Saturday, February 9, 2013

He Used To Be A Radical

“The Conspiracy,” by Paul Nizan, 1938, forward by Jean Paul Sartre, 1960, afterward review by Walter Benjamin

Paris is the brooding presence under every novel or film set in that city.  Its streets, history, river, monuments, neighborhoods and personalities soak the narrative.  For good reason.  Paris has been a center of philosophy, an archive of history, a birthplace of revolution.  ‘The Conspiracy’ is no different – it is set in Paris in the late 1920s, but the city plays a role in the shaping of its characters and the novel itself  This is a book written by former Communist Paul Nizan, who quit the Party upon hearing of the Molotov/Von Ribbentrop pact in 1939.  He wrote for L'Humanite, the Party newspaper.  He died at the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940.

Many Americans dislike Paris, due to their own chauvinist or provincial upbringing, or perhaps plain ignorance.  Yet Paris is a city of the world, not just of the French.  At one time in the ‘20s and ‘30s it was the center of world intellectual life in almost every discipline – writing, painting, dance, sculpture, music – even haute couture.  It gave rise to the phenomenon of the ‘bohemian,’ which morphed into the beats, which begat the hippies, and then the punks, grunge and now in its most pale commercial reflection, the ‘urban hipster.’  Black people like Josephine Baker and Cole Porter fled to Paris, as did Irish writers stifled by Catholicism.  American artistic expatriates started bookshops and wrote books; Spanish painters mixed with French surrealists.  One might say these events in Paris were one of the great renaissances of culture in the capitalist world, if not the greatest.  (see reviews of the importance of geographic ‘location’ in the formation of culture, in this case American music in “Laurel Canyon,” “Just Kids,” “In Search of the Blues” and the Grateful Dead, all below.)

It is 1928 and 1929.  The main characters of this book are the privileged sons of the local bourgeois – dissatisfied with a conventional life, unserious, yet committed to revolution.  Bernard Rosenthal is their leader – his father a stockbroker (yes, before 1929), his brother one too.   Of their families, though against them.  Nizan examines these inter-war youth and their desire to mean something.  Something other than a professional job, a boring wife, their fated elegant Parisian row-house on Rue Berlioz and their summer chateau in Picardy.  Why Nizan, a Party communist at the time, spends so much time on this sliver of the class is somewhat odd – unless it is part of a polemic against their influence on the revolutionary youth of the time. 

In order to encapsulate some of them, Nizan writes in the shade of Proust, and walks with him on the Channel beaches and into the country homes of romance and dull upper-class pleasures.  His portrayal of Rosenthal could be a disturbed 20-year-old student of that milieu.  They easily study for the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale in the Quartier Latin and the Faubourg St. Germain.  Rosenthal, with 4 others - Pluvinage. Laforgue, Bloye and Jurien - start an overly-intellectual magazine for this rebellious generation.  Then, bored, he theorizes that ‘sabotage’ (a term that originated from the shoes of rebellious workers) is the real road to affecting change. The book sets you up to expect an early anarchist re-run of “The Invisible Committee.” (Reviewed below.)  Some plans for the defense of Paris and the location and structure of a large boiler in the city are stolen.  Instead, the ‘conspiracy’ Rosenthal really gets involved in is the seduction of his brother’s wife – his way of ‘overthrowing’ bourgeois morality and his family.  And the second conspiracy is that one of their number – Pluvinage, a son of a Parisian cemetery bureaucrat – turns informer on a ranking member of the Communist Party.  The Communist Party itself in 1929 was being accused of a an immediate ‘conspiracy’ to overthrow the French Government by force that fall, and hundreds were jailed.

The group had considered joining the Party to be in an intolerable affront to their independence, and hence had never joined.  Pluvinage, oddly, was the first to join, though he was the weakest in commitment.  

Nizan describes some scenes within a Party cell of working-class Parisians in the Belleville / Pere Lachaise area of the 20th Arrondissment.  He tracks the rich people on Avenue Mozart in de Passy.  Pluvinage, the informer, haunts the bars and prostitutes of Montmartre and Pigalle.  Pluvinage always felt socially inferior to Rosenthal and the rest, and eventually understands that the Communists would not come to power, and decides to stay with the ‘powerful’ on the Ile de la Cite and become a policeman – to do the ‘dirty work’ of Paris his own father did.  A third character, Laforgue, becomes very ill, and returns to the bosom of his bourgeois family.  Rosenthal himself commits suicide due to his grief at eventually losing the battle for his shallow paramour, his brother’s wife. 

An odd book, a snapshot of a faded time.  Well written, somewhat poetic, aimed at the untrustworthy petit-bourgeois youth who predictably give up on Left politics - then and in later ages.  And set in Paris, the city of much greater light.

And I bought it in the progressive literature section at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
February 9, 2013

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