Though Simone de Beauvoir denied her novel The Mandarins was a roman a clef, there is sufficient evidence to correlate her novel's characters to real life individuals. A roman a clef, French for "novel with a key," is a novel that portrays well-known people as fictional characters. This practice dates back to 17th-century France, when members of literary circles included famous members of King Louis XIV's court in their historical romances. Britannica lists The Mandarins, along with Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point, as examples of a more common use of roman a clef, in which the hidden characters are "immediately recognizable only to a small circle of insiders." As a literary device, Britannica goes on to say that the success of a roman a clef depends upon the accessibility of the plot without the key. The Mandarins found success because for those in the know, its allusions to the French intellectual elite are considered to be a true document of the times, as numerous reviews of the novel noted at the time, while those who are not aware of the real life figures, or those who do not wish to consider them, may still find meaning in the novel. The novel's scandalous nature, both in light of the reflections of real life figures and in its portrayal of politics and sex, gave it its popularity. In addition, the intellectual acclaim has added to its continued visitation in a scholarly setting.
At its base, the novel is about the relationships, both romantic and platonic, among a circle of intellectual friends. It begins on Christmas Eve 1945, as these friends celebrate the end of WWII. The novel tells their stories through a third-person narration of the life of Henri Perron, a writer and journalist, and through the first-person narration of Anne Dubreuilh, a middle-aged psychiatrist married to the writer Robert Dubreuilh. The intellectuals, particularly Henri and Robert, grapple with their personal freedom following the end of the war, as well as what the political role of France should be in the new world. Robert wishes to start a leftist movement independent of both the rising American and Soviet powers, but even though Henri also wants there to be a similar political movement, he refuses to compromise the integrity of his own paper, resulting in tension as the friends divide. In addition, Henri wishes for freedom from his girlfriend Paula, as their love affair has soured after ten years. He begins an affair with Nadine, the sullen, young daughter of the Dubreuilhs, who, following the death of her love in the war, seeks solace in casual sex with many men. She takes a particular interest in Henri, and what is supposed to be a casual affair becomes much more serious by the end of the novel. Meanwhile, Anne finds herself in an affair with American writer Lewis Brogan which brings more passion back to her life, which she felt had stalled as she reached an older age. Amid love affairs and politics, The Mandarins depicts the confusing years in Paris following the end of World War II.
A roman a clef about the intellectual elite, written by "one of its most glittering citizens," (de Beauvoir 8) most likely aided in the popularity of the novel by the time it reached an English publication. In her introduction to the Harper Perennial edition of The Mandarins, Doris Lessing writes, "Even before The Mandarins arrived in this country it was being discussed with the lubricious excitement used for fashionable gossip." Lessing claims that it was well known that the novel was about de Beauvoir, Sartre, and their friends.
Indeed, it is generally thought that the Dubreuilhs are Sartre and de Beauvoir, while Henri is their writer and philosopher friend Albert Camus. The novel reflects the changing landscape in their friendship, from when "in 1948 [the two] joined in launching a new political movement. The two later became political enemies, waging war in open letters, for as Sartre moved further towards Communism, Camus edged away, disillusioned by what he saw as a Russian betrayal of the Revolution" (Amos 404). While here William Amos is describing the real life account, it also generally reflects the political debates and events of The Mandarins.
Brogan is the American cult novel writer Nelson Algren, with whom de Beauvoir famously had an affair. In numerous interviews, Algren later discussed the affair, saying "She gave me a disguise, another name, in The Mandarins" and "I've been in whorehouses all over the world and the woman there always closes the door...But this woman flung the door open and called in the public and the Press" (Amos 70). Algren's anger only added to the fame of the novel as a roman a clef, and his presence in the novel adds to much of the scandal because of the frank depiction of their love life and affair.
Even Scriassine, the fatalistic refugee writer, reflects writer Arthur Koestler, "whose Darkness at Noon becomes The Red Paradise in The Mandarins. A perfectionist to the end, he made four drafts of his suicide note" (Amos 461). In light of Scriassine's depressed behavior in The Mandarins, this insight into Koestler's life is not surprising. He shows his vulnerability when he has his tryst with Anne, and later Anne describes him: "For him, the third world war was just starting. Cheerfully, I said to him, 'Now don't start playing Cassandra again tonight. On Christmas Eve you were predicting all kinds of horrible disasters,'" in reference to his previous certainty that a third world war would begin (de Beauvoir 244). Scriassine is convinced that the world will erupt in war again, and suffers from extreme guilt for having survived the previous war. This fear gives him the most insight into "the future" as of the late 1940s because he fears the growing Soviet and American powers, yet unlike his French friends, would prefer an American victory.
At the Christmas party, Scriassine describes the conflict French intellectuals are about to undergo, claiming that they will reach an "impasse" to continue creating art, or to be the ones to save the right to create and view art. Throughout the novel, the characters face this impasse in their lives as the political climate changes. Initially, Anne worries that Robert will give up writing for politics and lose his life's work and focus, but later she chooses his new political goals over her affair. In contrast, Henri sees himself as a writer, and has difficulties in seeing himself in a political role.
