Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What I'm Reading: The Mandarins

There's a game I play sometimes. I learned it from one of my friends in college, who learned it from some friends of his that I didn't hang out with. It's called "You'd Think That...""You'd Think That..." is a basically a confessional game and I guess it could work well as an ice-breaker (at least under the right circumstances).

I realize now that calling it a "game" is really an overstatement, but too late for that. Basically, the point is for everyone playing to confess gross oversights in their life or gaping holes in their knowledge and experience.

For example, as a movie enthusiast who wrote her philosophy thesis on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, you'd think that I'd have seen Bladerunner.

Here's my next round: as a feminist who studied writing and literature, you'd think that I'd have known about The Mandarins before I saw it on the library shelf.

All I had known about Simone de Beauvoir for ages was that she was Sartre's main squeeze and that she had written The Second Sex, a book I tried and failed to read from the library. (Some books you just need to own, you know?) I had always assumed her to be concerned primarily with essays and philosophy, so imagine my surprise when I realized that she write fiction, too!

The Mandarins is what I would call a "bagel book." This is a term I made up just now but I've had the experience in other books before this one.

In the town I grew up in, there was (and still remains to this day!) a popular indie coffee and bagel shop, a profitable franchise to run in a town with two private colleges and a local community college within a reasonable driving distance. It was right down the block from the country's oldest bookstore and so my best friend and I spent a lot of time in that part of town, eating bagels and looking at books.

One time, halfway through a particularly delicious bagel, I said, "This bagel is really good, and I want to finish it, but I also don't want to finish it, because there won't be any left."

My friend gave me A Look. "That's how depressed people think!"

Those are bagel books for me: books that I enjoy and want to read, but books that I also am afraid to read because I don't them to be over. The Madarins is a bagel book; after tearing through my last few library books at a lightning pace, I am slowing down with this one and I don't think it's due entirely to being busy.

The Mandarins looks at a social circle in newly-liberated France during the end of WWII. According to the back of my copy, it is largely autobiographical and based on de Beauvoir's group of friends at the time (though with the names changed). I refuse to look up any of the specific events or characters until after the book is done because somehow that will spoil things, but in the meantime it's fun to guess.

The perspective is mainly that of Henri, the owner and editor of the newspaper L'espoir, which has so far remained politically neutral and is therefore subjected to bribes and woos and interest from all sorts of outside parties in the chaos that is Liberated Paris: the Communists, Americans, the non-Communist left, et al. Henri juggles those along with a lackluster relationship, the attention of young Nadine, and his own ambitions as a writer.

Periodically we see things from the perspective of Anne, wife to one of Henri's friends and mother to Nadine. She's a Freudian psychotherapist troubled by the strained relationship between herself and her daughter and the memoirs her husband puts off writing. It's interesting to note that Henri's sections are written in close third person, while Anne's are in first person.

de Beauvoir's prose is light and straightforward, yet this is no mere melodrama. Nor are her characters flat stereotypes. Henri and Anne meditate on compelling and relatable problems: relationships with others, anxiety over the future (individually but also of France), the role of art and literature in society, one's moral responsibilities. Even the characters outside the perspectives of Henri and Anne are nuanced and distinct from each other, some far more likable than others. (I hope Henri's wife Paula isn't based on anyone who actually existed. She seems like an unbearable person, and one who is deeply sad to boot.)

I don't know how I made it through university without knowing about any of de Beauvoir's novels, let alone reading them. I am enjoying this a lot, and I'm also putting it on my altered TIME Top 100 list, because really, do I need to read Deliverance? No, no, I don't. And I suspect that if I hadn't heard about this novel, there are a lot of people out there like me who wouldn't come across it otherwise. Check out The Mandarins! You won't regret it.


  1. Heh, "bagel books." I like it! My equivalent would be a Quarter Pounder book.

    1. So if you're reading in France, does it become a Royale? ;)

  2. I think I'm going to start using the term "bagel book" now. Even though there aren't any bagel shops around here :'( Your current bagel book sounds really good! Adding it to my Goodreads :)

    Also please watch Blade Runner sometime.

    1. I don't know if I want to live in a world without bagels! That being said, I don't think there are any bagel shops in my part of Stockholm, either.

      Blade Runner is one of those movies where it's like "yeah I should watch it sometime, but it needs to be the RIGHT time" and then I end up putting it off and watching other things instead, oooooop.