The son of a French father and an English mother, Barbusse was born in France in 1873. “Hell” was published in 1908. However, he continued in relative obscurity until, having served in the 1st World War, he wrote “Under Fire” in 1916. This convincing and dramatic account came as a shocking revelation to many. It resulted in a retrospective interest in Barbusse’s earlier novel, which brought it to the attention of the intelligentsia.
Barbusse then turned to Russia for further inspiration, and went there in January 1918 where he married, later returning to France. The main motive was his belief in the Bolshevik cause, although Esperanto was also of real interest to him. His belief in communism appears to have been total and uncritical. He seems to have had no problem dedicating a book to Trotsky, then denouncing him as a traitor when he fell from grace. Communism affected all his subsequent work. He died in France in 1935.
The proposer first saw a copy of the book in the house of his landlady when he was an undergraduate. He then bought it from a local bookshop, and found it a hauntingly strange book with echoes of Camus’ “The Outsider”. Colin Wilson’s book of the same name starts by discussing how Barbusse’s “Hell” displays the archetypal outsider. The Existentialists may have looked back to him as an inspiration or at least a fellow traveller. The proposer had reread it and was now aware of limitations.
It emerged during the meeting that some of us had the original O’Brien translation and others that by Robert Baldrick. The former is unexpectedly about a hundred pages shorter. This abridgement was presumably partly to protect sensitive minds and partly because some passages - such as 10 gruesome pages on medical matters - were revolting. However, we were surprised that Amazon and Kindle should be setting before us without acknowledgement a novel that differs greatly from that intended by the author.
So the comments of the group were invited. Many liked the concept of the voyeur and what were a series of tales with moral and philosophic overtones. The readers were taken up by the narrative, but began to rebel or lose interest during the verbal and emotional struggle between Amy and the poet. One member noted that Amy’s “why did you not tell me that straight away?” would have been a good question to put to Barbusse.
However, the book contains many startling and, for 1908, unique, thoughts. He observes but tries not to judge. He sees the sort of details that make for fine literature. But as a young writer he cannot resist piling in the philosophy. The balance was wrong. Had the stories been of more substance they could have carried the philosophizing more convincingly. “Death is worse than suffering", “Humanity is the desire for novelty founded upon the fear of death”, “for lovers are enemies rather than friends”.
Is the narrator Barbusse? Or was the character of the poet a reflection of the author? Or were both characters versions of Barbusse? Certainly he does not seem to be particularly interested by the characters he is creating. The events of the novel may take the form life observed, but the book is hugely introspective. The narrator considered he had entered the “kingdom of truth”. The novel starts with the narrator seeming reasonably happy and able to cope with life. At the end of a month at his peephole he seems diminished, not enriched. He is also bitter.
Barbusse introduces late on a character Villiers – a successful novelist with no insights, no new ideas, but a retinue of admirers. Sour grapes! The dying Russian émigré expressed the view that the pen is greater than music. We pondered this. Artists work for a living but some are self-indulgent. The true artist is looking for meaning and must be able to communicate with the rest of us. But did Barbusse communicate with us in this book?
We appreciated some of the poet’s propositions. Happiness can be born of misery. We must accept that with light there has to be shade. Tears are not words. Why should Amy have to explain why she is crying? The attempt to convey some aspects of the meaning of life was a noble objective.
However, the proposer was about 20 years old when he first read the book. The author was therefore communicating with someone relatively close in age. Since then the proposer has got older but not Barbusse! One of the group had been sufficiently interested to read “Le Feu” (Under Fire). He thought this was much more convincing, and a very fine piece of writing.
It is interesting to see Barbusse opposing nationalism and the concept of the nation state in “Hell”. Then showing great courage and fierce patriotism when his nation state is invaded. Then he is seduced by the Russian Revolution, which dominates the rest of his life. To a young and passionate man this may seem normal, but he was middle aged and war weary when he adopted the Russian Revolution.
As a book, and looked at a century after it was written, it does ramble too much. The author is too declamatory, with so much about God, death, paradise etc. Arguably this is a book written when not much was happening. We have a discussion between the two doctors about the horrors of war. But the author meant the Franco-Prussian War. It is with that in mind that the old doctor says “Let us hope that some day we shall emerge from this endless epoch of massacre and misery”.
While no war is good for front line soldiers, Barbusse six years later was to volunteer for a totally different and infinitely worse experience. The genesis of the book must have been in La Belle Epoque. Possibly the young Barbusse, acting the “flâneur”, was happy to ponder the infinite because he had nothing better to do. Then perhaps the project became disturbing. He failed to communicate successfully to many of us in the Monthly Book Group. Or was it our failure to see that the book was more than self-obsession and platitude?
Why the title “Hell”? Possibly because the narrator became addicted to looking through the hole in the wall. He found that life is raw and pointless and it wears you out.
You may wonder who we are and from whence we post these reviews. To lift the veil a little, when “Things Fall Apart” was discussed it was (as befits a Nigerian book) accompanied by yams. On the occasion of “Hell” it was…..Chinese spirits. A glass each, and only when the proposer was satisfied that the book had been adequately debated. Very welcome of course, though absinthe might have been more appropriate. However, the visitor who brought the bottle was Chinese, not French.