These novels—the first dates from the early Thirties, the second is new—present episodes in the class war which has long been attributed to the societies of the West. Nizan’s novel takes as its central character a man who is a traitor to his class, who delivers himself over to his masters’ will and to the dogmas of work, duty, and authority, who sells out, perceives that he has done so, and stews in his own misgivings. Read’s novel describes a cad who robs the rich and debauches their daughters, but ends in the arms of God, believing that from that point till his death, though he is still a young man, nothing of consequence will happen to him.
Nizan’s book has been spoken of for some time as a classic work by a virtuous communist, and Richard Elman, who introduces this translation—made in the Thirties by a Western correspondent in Moscow, Edmund Stevens—lends his support to that view. Nizan’s anger is said to have been “almost visionary,” and the tone of his polemical writings is likened to that of a Weatherman communiqué. The blandishments of which fiction is capable are largely missing from the novel. There is scarcely a line of dialogue: it is a silent book, and a book without surprises. By contrast, Read’s is all turns and twists, and blandishments.
Antoine Bloyé opens with the hero’s death (it seems right to refer to him as a hero, though his story is proclaimed as that of a wasted life), and his burial according to the rites of the French bourgeoisie. Their interments are a slow and circumstantial business, and it is soon obvious that Nizan goes in for literal statement, some of it very effective, and for matters of fact. Despite the emblems and ceremonies with which it is saluted, Bloyé’s death changes him into a “silent object” which will no longer issue orders or heed them, and the text of the death notice in the newspapers is supplied verbatim. Later, we are given the details of his growing salary and the slips of paper on which the company formally acquaints him with his promotions. Elman refers to him as a “nobody” in whom Nizan has enabled us to take an interest: Nizan’s literal statements appear to be telling the reader that he is also an anybody—anybody, that is, who fails to fight the class war on the right side.
Nizan then reverts to the start of this wasted life. Bloyé (b. 1864) is of peasant stock. His father has come off the land to work as a railway porter and, in time, the family moves to St. Nazaire, where Antoine gets the education which equips him to attend one of the country’s technical schools: these have become important, and self-important, institutions. He joins the railways at a higher level than his father, and is destined for the middle ranks of management. Early in …