‘The Mandarins’ by Simone de Beauvoir

‘The Mandarins’ by Simone de Beauvoir (1954)   Part 1

Clearly ‘The Mandarins’ by Simone de Beauvoir is a roman a clef, that is a novel that describes real life under the facade of fiction.  Thus when one reads this novel, one thinks “that character is Jean-Paul Sartre, that character is Albert Camus, that character is Nelson Algren, that character is Arthur Koestler,and, oh yes, that character is Simone de Beauvoir herself’”.    Apparently Beauvoir even put her young female lover at the time into the novel as the main characters’ daughter Nadine.  I suppose many novels are veiled biography, but “The Mandarins” is more thinly veiled than most.   This novel won the top literary prize of France, the Prix Goncourt, in 1954.

At the start of ‘The Mandarins’, World War II has ended, and the Germans have finally left France.  The small group of Parisian journalists, writers, and intelligenzia can once again live and breathe freely.  Many of their group have been murdered in the streets or sent to concentration camps never to be heard or seen again.  Some of this group have been secretly working for the Resistance.   What happens now?  That is the question that ‘The Mandarins’ addresses.  It was written in 1954 and covers the years immediately after World War II.

First it becomes quite clear that people can’t just pick up where they left off before the war.  Too much has changed; there has been too much physical and psychological devastation.   The worst of the collaborators with the Nazis are clandestinely taken care of.  One major question is what kind of government for France now?  Communism looks attractive to some, but rumors are circulating that the Communists have their own camps similar to concentration camps.  The United States is a good example to many, but some look askance because the United States has allowed right-wing fascist dictators to remain in power in Portugal and Spain in order to get permission to build military bases in those countries.  

“The Mandarins” is a call to the intelligenzia not to stand off to the side while the most important issues of society are being decided.  Up until then, they had let the politicians decide governmental matters, and that had led to fascist or Communist dictators, World War II, and the Holocaust.  Now it was time for the intelligenzia to stand up and not let their countries slide into fascism or Communism again.    After the Nazi occupation, the only possible government for France is liberal democracy.

Many people don’t appreciate the tremendous success liberal democracy has achieved for northern Europe, the remainder of the British empire, and the United States.  We have had sixty five years of relative peace and prosperity, and at the same time the rights of most people have been respected and protected and nearly everyone in these countries has had the freedom of movement and opportunity.  Yet today some people sneer with contempt at the idea of liberal democracy, even though it has proven itself to be the most just and successful form of government in human history.

But enough.  ‘The Mandarins’ is a novel; it contains much about human relations besides political intrigue.     As one would expect in a Beauvoir novel, the female characters are strong, independent, daring, and aggressive. Simone de Beauvoir does not make up either characters or scenes from whole cloth.  You get the feeling that everybody in the book is a real person and that every scene in the book really happened.   At the same time, she takes such a vital interest in all her characters and deals with them with such intelligence and sensitivity, that  the novel is entirely compelling.  One can understand why later in her career, de Beauvoir gave up writing novels and wrote non-fiction only. 

As many of you know, I read ‘When Things of the Spirit Come First’ earlier this year.   Except for the fact that the two books are written with the same Simone de Beauvoir intensity, the two books are very different from each other.   ‘The Mandarins’ is the more mature work dealing with the complexities of adult life, politics, and family life,  while the stories in  ‘When Things of the Spirit Come First’ have a youthful charm and exuberance.  Both books are enhanced by the fact  that  Simone de Beauvoir cannot write a dull sentence.  In the next section of ‘The Mandarins’ which I will soon read, the character in the novel who is Simone de Beauvoir travels to the United States and meets the character who is Nelson Algren, and they have an intense love affair.  I can hardly wait.

8 responses to this post.

  1. I am thrilled that you are enjoying this novel. I am thrilled that my favorite has having a good reception. I am thrilled.

    You are definitely correct that the novel feels very thinly veiled and, yet, it is so well-written and the characters so fully realized that you hardly care whether something actually happened or did not, if the thing that character did or thought was Camus or was, instead, a fiction. I found the book totally absorbing as a novel. But I also felt like I had been invited into this fascinating circle of writers, if only as an observer.

    I can hardly wait for your next post.


  2. Hi Kerry,
    Yes, I am really enjoying “The Mandarins” and have found ways to fit this 610 page novel in and still keep the blog going. Beauvoir can combine the personal and the political in ways that really make you turn your way of looking at things around, and I am looking forward to the Nelson Algren section.
    Now I have two more ‘doorstop’ books that I really want to read, ‘Daniel Deronda’ by Eliot and ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by Eliot Perlman.


  3. Yes, fitting in the doorstops with blogging can be difficult.

    It has been some time since I read The Mandarins, but I recall enjoying the Algren section as one of the best parts (at least, at the time I read it, I found it quite compelling). I also have read her non-fiction book about her travels in America (Day by Day in America) and, if I remember correctly, there is definitely overlap of the real and the imagined.

    I will be looking forward to the next post.


  4. Thanks for this, Tony. My copy of The Mandarins is the Folio Society production and my reading chair faces the shelves where about 40 of them sit, This is one of only four of those that I have not read and I guilt myself about that on a regular basis. I’m about to finish Ulysses and, since I always like to have a classic on the go, was contemplating Don Quixote or Les Miserables next — you’ve convinced me to put The Mandarins onto that short list. I look forward to your next post on it.


    • Hi KevinfromCanada,
      So those are the four, Ulysees, Don Quixote, Les Miserables, and The Mandarins? Quite an unusual combination. I haven’t read Les Miserables, but the others I have. You couldn’t go wrong with any of those three.
      Any of the four would be quite a change from “The Imperfectionists”. I’m afraid I’m buried on a library waiting list for that book. .


      • Actually, those three are Everyman’s Library editions are they are off in a different section. The other unread Folie volumes are Labyrinths, Raymond Chandler’s Blackmailers Don’t Shoot (I’ve read some of the stories but not this edition), Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt and Leo Tolstoy’s Collected Stories (which I admit is actually three volumes). And it is true that one of the reasons I always like to have a classic on the go is that I read a lot of current work and appreciate the change. I’m pretty sure The Mandarins will follow Ulysses — I reread Camus last year and look forward to a revisit of the period from a different point of view.


  5. It can be challenging to write a blog about a novel you’re still reading, but it can give you a different point of view, as it does here, where you clearly read sections thoroughly. It looks like a great book, and I’ll put it on my list.

    N.B. We can’t let the blogs define us! Sometimes they fit the way we read, but a longer book takes longer, and either requires us to go cold turkey until we can review it or to write in a different way. Sometimes it’s nice to read a person’s impressions, even if they change as the reader nears the end of the book.


  6. Hi Mad Housewife,
    My usual routine is to review one book per week and then write another non-review book-related post per week. Since I’ve been an avid reader of fiction for about 35 years and have kept lists of all of the fiction I’ve read which also includes my rating for each book, I try to use some of that in my posts. The only non-fiction I’ll usually read are literary criicism, letters or diaries of authors, etc. I have a long commute to and from work, so listen to audio CDs of fiction then also.


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