Book review: The Mandarins

The Mandarins
My tattered copy of The Mandarins

I have a soft spot for flea markets because everyone loves a good bargain and browsing through crummy and musty pre-loved items for a precious find is always such a thrill.

The most recent item I thrifted is a book titled “The Mandarins” by French author Simone de Beauvoir which turned out to a pleasant surprise because firstly, I have never read anything nor heard of the author and secondly, I had no clue whatsoever about the book. All I wanted to was to read something that is out my comfort zone and this was it.

Set during post-World War Two, this book focused on the French leftist intellectuals attempting to negotiate their political roles as their country struggled to recover in a world dominated by Soviet and U.S. powers looming in the background. These uncertainties also bleed into the personal lives of the intellectuals, many of whom were members of the French Resistance that fought against the Nazi Germany.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre

Because The Mandarins was widely believed to be based on the experiences of De Beauvoir together with her partner Jean Paul Sartre and their circle of friends, it lends this novel an authentic and unflinching insight into the world of these influential French thinkers. Although this is a novel of its time, it remains an evergreen work having dug its heels into various time transcendent, existential topics worthy to mull over even up till today.

(1) On politics
“In politics, all you’re concerned with are abstract things that don’t exist – the future, masses of people. But what is really concrete is the actual present moment, and people as separate and single individuals.”
“But each individual is affected by collective history,” Henri said.
“The trouble is that in politics you never come down from the high plateau of history to the problem of the lowly individual,” Lambert said. “You get lost in generalities and no one gives a damn about particular cases.”

(2) On literature
“In a way, literature is truer than life,” he said to himself. “Dubreuilh played me for a sucker, Louis is a skunk, Paula poisons my life – and I go on smiling at them. On paper, you say exactly and completely what you feel.” Once more, he read through the description of the break up. How easy it is to break things off on paper! You hate, you shout, you kill, you commit suicide; you carry things to the end. And that’s why it’s false. “Yes, it’s false,” he said to himself, “but it’s damned satisfying. In life you’re constantly denying yourself, and others are always contradicting you. Paula exasperates me, and yet in a little while I’ll take pity on her and she’ll think that basically I still have some love for her. On paper, I make time stand still and I impose my convictions on the whole world; they become the only reality.”

(3) On the purpose of writing
“Why do I write?” Robert said. “Because man doesn’t live by bread alone and because I believe in the need for that added element. I write in order to capture all the things action ignores – the truths of the moment, the individual, the immediate. Up to now, I thought that the task went hand in hand with the revolution. But no; it hinders it. At the moment all literature that aspires to give man something besides bread is exploited to prove that he can very well do without bread.”
[Here’s George Orwell on why he writes]

This long novel did take me a while to get through but I found that everytime I pick up the book from where I left off, I could easily get back into the groove and stay engaged with the lives of the characters who are such flawed yet deeply sentient beings that are just all too human and beautiful.

“To survive is, after all, perpetually to begin to live again. I hoped I would still know how.”

Below is a video where De Beauvoir talks about being a feminist:

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6 thoughts on “Book review: The Mandarins

  1. This is a great book. I read a lot of Simone de Beauvoir’s fiction, in addition to The Second Sex, during a period when I was heavily into feminist theory. “She Came to Stay” would be one of my favourites, as well as the sci fi “All Men are Mortal”. Her autobiographies are fascinating too, giving great insight into the experiences that shaped her politics. I have’t read any of her works for ages – your post reminds me it’s time to re-read!

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