Review of "The Mandarins"

After writing and publishing The Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir won the Prix de Goncourt for her work. It is a not so subtle look at many of the people within Parisian intellectual society following the Second World War. Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Arthur Koestler are just some of the luminaries whose names have been changed for the sake of fiction. Through their conversations amongst each other and the dalliances they have we obtain an interesting insight into some of the more brilliant minds of the time as they try to sustain a certain level of authenticity and integrity as they wrestle with the circumstances in which they find themselves.

That said I was, however, generally disappointed with the book. The fault is not, however, with the writing itself but the story. The problem with the story, however, is not the fault of the author but of the historical situation in which the book is set. Following the Second World War, an exhausted France is trying to come to terms with it’s now apparent global insignificance, recover from the destruction wrought by the German army as well as those that had collaborated with them during the occupation. The streets of Paris are anything but gay and several of scenes of reverie which de Beauvoir writes about has an air of escapism to them. Understandably so, the only people with enough money for such distractions are either foreigners or those that are quite well to do.

While lacking the historical distance to be able to foretell where the then current trends in international geo-politics would go, many of the significant divergences between the socialist and communist parties and a more general humanitarian movement are brought to the light through the interpersonal conflict and conversations. While not always going into great depth, it does hint at the different values operant with the groups. As a reader familiar with the ideologies as well as the historical situations I didn’t find myself swimming in confusion, but I think that someone without this base would find this to be alienating. Perhaps, however, this is de Beauvoir’s point, however. That rather than being able to come together in a meaningful manner small variations keep these people together from uniting to become a significant political force. This infighting amongst strong egos for leadership of “the people” thus becomes one of the reasons that the right is able to come to power.

Besides these overtly political considerations, de Beauvoir also reflects on the nature of the intellectual, writing life, the nature and form of reconciliation following a war that had many collaborators, friendship, death and to a lesser extent sex. While filled with many pithy, quotable statements, I also think that at times she can overly swarm the reader with non-essential information. Sometimes it is of the sort outlined above, which I enjoy reading for it’s edifying nature, but sometimes I knew in advance that it had little to do with much else. Simone de Beauvoir’s side story of her dalliance with American writer Nelson Algren, for instance, while highlighting Sartre’s lack of possessiveness and her alienation and desire for excitement also seems to drag on at times. The little mind games that they play with each other appear spurious. While highlighting the desire for love even in a country turned upside down by war, it is perhaps longer than necessary.