusing finger at God for allowing such phenomena as the Lisbon earthquake and the plague. The thing that makes one doubt the permanence of the work is the fact that it will eventually have to compete with Voltaire’s masterpiece, which makes all the same points more rapidly and in rather more astringent poetic prose.

The Fall, the last major literary work Camus published in his lifetime, gives a surprisingly bitter and negative analysis of human nature, very different from the grave nobility of the central characters in The Plague. In Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the ex-barrister who has retreated from Paris to the underworld of Amsterdam because he had lost all faith in the conventions by which he lived and which sustained his self-respect, and who has become a voice crying in a gray Northern wilderness of sea and fog, Camus draws a picture of the sinning soul which despairs of any positive relationship with other human souls and is really addressing itself to God. The Fall was perhaps intended to be no more than an episode in Camus’ output, a self-confession to clear the air, a protest against premature canonization as a Nobel lay saint, but the fact remains that (unless the unpublished manuscripts show a new departure) his last successful artistic endeavor was an ironical expression of complete individual and social disillusionment.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins, an account of the intellectual atmosphere of postwar Paris, is far less powerful from the literary point of view than the works of Sartre or Camus. Even so, it is well worth considering in this respect, because the two heroes, Robert Dubreuilh and Henri Perron, are generally supposed to be modeled precisely on Sartre and Camus. At any rate they are two front-rank writers who are trying to achieve some correspondence between their convictions and their conduct in the post-Liberation turmoil; since they come fresh from the Resistance movement, commitment is with them absolutely axiomatic. The relevant point for our purpose is that the two men fail completely. Perron becomes involved with an ex-collaborationist actress and finds himself giving false testimony on her behalf in a court of law. Eventually, Perron marries Dubreuilh’s daughter and becomes the father of a baby which, in the most naive and traditional way, symbolizes the transmission of unsolved problems to the future. Neither he nor Dubreuilh achieves anything on the political level, being instinctively anti-American and yet unable to work with the Communists. They join forces to start a new weekly newspaper, and we leave them at the point where they are about to repeat the sort of collective politico-literary undertaking which has already failed.

It is easy to see how a reading of these major postwar writers could encourage the more recent generation to think that commitment was in any case doomed to failure. When one comes to think of it, the French literary scene is littered with failed enterprises, magnificent and fragmentary. Jules Romains’ quest for an understanding of society ended in a riot of eroticism and pointless gossip. Duhamel’s Salavin series and the Chronique des Pasquiers never quite rose above the anecdotal. Montherlant, wildly individualistic yet with some notions of noblesse oblige, oscillated between the cult of sex and religious renunciation, and has now declined into pagan sadness. Malraux’s Gaullism, paradoxically, is not a form of commitment, and is certainly not sensed as such by the younger generation; there is no sign that Malraux is rethinking Gaullism as a policy in the modern world; what has happened is that this brilliant and neurotic writer has moved from the heroic masochism of his novels to the acceptance of an innocuous, marginal propaganda pose as a sort of “Minister of Things Eternal.” Strangely enough, the foremost committed writer at the moment, the man who exercises some influence on public opinion, is the ex-life-hater François Mauriac; old age has carried him beyond the sexual knottiness of his novels, and he has become the voice of traditional, enlightened bourgeois common sense, flatly refusing to be swept off his feet by the nouvelle vague or the nouveau roman, and making certain limited but useful points with dogged insistence. But his Gaullism plus common sense is not a positive basis for the cultural life; it is at best a decent provisional expedient.

It is tempting to sum up the present situation as follows: de Gaulle came to power two years ago as a result of the deadlock caused by the innumerable conflicting forces in the country; since then France has had a father-figure, who is at once Louis XIV, a living monument, and everybody’s bourgeois papa; while he is there, the naughty boys can be as romantically turbulent as they like, and even serious writers can forget at times to be solemn and enjoy the entertaining spectacle of their frivolity. Or, to put it another way, after the adult, responsible, and tragic preoccupations of the postwar period, France is going through a phase of sophisticated anarchism, within a framework of authority and prosperity. It may not last long, but meanwhile it has its own distinctive flavor.




1 Since this was written, Vailland has published a new novel. La Fête, in which he states openly that he has lost interest in all general issues.

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