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 his career he yields to an impulse to take part in a strike, which proves abortive. This lapse is forgiven him by his masters; by the writer, it is seen as of a piece with his rejection of the woman with whom he has been happily sleeping—in favor of the empty daughter of his immediate superior in the railways.
Meanwhile the railways themselves, in the era of their expansion or explosion, have laid claim to a leading role in the novel. The tracks are forcing their way, inch by inch, across the plains and water meadows of la belle France. A huge organization exists to serve them, divided into rival categories (passenger, maintenance, and so on), each equally devoted to the cause, and each equally at the mercy of a ruling group of stockholders and financiers: an organization which accepts that there will be accidents, loss of life, and that the lost lives will not be those of the stockholders and financiers. Issuing from their blackened roundhouses, locomotives become relentlessly fiercer and faster.
A girl is born to the Bloyés, but her health is poor, and before long she dies. A boy takes her place, and father and son go on country walks together, with the wife, Anne, occasionally joining them, on sufferance. By now, Bloyé is Depot Superintendent at Tours, and an accredited though uneasy member of the local bourgeoisie, who dream without rancor of the vices of the upper class and indulge their resentment of the workers—whom Bloyé covertly thinks he has betrayed.
In his early forties he suffers an insight into his condition. The novel is good on the greatly underestimated pains and premonitions that “anybody” is apt to feel at that age: a consciousness of fading powers and of chances irrevocably missed, and of your approaching status as a silent object. These anxieties are likely to be completed by your father’s death, though, in fact, Bloyé has to wait a bit longer for that to happen.
When that event takes place in a man’s life, it may bring an access of energy to the forty-year-old, but in Bloyé’s case there is no prospect, then or later, of any regeneration, of any escape from his menopausal distress, and when the Great War breaks out, he receives an overwhelming blow to his peace of mind. The railways are placed under military oversight, and he is demoted to pasture just outside Paris. He is in disgrace, and in defeat—defeated in his professional life, where he had previously, and however dubiously, succeeded. A terminal period ensues, during which he is afflicted with nameless ailments, takes pills hopelessly, and can’t even muster the energy to avail himself, on medical advice, of the services of a brothel. His real trouble is the “nothingness” of his life. He retires, and, having always been taciturn, is presently altogether silent.
It is worth looking at two passages in the novel in which the notions of Bloyé as a class traitor, and of his life as nothingness, are expressed. Midway through his career, one of his men is killed in an accident, and he has to let the family know. There’s a striking account of the introduction of the corpse into the house, with its dazed child, the beds still warm from the women’s bodies, the reproaches which the widow directs at the company. On such occasions, Nizan has pointed out, “the bosses sometimes experience the uncomfortable feeling of guilt.” And Bloyé is no exception. “What terrible weight a dead man is”—Bloyé has to lay out the driver’s body on a bed, and take it in his arms. “A wounded man still knows how to make himself light….” Bloyé duly experiences a boss’s uncomfortable feeling of guilt: “He wanted to ask for forgiveness as though he had killed him with his own hands.” Nizan then states:
When you did not die before retiring, you received a bronze or silver medal, a medal stamped with a locomotive, hung on a tricolor ribbon, like a life-saving medal. You received a letter: “In return for your good and faithful services.”
Live and die for a medal, for nothing.
But he, Antoine Bloyé, who commanded others, who transmitted orders from above like an adjutant—and soldiers can also be killed in peacetime, in target practice or on the march, by a stray bullet, or by sunstroke—but he, who was not the enemy of these men, was he then their enemies’ accomplice? In vain did he try to defend himself, telling himself that it was the fault of the track maintenance division, summoning to his aid the thoughts of the functionary. He knew full well that he had passed to the side of the bosses, that he was their accomplice. All his efforts, all his memories, altered not one jot of his complicity. He thought of his father, who was one of those who took orders, of his comrades in the shipyards of the Loire and in the railway depots who were also on the side of those who serve, on the side of life without hope. And returning home in the icy Auvergne dawn, he repeated to himself a phrase that held good for the whole of his life, a phrase that he forced himself to forget, that only disappeared in order to reappear in the time of his adversity, on the eve of his own death: “So, I am a traitor.”
And he was.
Someone in Bloyé’s situation at that time might well feel—and he might feel it at other times too—that he was a traitor. But it can hardly be the case that these railway men lived and died “for a medal.” Since Nizan is prone to making assertions, let me state that, from what I know of such men now, when their craft is a comparatively mundane one, their predecessors probably did this job because they needed the money and because they liked it. Many railway men have been proud of their work, and excited by it, even when they were aware of the restrictions and humiliations which it imposed. In Bloyé’s day, the team of men who worked on the railways had something of the character of a guild or an elite military force. They established an elegance for themselves—in the midst of the restrictions and the risks, and the noise and the dirt—which is not entirely, even now, a thing of the past.
