Book review: Sartre and de Beauvoir on collaboration, or resistance

The collection of Sartre’s plays not only included “Les Jeux sont faits (see “Les Jeux son faits”). It also included “Huis clos”, “Les Mouches”, “Les Mains sales”. The blurb on the back mentioned, Simone de Beauvoir had written her version of “Les Mains sales”: a novel called “le Sang des autres”.

Nothing more interesting, than comparing two interpretations of the same theme, by  famous partners like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. But: Sartre’s work is a play and de Beauvoir’s a novel. Of course, there is also a huge difference between reading a play, instead of watching it come alive on stage.

In her autobiography “La force de l’age” (autobiography part 2, published 1960), Simone de Beauvoir also mentions a few differences between Sartre and herself. For instance: their attitude to writing differs. He is the real writer, while she not solely lives to write. To her, life is more important. According to her, he is also a realist, while she is more of an idealist.

Simone de Beauvoir’s “Le Sang des autres” (The Blood of Others)

The novel was published in August 1945 and is dedicated to Nathalie Sorokin, lover of both de Beauvoir and Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir started work on it during Nazi occupation of France. Her main characters are Jean and Helene. These young people meet just before the war breaks out. Their story is mainly told through flashbacks.

Sang desJean has broken with his wealthy middle-class family but broke with them and joined the Communist Party. Guilt about his choices, actions, and the death of others play an important role in his flashbacks. He is taking stock of his life, while waiting for someone to die. The person dying turns out to be Helene.

While dying, Helene also has flashbacks and dreams. She fell hopelessly in love with Jean, only to be rejected. Yet, when she nearly dies from an illegal abortion, he takes care of her. But he does not love her as much, as she loves him. When she pulls strings to ensure he does not end up at the front, he breaks off their relationship.

As war breaks out, Helene flees Paris. Later she takes up with a German. Through experiences, Helene changes from a young, spoilt, carefree person into someone aware of the suffering of others. When her Jewish friend turns up and asks for help, Helene seeks out a resistance group to help her friend escape.

From being a communist , then trade union leader, Jean is now in charge of the resistance group which Helene approaches. Despite being warned the proposed route is compromised, Helene and her friend go anyway. Helene is shot and dies about a day later.

Provided one knows a bit about de Beauvoir’s experiences and personal history, it is clear she uses friends and events from her own life in this novel. For instance: like Helene, Simone de Beauvoir fled Paris, but returned.

Though the reader knows that Helene lies dying in Jean’s presence after the first few pages, the flashbacks and changes in points of view capture attention and holds it. There are questions like what happened, why, where? The pace of events, their impact on the characters, their development s ensure an interest in the unfolding story.

So it is rather surprising, that de Beauvoir was later highly critical of her novel. It revolves about themes like passivity versus action, collaboration versus resistance, to marry or remain independent and further develop talents, give in to society’s pressures or not. Beauvoir’s main theme is choice and how each decision or choice leads to guilt.

Sartre’s “Les Mains sales” (Dirty Hands)

Jean-Paul Sartre’s seven-act-play was performed for the first time in 1948, about three years after the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s novel. Events take place in an imaginary East-European country called Illerya. The country is a client-state of or occupied by the Nazis. But they are already losing the war and Russian troops are expected to liberate the country.

Mains salesThe main protagonist is Hugo. He visits Olga, a former comrade. He hopes she will shelter him, as he has been released from prison. It becomes clear Hugo is out of touch with former allies, developments, the present situation

For a fellow activist, Olga acts hostile. While Hugo and she are talking, other comrades knock on the door. They are after Hugo and want to kill him. Olga manages to buy time: Hugo may still be useful.

Most of the rest of the play tells in flashbacks what led to Hugo ended up in prison. Like Jean in de Beauvoir’s novel, Hugo broke with his wealthy middle-class background. He joined the Communist Party and admires a political leader called Hoederer.

But other politicians sow doubts in Hugo’s mind. What is this Hoederer, this shepherd or care-taker after? He seems to manipulate others to gain control of the whole country, once the Nazis leave a power-vacuum.

Hugo is manipulated by a politician and infiltrates the small group of Hoederer’s confidants. What Hugo learns disappoints and disillusions him. He is further manipulated: the only solution is to murder Hoederer.

Hoederer likes and trusts Hugo. He likes Hugo’s spoilt wife Jessica even more. There is sexual tension, Hoederer and Jessica flirt. Hugo becomes jealous. There is a failed first murder attempt, but not by Hugo. Olga is responsible.

When Hugo sees Hoederer kiss Jessica, he finally shoots and ends up in jail. But did he kill out of jealousy or for political reasons? While in prison, there are attempts to kill Hugo. In the end, Olga tells her comrades Hugo is still useful, but he takes a different decision.

This play is very pessimistic: all characters have dirty hands or “mains sales”. All leaders claim they are fighting for a their country and people. In reality, they are negotiating about how to carve up the country and gain control. .There is no difference between Illerya’s Communist Party (Left), its Fascist government (Right), its Pentagone Party (middle): people are there to be used and manipulated. Once they have served their purpose they are discarded..

It seems Sartre was inspired by events in Hungary just before the Second World War. But it could just as easily describe France during WWII, a former USSR’s satellite state in the ‘60s or ‘70s, or even contemporary politics. Sartre seems to have wanted to illustrate his existentialist ideas as well as political power struggles, but the play’s political drama overshadows these.

A few similarities and differences

Play as well as novel deal with a group of people living in an occupied country and facing choices. The male protagonists have both broken with their wealthy middle-class background and become communists. The main characters face choices between collaboration or resistance, loyalty or betrayal, remaining true to ideals or being corrupted.

Satre’s political drama is highly realistic. The play is now occasionally revived as criticism on politics or governments. It is also pessimistic: everybody has “des mains sales“.

De Beauvoir on the other hand, explores “free” choice. Are people free to choose, or are choices limited by degrees of manipulation, responsibilities, amount of guilt? The manipulation is less obvious in her novel. Contrary to a play, the novel also allows her to “flesh out” her characters. Where in the end, Hugo is shot, Jean also seeks death but may survive. Somehow, her novel gives the impression that de Beauvoir’s interpretation of events and people is slightly more optimistic (idealistic?), than Sartre’s.

Interested in reading yet another literary work dealing with similar themes and written by a friend and contemporary of Sartre and de Beauvoir? Search for Albert Camus’ play “Les Justes”, English title “The Just Assasins” (1949).

“Le Sang des Autres” (The Blood of Others”), Simone de Beauvoir, Gallimard, 1945;
“Les Mains Sales” (“Dirty Hands”), Jean-Paul Sartre, Gallimard, 1947;
“La force de l’age”, Simone de Beauvoir, pocket ed. Folio 1960.

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