As far as I can ascertain, the novel under review is only the second of Nizan’s works to appear in English translation in the past fifteen years, and its publication was perhaps timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the writer’s death in May 1940. The book itself dates from 1938, and although it is an interesting text, well worth reading in this excellent version, I doubt whether such an apparently minor work would have attracted the attention of an American publisher at this late stage had Nizan’s posthumous career not been surrounded by very unusual circumstances. The main fact that has kept his name alive was his early association with Jean-Paul Sartre; the two became schoolfellows in their late teens and were—with some periods of estrangement—close friends until their early twenties, after which their paths diverged. Nizan has certainly benefited to a degree from Sartre’s fame and posthumous championship, but at the same time his identity has so long been entangled with Sartre’s, and with Sartre’s opinions about him, that it is rather difficult to see him separately in his own right. However, the effort has to be made if we are to understand the significance of La Conspiration.
Nizan belonged to that remarkable prewar generation of philosophically trained normaliens or agrégatifs which included, in addition to Sartre, such now well-known names as Simone de Beauvoir, Raymond Aron, Simone Weil, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. But whereas the others were to remain more or less unheard of by the general public until after the war, Nizan was already a prominent figure throughout the Thirties, not only as a writer but also as a foremost intellectual of the Communist party and a regular contributor to the Communist papers L’Humanité and Ce Soir. He appears to have been, from the start, a more impatient, rebellious, and precocious character than his fellow normaliens. As a student, he took the initiative of touring England during the Depression of 1927, and then he spent some months in Aden in the employ of the Swiss entrepreneur Besse, an experience that was the ostensible subject of his first book, Aden, Arabie, half travel memoir and half polemical pamphlet, which ends with the statement that he is returning to France to fight capitalism at home.
I shall refer to his other writings in a moment. At this point the circumstance to be emphasized is that, in all outward respects, Nizan remained a militant Communist until 1939, and so was quite far removed from Sartre who, although always anticonformist by temperament, was at that stage uninterested in political action and totally absorbed in literature and philosophy. During the Thirties Nizan spent a year in the Soviet Union, but contact with the realities of Russia did not lead him to express publicly any doubts about the Soviet system, although it may be significant that he wrote a remarkably mild and reasoned review of André Gide’s Retour de l’URSS, a …