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L’Homme Révolté

The Conspiracy

by Paul Nizan, translated by Quintin Hoare, with afterword by Jean-Paul Sartre
Verso, 255 pp., $18.95

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 famous expression of disillusionment with the Soviet Union by a temporary convert to Communism. Nizan’s disenchantment did not occur until September 1939, with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This piece of Realpolitik made nonsense of the Western Communist opposition to Hitler, and put the French Communist party in an impossible position with regard to the anti-Nazi war effort.

Nizan neither went into hiding, like some of the rank and file, nor disappeared to Russia, like the Communist leader Maurice Thorez. He resigned from the Party, causing something of a stir, and carried on with his military service. Fate did not allow him time to work out a new political stance: he was killed at the beginning of the German offensive of 1940, while serving as interpreter with an English regiment. He had almost completed a novel (his fourth), which would have given us a clue to his final state of mind, but the manuscript, together with his diary, was buried for safety during the retreat to Dunkirk, and unfortunately proved untraceable after the war.

The chances are that his reputation and the memory of his quarrel with the Communist party would have been swept away in the tide of history, but for a curious twist in events after the war. For reasons best known to themselves, the Communists mounted a retrospective campaign against him, accusing him of having been a government spy within their ranks. The charge seems to have been entirely fictitious since, when challenged, they produced no proofs, but it caused a dramatic revival of interest in Nizan and his work. His former friends, the chief among them being Sartre and Raymond Aron, rushed to defend his name. From 1960 onward, some of his writings were reissued, in particular his two violent anti-Establishment pamphlets, Aden, Arabie (with a long preface by Sartre) and Les Chiens de garde. After these followed at least two collections of his articles and reviews, and a reprinting of La Conspiration.

This resuscitation, largely sponsored by Sartre, who was now at the height of his fame, had the effect of turning Nizan into a somewhat mythic figure—the privileged young normalien who had rebelled against the French Establishment of which he could have been a comfortable life-member, and the gifted and favored Communist intellectual who had been unable to tolerate the hypocrisy of the Stalinist hierarchy. Because of this double rebellion, he became a point of reference for the younger generation during the events of May 1968, although it is impossible to say whether, had he lived, he would have taken a positive view of that strange collective outburst, as Sartre did, or a negative view, with Raymond Aron.

Actually, a question mark hangs over his attitude towards the Communist party at the time of the break. Some sentences in his last letters to his wife suggest that his difference of opinion with the leadership might have been on grounds of tactics rather than of principle. He implies that the French Communists, instead of finding themselves disastrously out of step with the Western war effort, should have made a show of rejecting the Moscow line in the name of the French national interest, while realizing that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was, from the Soviet point of view, only a temporizing measure, intended to allow the USSR a breathing space. But other sentences, which I shall quote later, point to a different conclusion, and there is also convincing evidence from other sources that, in the first instance, Nizan was genuinely shocked and disgusted by the pact; in evolving the above-mentioned argument, he may only have been trying to convince himself that the Soviet Union’s behavior was justifiable as a Machiavellian move.

We cannot be absolutely sure, in retrospect, whether his defection from the Communist party would have been temporary or permanent. Sartre, in the preface he wrote for the reissue of Aden, Arabie in 1960, confidently asserts that Nizan, had he survived, would have been reconciled with the Communists in the Resistance movement, and would have gone back into the fold. But this may be only Sartre, as usual, dogmatically attributing to other people the views he himself happens to hold at the time of writing.

I have the strongest doubts about the prospect of Nizan’s continuing fidelity to communism, because La Conspiration strikes me as a very odd book to have been written by a card-carrying Communist. Just as surprising is the fact that it doesn’t follow on smoothly from the previous works of his that I have read.

Generally speaking, as a pamphleteer, a journalist, and a novelist, he fits into a well-known cultural category. He is an example of that universal Western phenomenon of protest, which one can trace back historically as far as one likes, but which has been particularly marked in France since the eighteenth century, and reached a new intensity in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Albert Camus, writing some ten years after Nizan’s death, christened it by the useful, but ambiguous, name of la révolte. Nizan is a Camusian révolté avant la lettre, with all that the expression implies as regards the intermingling, and perhaps confusion, of metaphysical and political considerations.

Viewed in this light, he has his place in the pattern formed by the other representatives of the prewar generation. Sartre and De Beauvoir were both révoltés, although less extreme politically than Nizan, at least in their early phase. Aron and Lévi-Strauss were hardly révoltés at all. Simone Weil was a much more extreme révoltée even than Nizan or Sartre and, in the end, virtually committed suicide in the name of metaphysical revolt transmogrified into religious fervor. Nizan himself, I think, is to be understood in terms of his oscillations around the theme of revolt and, seen in this perspective, La Conspiration takes on a curious significance.

It was preceded by the two pamphlets already referred to, and by two novels, Antoine Bloyé and Le Cheval de Troie.

Aden, Arabie (first published in 1932 but not translated until 1968)* is very much a young man’s book, an outburst of fury at the dismal complexity of the world as it may appear to someone on the threshold of adulthood. It begins with a splendidly exaggerated, self-dramatizing statement:

I was twenty. I will let no one say it is the best time of life.

Everything threatens a young man with ruin: love, ideas, the loss of his family, his entrance into the world of adults. It is hard to learn one’s part in the world.

This, it should be noted, is not the complaint of an underprivileged person. At twenty, Nizan was a normalien and therefore well on the way to a successful career. There follows a violent diatribe against L’Ecole Normale Supérieure as an institution for the conditioning of the bourgeois elite; that is, Nizan is biting the hand that feeds him in the name of some broader principle, but what the principle is he doesn’t at this point make clear, unless it is the blanket proposition that life should somehow be other than it is. Nor, since the book is written impressionistically, is it possible to follow the sequence of events: Why and how did he go to Aden? It occurs to me that he may have been imitating Rimbaud’s famous flight to Abyssinia. There is certainly something Rimbaudlike about the descriptions of the sea and the desert landscapes that fill most of the book. An echo, too, perhaps of Baudelaire’s escapist cry: “Anywhere out of the world!” Significantly, there is little or no political analysis of what Nizan encounters, but frequent and eloquent expressions of metaphysical disgust. Having left France, which he detests, he finds himself in a cultural void which is even more painful to bear, and so he returns, disillusioned with the exotic, to work off his accumulated energy on the society at home.

In its less accomplished way, Aden, Arabie corresponds to the two classical texts of metaphysical revolt, Sartre’s La Nausée and Camus’s L’Etranger, in which the individual, alone with his consciousness or his conscience, is oppressed by the mystery of a world that eludes his grasp. Sartre’s hero, Roquentin, decides to write a book to enshrine the mystery in words; Camus’s Meursault is executed through having accidentally fallen foul of the mystery; Nizan decides to put the mystery behind him and to plunge into action, almost, one might say, as a dérivatif, action for the sake of action, or as a means of escaping from the self into collective endeavor. The fundamental drive is metaphysical exasperation, which is about to take on a political coloring.

  1. *

    Aden, Arabie, translated by Joan Pinkham (1968, reprinted by Columbia University Press, 1987).

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