Antoine left with two stretchers, their bearers silent. They went on foot. In the depot at night you have to watch where you put your feet. The ground is full of traps and pitfalls, switch heads, ditches, and engines under steam, a tiny wisp of smoke coming from their stacks. Antoine was thinking. He did not take such deaths very easily. People said, “Accident at work.” And they tried to make you believe that work is a field of honor, while the company provides the widow with a pension, a niggardly pension, it parts with its pennies like a miser, it thinks that death is always overpaid; later it hires the sons of the dead and all is said.
Nothing is said. Every morning Antoine still saw on his arm the scar made by the explosion of a water gauge when he was an engineer. It dated from yesterday, this severing of a radial artery. He was “off the foot plate” too short a time not to feel close to men who die on their job from the blows of their profession. Engineers, people who give orders from afar, administrators, die in their beds more frequently than do the men of the train crews, firemen, conductors. General staffs rarely fall on the fighting line. How does one get reconciled to these things? Already there were so many stretchers in his memory, smashed chests, figures mangled like charred wool. He knew the life of the men who run the trains, their joys, their work, their code of honor, and their death, and now he was going to announce the final episode. It was a boss’s mission, the bosses announce the deaths and injuries. The bosses send messages of condolence. The bosses sometimes experience the uncomfortable feeling of guilt.
The stretcher bearers and Antoine arrived before the engineer’s house and then before that of the fireman. Antoine climbed their dark stairs, stifling his breath and muffling his tread as though to wake each new-made widow as late as possible, to delay the moment when he had at last to face the cries, the stammering of a woman blinded by the pepper of pain, befuddled by the coils of sleep. It was nevertheless necessary to knock and await the woman’s cough, the shuffling of her slippers, her fumbling with the latch. The door opened and all the warmth and security of the rooms evaporated. He entered the quiet semi-darkness as a thief, as a demon. And he spoke at first of wounds; he said, “We have brought him home.”
Then of severe wounds, then at last — and the wife had understood from the beginning — of death.
“Be brave, madame. It is a fatal accident.”
It left an unforgettable impression on his memory — the hastily lighted lamps, the plates on the oilcloth beside the wine bottle, the rigid bodies heavily borne to beds still warm from the women’s bodies, a dazed child standing in a corner, the widow’s wrath.
“You take away our men from us, you bring them back in pulp. Company of murderers!”
That night, Antoine discovered death. A certain death that he could not forgive himself.
To lay out the driver’s body on the bed, he had taken it in his arms. What terrible weight a dead man is. Besides the seventy-five or eighty kilos of his flesh, bones, and blood and all his fluids there is the weight of death itself, as though all the years the man had lived had suddenly accumulated in his body, weighing it down, coagulating like lead grown cold. A wounded man still knows how to make himself light; he has the magic warmth of his breathing, of his blood circulation, but this dead man was as rigid and motionless as marble. This dead man no longer looked like a man. Only his clothes were like all other clothes. Antoine held him tight, he embraced this body fraternally. Living men do not clasp each other thus, their bodies do not come into contact save through their hands. Embraces are decently reserved to love; men scarcely venture to touch each other. So it needed death for him to embrace this man.
Antoine could do nothing for him save stretch him out, and the weight of the dead man drew him toward the bed. He felt like saying to him, “Come on, old boy, help yourself a bit.”
He wanted to ask for forgiveness as though he had killed him with his own hands.
Introduction by Richard Elman
From the 1973 Monthly Review Press edition of Antoine BloyÃ©:
Paul Nizan never reached middle age. He died in 1940, aged thirty-five, with the French army at Dunkirk. He wrote six complete books: the novels Antoine BloyÃ©, La Conspiration [English title The Conspiracy, and Le Cheval de troie (translated in England as The Trojan Horse); two polemics, Les Chiens de garde (American edition, The Watchdogs) and Aden Arabie; and Chronique de Septembre. He had been a philosophy student of the idealist academician Leon Brunschvig at the Ecole Normale, a writer for L’HumanitÃ© and Le Soir, a Communist who broke with the party over the Hitler-Stalin pact. According to his former schoolmate Jean-Paul Sartre, he enjoyed the company of women. Nizan’s was a short though not an ordinary life and Antoine Bloyé is a major novel of such great intensity and compassion that its strength is still available to us. It is one of the truly great Marxist novels I know of, a work that incorporates the imagination of Marx to treat of the alienation of ordinary men from their fellow and their work, yet does so without once becoming scolding, combative, or sneering. It’s a thirties book that has not become time-locked.
This edition of Antoine BloyÃ© uses a translation that was published in the Soviet Union in 1935. Edmund Stevens, then Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, found a way to make hard, clear, intelligent English out of Nizan’s precise thoughtful French with its meditative echoes of Pascal. Published only a year before the Great Purges of Stalin, it must have had the force of novelty in party-hack Moscow literary circles. Nizan had been a Communist but, in literary matters, never a Sovietist. His literary inclinations were gravely modernist and French, and English publication of a novel such as this in the Soviet Union had to be something of an anomaly, explained perhaps by the fact that it was issued by the Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R..
