Sunday, February 7, 2016

"They promised us poetry! Where's the poetry!"

As I've mentioned before, I have been reading this book for over three decades. I finished it on the most recent New Year's Eve, just a few hours short of midnight, determined that I should not carry it around another year, or let it become four decades.

Do I recall much of the plot? No, but I don't think that matters much. What I retain is the flavor of post-war Paris, or at least as De Beauvoir and her circle experienced it. As I've also said before, I like to envision myself living the life of a commentator on what goes on in people's daily lives, noting the minutia of street and cafe life. I'm currently reading The Mauve Decade by Thomas Beers and Absolute Friends by John Le Carre, both of which provide glimpses into lives and times I couldn't otherwise know anything about, early 21st century cultural life in the case of the former, mid-century British post-colonial individual experience in the latter. I've often pointed out, to myself if no one else, the reason I read is to experience lives I couldn't otherwise.

This is the passage that, in my final days of reading The Mandarins, resonated most with me. In it I hear the sound of what it was like in those days in that place.

The Communist papers had announced the reading of a masterpiece in four acts and six scenes in which Lenoir "reconciles the demands of pure poetry with the concern for delivering a broadly human message to mankind." Julien intended to sabotage the meeting in the name of the old para-human group. In the articles written by Lenoir since his conversion, there was such a servile fanaticism, and he had put his friends and his own past on trial with such malignant zeal, that Henri was looking forward without displeasure to seeing him put in his place...
The auditorium was overflowing. The whole Communist intelligentsia was gathered together--all the old guard and many new recruits. A year earlier, many of those neophytes were indignantly denouncing the errors and faults of the Communists. And then suddenly, in November, they understood--they understood that it could help to belong to the Party. Henri went down the centre aisle in search of a seat and, as he passed, faces filled with hateful disdain. In that respect, Samazelle was right: they weren't the least appreciative of his honesty. All the year long, he had laboured mightily defending L'Espoir against the pressures of the Gaullists, had firmly taken his stand against the war in Indo-China, against the arrest of the Madagascan deputies, against the Marshall Plan. All in all, he had taken exactly the same position as theirs, but that didn't stop them from calling him a liar and a traitor. He went as far as the front rows. Scriassine looked up at him and smiled, but the young people grouped around Julien eyed Henri with hostility. He retraced his steps and sat down on a stairway in the back of the auditorium.
Eventually Lenoir reads a very dull, very conventional poetry/play that is broken up by shouting from Julien and his supporters, in which Henri joins. As he leaves the place later, he's joined by Lambert, a fixture at L'Espoir, who says, "I was hoping it would be more fun." Henri replies, "As a matter of fact, it wasn't any fun at all." The cause of writing and what it was meant to accomplish, and how, is deadly serious in this time and in this place, and even the disruption of an opposing faction is political and deadly serious. I can't say I miss that but being in the center of a situation where the reading of "a scene written in Alexandrine metre [in which a] young man was bemoaning his melancholy state...Parents, teachers, friends, each urged resignation, but he swept aside all bourgeois temptations while a chorus commented on his departure in sibylline stanzas..." That such an entertainment could overflow an auditorium, think of how seeing that must feel. I don't want to attribute it to some Gilded Literary Past in which the Word takes on divine powers--the audience is there more out of a sense of duty, some at witnessing the spectacle and some at making it a farce. But that enough people had read about it and cared enough to show up for whichever reason: Now there is something.

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