The idea behind the timing of reading this book was that it was a sort of companion piece to Iron in the Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre. The prompt was the suggested further reading at the end of the book. The problem was that the library did not have a copy so eBay became the supply route and that took time and in the end this bookby Simone de Beauvoir was not read quite when intended.
That is a shame because this would work well with the Sartre Roads to Freedom trilogy. The same topics are covered and you get a reinforced sense that far from the second world war being the only major thing to happen to the French in the 1930s there was also political unrest that spawned some of the future leadership of the resistance movement.
The book evolves around the relationship of Jean and Helene. There are a series of flashbacks from a point where for reasons unknown Helene is dying that outline how Jean left home and became a communist before rejecting that political line and becoming a trade union leader before finally post invasion becoming part of the resistance. His relationships with his parents go full circle as well with his father initially disliking him for the communism but then becoming proud of his resistance activities. Helene is a young girl trapped in a boring relationship with Paul, a work colleague of Jean’s, and stuck in a dull job. She meets Jean and falls for his independence and sense of clear direction and identity. They become lovers and even plan to marry but when war is in the offing she gets him a desk job back in Paris and he hates her for it and they split up. She eventually comes back to him to ask her to help get a Jewish friend across the border and she starts working for the resistance. In a mission she is fatally wounded and she dies in his arms and Jean, who by now is responsible for hostages dying each time he carries out a bombing or sabotage really does have the blood of others on his hands.
Is it well written?
It starts a little bit clumsy with it not quite clear what is going one and it is only after a little while that you start to understand the time device being used to build up the story from the past to the point of the present. The characters are strong and the small cast makes it feel intimate. But the crucial but here is te exetensialist style that is consitent and is on display in both Jean and Helene. In the end no one can force you to make a decision you don;t feel you want to make or feel honest about and it is the dilemma of having to make a choice that will have a fatal impact on others that is the dilemma that Jean faces that is at the heart of the book, It does gently but firmly grip you and make you want to see it through to some sort of conclusion, which as a measure of the success of the writing is a fairly strong one.
Should it be read?
For those who want to build up a picture of the state in France prior to the war and immediately afterwards then this deserves to be read. The scenes of the retreating army leaving them exposed to the enemy and the Jewish baby being taken away are powerful and not connected with any philosophical style. It is also one route into this prolific but legendarty feminist writer. This seems like a good starting point and she has a real knack of imagining the male motivation and point of view making it a strong book from a characterisation point of view. Overall it deserves to get a look in but the fear is that the start is so liable to leav you confused and lukewarm that you might fail to continue with a book that has some valuable things to say.
An independent man learns painfully that he cannot make decisions or live a life that is solitary and unconnected with the world around him.
Version read – Penguin paperback