Nizan persuades the reader, though he does not himself admit, that Bloyé’s was an interesting job. He alludes to Bloyé’s memories here, his memories of the work he has done—but only to suggest that these memories lack validity, that they can’t compete with the grand fact of his complicity. The work done by “any” superintendent is dirty work. It resembles the “filthy works” condemned by Calvinist theologians, who were clear that dutifulness could not compete with the grace of God. Superintendents cannot be saved. Certainly the capacity to make a fetish, or a supreme virtue, of their work cannot save them. And the fact that, in an important sense, he was always a worker as well as a commander, that he bore his share of toil and risk, and that he cared about, and behaved well toward, the men under his command, cannot alter the fact that Bloyé is damned. Nizan is unfair to bosses, and it is not necessary to believe that the French railways should never have been nationalized in order to conclude that he is even unfair to financiers: they are damned too, and rather dimly apprehended, as no more than a set of predators.
As for the “nothingness” of Bloyé’s life, I realize that this is a technical term in Existentialism. Sartre, incidentally, was a school friend of Nizan’s—they both shone at the Ecole Normale in Paris—and has written admiringly about him. This is a term to which more than one generation, in more than one country, has been gravely attentive. But Nizan doesn’t mean anything very deep or difficult by it here: it has the aspect of a libel on the politically unacceptable. Toward the end of the book he invokes “the influx of nothingness.” Bloyé
…was beyond all help. When nothingness appears, all else is destroyed. Worries, amusements, people, treatments, and pleasures afford men little protection from the pang of nonexistence. It takes a great deal of force and creation to escape from nothingness. Antoine had created nothing. He had let his forces go to waste. He had invented nothing. He had not dealt with men.
It is true that he was a man who lived his adult life without close friends. But this is also true of many of the readers of The New York Review of Books. It is not true that he did not deal with men: he did, and he was worried that he had let them down. Nizan, of course, is intent on showing that if Bloyé is a nobody, it is the system’s fault—the system which commanded him to work and obey and command, and to make a good marriage to a silly woman. Nizan is intent on showing that while he is defeated, and treacherous, he is neither a cipher nor a fiend. Bloyé is allowed to retain a measure of dignity, despite his betrayal of his class. Traitors, however, are traitors, and it takes “a great deal of force and creation” to show convincingly the dignity that may be retained by someone whom it would be reasonable to call a traitor. Nizan does not expend that force. Bloyé does not look like a traitor to me.
What would Bloyé have needed to do to be saved—to avoid vilification (and it is something not very different from that which we have to do with at times) as a traitor? He would have had to throw in his lot with the railway workers when they went on strike, and perhaps become a militant leftist. Nizan wrote his novel during one of those periods when capitalism, according to hostile diagnosticians, is in its death throes, and during this period the French Communist Party was doing well, and expanding. Here was a huge organization, divided into rival categories, each equally devoted to the cause, and each equally at the mercy of a ruling group. In other words, and in some lights, membership in the Party might have looked very like a job on the French railways in the heyday of their exploitation by financiers.
It may be supposed indecent to say so at a time when the Communist Party does not have much appeal even for the revolutionary young, but it is unpleasant to be told, in effect, that you are likely to prove a traitor if you accept responsibility within an industrial concern, and if you refuse to accept the type of discipline that has been exercised within the Communist parties of the West. Nizan broke with the Party over the Hitler-Stalin pact, and he was vilified by them thereafter. But at the time when his novel was published he would, I think, have been willing to have it read as enjoining a response compatible with a fair degree of trust in organized Communism.
Nizan’s subject is a fascinating one, and no defensive feelings on the part of readers (and reviewers) who are inured to gainful employment should be permitted to obscure this. He is writing about a man who does not have the inner resources to live his life, outside the sphere of work. The book has a genuine appreciation of the human material from which Bloyé has been constructed (Nizan’s own father, it seems, was drawn upon), and a vivid sympathy with his predicament which will often be seen as tempering, or as justifying, the firm resolve to interpret that predicament in terms of promotion and complicity. I am not sure that it does either of these things, but Bloyé is as far from being a nobody as he is from being a traitor.
Nizan appears to be saying—communist though he was, and constrained though he was in saying so by the requirements of militancy—that an effort must be made to stop people working like this. Let the people play. Here I think he is right. We have had enough work. In the West, religion has made a small contribution to this particular cause by ratting on the ethic which it had managed to sanctify, as Nizan demonstrates, and while nothing much can be expected from the Communist Party, or from any other party, we now have the welcome if comic sight of various mental healers exhorting people to learn how to play, and play hard. No doubt there will be those who try to convert the industrial landscapes of the West into an Arcadia, as the old London Roundhouse was turned into a stage for nudities and liberations, but it doesn’t yet seem certain that the impulse in question will end in farce. Nizan’s novel can be said to have looked at some of the relevant issues, in however qualified a fashion, at an early date.
