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The Inferno   By: (1873-1935)

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In introducing M. Barbusse's most important book to a public already familiar with "Under Fire," it seems well to point out the relation of the author's philosophy to his own time, and the kinship of his art to that of certain other contemporary French and English novelists.

"L'Enfer" has been more widely read and discussed in France than any other realistic study since the days of Zola. The French sales of the volume, in 1917 alone, exceeded a hundred thousand copies, a popularity all the more remarkable from the fact that its appeal is based as much on its philosophical substance as on the story which it tells.

Although M. Barbusse is one of the most distinguished contemporary French writers of short stories, he has found in the novel form the most fitting literary medium for the expression of his philosophy, and it is to realism rather than romanticism that he turns for the exposition of his special imaginative point of view. And yet this statement seems to need some qualification. In his introduction to "Pointed Roofs," by Dorothy Richardson, Mr. J.D. Beresford points out that a new objective literary method is becoming general in which the writer's strict detachment from his objective subject matter is united to a tendency, impersonal, to be sure, to immerse himself in the life surrounding his characters. Miss May Sinclair points out that writers are beginning to take the complete plunge for the first time, and instances as examples, not only the novels of Dorothy Richardson, but those of James Joyce.

Now it is perfectly true that Miss Richardson and Mr. Joyce have introduced this method into English fiction, and that Mr. Frank Swinnerton has carried the method a step further in another direction, but before these writers there was a precedent in France for this method, of which perhaps the two chief exemplars were Jules Romains and Henri Barbusse. Although the two writers have little else in common, both are intensely conscious of the tremendous, if imponderable, impact of elemental and universal forces upon personality, of the profound modifications which natural and social environment unconsciously impress upon the individual life, and of the continual interaction of forces by which the course of life is changed more fundamentally than by less imperceptible influences. Both M. Romains and M. Barbusse perceive, as the fundamental factor influencing human life, the contraction and expansion of physical and spiritual relationship, the inevitable ebb and flow perceived by the poet who pointed out that we cannot touch a flower without troubling of a star.

M. Romains has found his literary medium in what he calls unanimism. While M. Barbusse would not claim to belong to the same school, and in fact would appear on the surface to be at the opposite pole of life in his philosophy, we shall find that his detachment, founded, though it is, upon solitude, takes essentially the same account of outside forces as the philosophy of M. Romains.

He perceives that each man is an island of illimitable forces apart from his fellows, passionately eager to live his own life to the last degree of self fulfilment, but continually thwarted by nature and by other men and women, until death interposes and sets the seal of oblivion upon all that he has dreamed and sought.

And he has set himself the task of disengaging, as far as possible, the purpose and hope of human life, of endeavouring to discover what promise exists for the future and how this promise can be related to the present, of marking the relationship between eternity and time, and discovering, through the tragedies of birth, love, marriage, illness and death, the ultimate possibility of human development and fulfilment.

"The Inferno" is therefore a tragic book. But I think that the attentive reader will find that the destructive criticism of M... Continue reading book >>

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