This impasse reaches its height as Henri faces attacks from former friends in a rival political newspaper, from the very people whose views he did not want to include in his paper. Since this novel came out amid the Cold War, this viewpoint is particularly radical, considering the implications of being Communist-friendly--never mind the characters here that completely favor working with Communism over America. At one point, Samazelle advises Henri on the best course of action to both save his paper's readership and in forming his politics. Samazelle tells Henri, "Scriassine is right in thinking that Europe couldn't exist without the help of the United States. Our role should be the coalescence, to the profit of an authentic socialism, of all the forces opposed to the Sovietization of the Occident. We should accept American aid in so far as it comes from the American people...as they can be oriented towards a leftist policy" (de Beauvoir 494). Henri flat out rejects this notion, saying he will fight American politics with everything he has. On the other side, his viewpoints have gotten his paper labeled as anti-Communist, which Samazelle says cuts their readership off by half, and he continues by telling Henri that the only way to gain back readers is by becoming a full anti-Communist paper. Henri dislikes this too, saying, "If we have to go bankrupt, we'll go bankrupt, but we'll maintain our line to the very end" (de Beauvoir 494). Here, the idealist, independent movement that Henri and the others had so hoped to create has begun to break down, as each side struggles to find support, and faces the choice of joining with either side of the issue. Robert's paper supports Communism, if only because it is closer to his ideals, and the paper even writes a personal attack against Henri. In the realm of politics, the world following WWII has changed, without the significant assistance of these French intellectuals who so much were worried about shaping the political world following the war. Instead, they met with the impasse Scriassine described as they tried to fit themselves into this new world.
In addition to being scandalous in the political sphere, it also is scandalous in the social setting. The bestseller lists are never strangers to controversial or scandalous novels. Peyton Place, the number three bestseller of 1956, the year of The Mandarins' American release, and the number two bestseller of 1957, also deals with themes of social class, affairs, and the role of women; it is set in a small New England town, however, and so this shock value probably added to its more lasting contemporary popularity, while the foreign intrigue value of de Beauvoir's novel gave it its popularity. Lessing claims that while the French intellectuals involvement with the political sphere and the French Resistance added to the book's appeal, it was also a chance for an insight into their personal lives that intrigued most readers. Lessing writes that in particular, people were interested in getting insight into Sartre and de Beauvoir's interesting relationship. Lessing wrote, "There was another reason why The Mandarins was expected to read like a primer to better living, and that was the relationship between Sartre and de Beauvoir, presented by them, or at least by Sartre, as exemplary." Their relationship was unmarried and open, but committed, and held the appeal for a future in which men and women would not be unhappily chained to each other. In the novel, this is more exemplified by the unmarried couple Paula and Henri, while the Anne and Robert relationship is actually rather mundane.
While Anne and Robert are married with a child in the novel, de Beauvoir and Sartre never married nor lived together, and had no children. Nadine, their young daughter in the novel, is actually a composite of different mistresses of Sartre. Their open relationship was quite radical for the time, and though people looked at it with curiosity, the novel presents a very domestic relationship, though it is still open to affairs. Anne does not often have affairs, and really just feels herself old. At various times she describes her trouble with interacting with others because of the "kid gloves" she still wears, or because she looks at everyone with "doctor's eyes," i.e., as a psychiatrist, she diagnoses people outside of work, making her interactions with them self-fulfilling. This comes up in particular when she denies a woman's sexual advances on her, simply because she could diagnose her. Anne laments "If I turned down her invitation, it wasn't that the situation frightened me, but rather that I foresaw its inevitable outcome too clearly to be able to enjoy it" (de Beauvoir 243). Anne's musings are more introspective and reflective rather than dwelling on the details of her open marriage, which may have drew in readers. She repeatedly worries about Robert's political activities and his older age, saying, "In the old days, it never bothered me to be away from him for a while: our love, like our life, extended through eternity. But now I had come to realize that we only have only one life, a life already seriously encroached upon, and threatened, by the future" (de Beauvoir 226). There is a tenderness in their relationship that she clearly does not possess for other people, even though they lack the physical intimacy that she also misses. Her affair with Brogan simply replaces this, with whom she has similar affections, but which have more to do with physicality.
Anne and Brogan feel lost, except when together. It is physical proximity that is important to this couple, something which Anne feels others take for granted. While Nadine and Lambert fight, Anne does not understand why they do not grab their easy chance at happiness, and on the difficulties of long distance, she reflects, "Because we're separated, everything separates us, even our efforts to join each other" (de Beauvoir 446). They often feel alienated by their double lives, and even though she says, "the peace, the joy we found in each other's arms would overcome everything," (de Beauvoir 550). They feel lost without each other's immediate physical presence; in contrast to Anne and Robert's relationship, Anne and Brogan must be around each other to function as a couple, and this adds to their downfall.
The Mandarins scandal and use as a "primer for better living" are also used in the characters' sometimes extravagant actions. For example, Anne and Brogan have an almost larger-than-life affair, which, even excluding the extreme trans-continental aspect, includes an excursion to the Mexican jungles around Chichen Itza. Nadine at eighteen has already lost her young love, and therefore seeks out sexual situations with various men. In order to get Henri to take her on his month-long trip to Portugal, Nadine drugs his drink and then has sex with the unknowing Henri. Henri decides to bring her with him on his trip after this, and they return with a wealth of luxury goods. The characters in The Mandarins are in the position to lead more extravagant lifestyles, and this adds to the novel's draw.
The Mandarins is an all-encompassing novel about post-War life in Paris, an almost exotic locale for many Americans who bought this book, both in location and in the cast of characters. As they strive to set the political stage for the world, they also navigate complicated lives and relationships that make for a thought-provoking and readable story. Simone de Beauvoir considered this her best work, and said "I wanted to contain all of me: myself in relation to life, to death, to my times, to writing, to love, to friendship, to travel; I also wanted to depict other people, and above all to tell the feverish and disappointing story of what happened after the war," as quoted in the "about the book" section of the Harper edition. She clearly wanted to include many aspects of life, and did so, resulting in long novel that tells of the intricacies and complications of her time. This fullness of story, along with the extreme aspects of it, drew in praise for the novel, and therefore drew in readers
Amos, William. The Originals: Who’s Really Who in Fiction. Boston: Little, Brown and
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Mandarins. London: Harper Perennial, 2005.
"novel." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.
"roman à clef." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic
Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014.