Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Mandarins V

The novel continues to recount actual historical events. While on an idyllic bicycle holiday in the French countryside, Paula, Robert and Henri are shocked to learn of Hiroshima, and they come across a small village just as its inhabitants are commemorating the local deaths that had followed a German parachute invasion. Information leaks out for the first time about Stalin's Gulag system of forced labor camps and causes disagreement within Robert's group regarding whether they ought to publicize it or not. That thread of the text, which covers the calculation that goes on in the French political background, still fails to capture my interest. Meanwhile, Nadine continues to provide plenty of comic relief, and Henri's play proves to be a great success, at least among the Parisian glitterati of the day. The story of Henri's breakup with Paula is gradually playing out.

A major theme in the novel doesn't commence until the second half. Anne is invited to the U.S. to speak at various psychoanalytic venues and flies to LaGuardia on a trip lasting several months. This corresponds with de Beauvoir's actual trip to the U.S. with Sartre in 1947. Anne sees the trip as possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about America, and she assiduously explores the locales to which she has been invited. She is not interested in typical sightseeing and prefers to observe ordinary people in their own neighborhoods. To this end, when she visits Chicago, a mutual acquaintance sets up contact with Lewis Brogan, an emerging writer who is well-versed on Chicago and lives in a slum, in order to have him show her around. Both Lewis and Anne are socialists, which makes Lewis a good fit for her. In the novel, Lewis is a fictionalized version of Nelson Algren, who, like de Beauvoir, was not well known at the time, but went on to win the National Book Award for Fiction in 1950. This novel is dedicated to Algren.

De Beauvoir has cleaned up events a little in the story. She has Anne meet Lewis in Chicago, return to New York, and then go back to Chicago for a second visit expressly to see him again. They do not become intimate until the second visit. In reality, within hours of meeting for the first time they became intensely attracted to each other and slept together. That was when she experienced her first orgasm, at age 39. This may seem odd if you look at de Beauvoir's background, but the fact is that her relationship with Sartre, who was four foot eleven, had been platonic for several years by then. Unlike Robert and Anne in the story, they were unmarried and lived in separate apartments. I expect that the remaining third of the novel will include the ultimate demise of de Beauvoir's relationship with Algren.

The sudden shift from the preoccupations of an intellectual woman in a rarefied Parisian atmosphere to a head-over-heels romance in a humble Chicago neighborhood is quite a surprise. It's almost as strange as it would be if, say, Iris Murdoch had fallen in love with Studs Terkel. De Beauvoir humanizes herself by eliminating every trace of the abstract in this episode. Although he is reasonably well-educated and intelligent, it is Lewis's spontaneity, warmth and body that excite Anne. She misses him when she returns to France and hopes to continue their relationship. It seems to me that de Beauvoir mixes the abstract with the concrete to make a powerful potion that accentuates both.

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