All the same, the most striking feature of the novel is one which the novelist’s scheme seeks to deny: and that is the picture which it gives, despite itself, of the satisfaction and excitement associated with the furtherance of the railways, of men breaking their backs and molding their lives to make the trains run on time, and faster. The image that lingers in the mind is that of the raising of a locomotive from a river bed. Nizan was excited by these matters himself, but he allows them to be washed away by the influx of nothingness, and we are meant to suppose that all they got for raising the locomotive was a medal.
Nizan was killed, at thirty-five, during the retreat to Dunkirk at the beginning of the Second World War. Had he lived, he might have developed a greater respect for types of work which are very different from those of metropolitan writers and polemicists, and a more indulgent attitude toward old age. For this is the book of a young man, a young man who was ready to command an audience and who helped to devise what was to become the favorite rhetoric of an élite. As he employs it, this rhetoric has its moments of utter abdication and inanity. There were certain old men, he writes, including Bloyé, who were “already bored with the boredom of the dead.” He cannot be blamed for what was done by the bosses of the French Communist Party, any more than Bloyé can be blamed, though Nizan blames him, for what was done by the financial interests which controlled the French railways. To be contentious about it, he was no more of an accomplice than Bloyé. To be fair about it, he was less of an accomplice, in that he seems to have stood out against the apparatchiks, and to have paid for it. So he may have been a virtuous communist, one with a human face. But he was also the kind of human being who states that those who do not behave as he wishes are nothing.
Bloyé is a success, not an upstart. Upstarts, strictly speaking, are an English, not to say Edwardian, phenomenon. I remember a snobbish London radical talking about some upstart as “that counter-jumping BBC producer,” implying that he had risen by his wits from trade or worse than trade. Piers Paul Read’s character, Hilary Fletcher, is an upstart, not a success. His childhood is spent in Yorkshire, in the dear old English countryside: his father is the vicar in a village called Lasterby, which is owned by Colonel Sir Edward Metherall of Lasterby Hall. The Metheralls befriend and patronize Fletcher, who bides his time and executes what can only be considered a disproportionate revenge. When an unpaid gambling debt causes him to abscond from Cambridge, he sets up as a criminal in London, stealing works of art and posing as a painter in order to baffle the police: it is a nice touch that, in his second, diversionary role, he becomes rather fashionable. Both the Metherall girls are seduced in turn by this cold fish, and the son is ruined in a gambling fiasco contrived by Fletcher. He maims for life a friend of the son’s, and sees to it that the son is blamed for it and believes himself to blame. He also runs a house of call girls, and murders a newborn baby belonging to one of the inmates…. To those impressed and bewildered by the recent Lambton-Nora Levy scandal, he might look rather like the average Englishman.
Fletcher’s behavior may not qualify as “motiveless malignity,” but it comes to seem implausible, a kind of very heavy weather. He wants the Metherall parents to know what he has done to Martha, their younger daughter, “for how else should they feel remorse and regret?” Would this brainy contriver think such a thought? An epigraph from Julien Green has it that in every person “there is a sinner and a saint,” and toward the end of the book, after a spell in jail, during which he witnesses the devotions of a simple Irishman, the saint surfaces in Fletcher, and he repents. What was implausible is now incredible. He settles down and makes an honest woman of Martha, who has undertaken the hazardous task of bearing his child.
Mr. Read does not denounce the English aristocracy, though their faults and foibles are attended to. They say “orf” instead of “off” and “pudding” instead of “dessert,” and they patronize you. I would have thought myself that they were like other small social groups with money and standing and self-preserving rituals, and that they no longer have the power and the glory which was once felt to make them interesting. But they have their own virtues, which partly consist of their not being very like that London radical I mentioned, and I doubt whether many would insist that they should be strongly attacked. Admirers of Nizan might feel that they do not receive their deserts, or puddings, in this novel. But it is not surprising that they are treated with a certain equanimity. It is the villainy and the religion that are the surprise.
The Upstart is sharp about the modes of villainy which were adopted by the sinful and the socially mobile in the London of the time: it furnishes a chronicle of the Swinging Sixties, which English book reviewers used to be so angry about. Perhaps the Sixties were as bad as they were painted, and perhaps those who are currently examining their letter-bombs, and listening to the voices from Sweden which commend the “progressive” violence of the IRA, look back on the period with a nostalgia for which this novel will be taken to cater.
The book reminded me of a man prominent in the Sixties—Stephen Ward, who figured in the Christine Keeler scandal, and who killed himself after being accused and found guilty of living off the earnings of prostitutes. The trial was one of the most disgracefully unfair in the history of the British courts. Ward was an osteopath, and a Society artist, and he was friendly with a number of call girls and swingers. His set was much the same as that of Fletcher in the days of his wickedness, and it may be that Mr. Read sometimes had Ward’s career in mind. I don’t suppose Ward was a saint. But there was about him what can only be called a spiritual quality, which was ambiguous and problematical, but which seemed all the more convincing for his remaining disreputable. Nor did it depend on a fairy-tale conversion.