… The power of this artist, she [Tilly Olsen] observed, had only once been expressed — in Antoine Bloyé, a book which she said had been important to her life. Tilly’s gift of mind was shortly thereafter followed by Nizan’s text.
The feelings aroused by my first encounter with Nizan’s funereal moral fiction remain with me even know, like a hurt one cannot forget. Tilly spoke of Bloyé in the reverential way that one reserves for masterpieces, although, as with any true masterpiece of this century, its language and feelings are understated, and much of the force of Nizan’s work derives from his ability to transform an ordinary life into a drama of suffering without redemption, of failure without pathos.
Antoine Bloyé’s terrible death in life was to manage his existence so that, in fact, he had never lived. Sartre tells us Nizan was obsessed by his father. All his life the man had cheated himself. He had led a life that denied his own humanity, his feelings. But within this parable of the career of the railway functionary is the choice each of us confronts, almost daily: to remain vivid and in touch with one’s experiences, to grow, to be one with one’s comrades, brothers, friends, and lovers; or to withdraw into oneself and bitterly await death, to suffer the slow, wasting passing of the timid, the intimidated, the encapsulated, the bourgeois whose life is wrapped “in cotton wool” (to use Nizan’s phrase), those whose selves have been shrunken into the deals they have made with their own lives. It is this constant test of humanity which Bloyé so plainly fails….
Antoine Bloyé is a child of the working class, a locomotive engineer who seeks to better himself by becoming petty bourgeois. He joins the bosses: he marries his boss’s daughter. At moments throughout his life, he is seized by a certain dull anger and regret. For he has given up everything in his life that was vivid for certain smug assurances. As Nizan puts it, “All his work only served to hide his essential unemployment…. There were times when he would have liked to quit the life he was leading and become someone new, a foreign someone who would be more like his real self….”
Time and again Nizan wants us to see Bloyé’s defeat as our contemporary defeat. It is the sort of life, Nizan tells us, that one could sum up in two brief obituary paragraphs in one of the provincial papers; that is just what he refuses to do. He treats Bloyé’s promise and vividness and yearnings empathically. He is able to make us accept, like breathing, the subtle social and political corruption of youthful spirit, that cruel banalization through marriage and getting on that our culture imposes on so many men as their rite of passage. He forces us to know this nobody — but never abstractly, as Camus might do, or with Sartre’s contempt. Bloyé is an authentic man set loose on a course of death, who lives in a world of schedules and trains, of honest accomplishments, domesticities, and occasional celebrations. He seeks to improve himself. He becomes declassed. He becomes a traitor. He dies alone, with only a wife to look after him, their pretense at love and sharing long a waste. His education has been to be selfish. He has been encouraged only to be isolated, greedy, and resentful, a mere atom, or monad. His oppression is the cultural — finally political — oppression directed against so many males; because they have been told they must get on, they must choke themselves emotionally….
… He wrote a book that is as current as the slogans of the best of our young people. It is a Marxist book: not only, or simply, because it sometimes incorporates into its analysis the language of Marxist economics as diction and metaphor with which to dramatize Bloyé’s betrayal; nor because its central event is a workaday life, its action the precise way in which the illusion of well-being is manipulated to imprison most of us and, in turn, to make us exploit our wives, our so-called friends, our mistresses, our children; but also because, as in most of Marx’s finest work, its instincts are poetic, its seeming prosiness is about a way of feeling that is materialist; and its expression is by psychological insight.
- Karl Miller, New York Review of Books, 15 November 1973
- There are those rare novels — Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep is one — for which the label of masterpiece always seems slightly beside the point. Both Antoine Bloyé
and Call It Sleep suffered the similar fate of being lost literary classics that had to wait a generation or so after their publication before being restored to their rightful literary place. Antoine Bloyé, although of an entirely different literary tradition than Call It Sleep, has the same obsessive, wounding power.
- Chicago Daily News
- Its revival is a gift to modern literature. No one writes this way any more: Nizan tells a story that can be read on many levels and is expressed with a classic use of language. Antoine Bloyé is in the tradition of the great novels … it concerns a man, a class and a society…. This is a profound book, profoundly moving and profoundly sad. It makes the reader examine himself; it causes him to look again at the world he lives in, at the life he has chosen…. It is not a long book, but it is beautiful, satisfying and unforgettable…. This masterpiece will spur many readers to fill their lives, to search for the secret….
- James Atlas, The Nation, 22 October 1973
- Now, what distinguishes Paul Nizanâ€™s Antoine Bloyé from the work of his fellow writers in France is the manner in which it illustrates the character of dialectical materialism–from the inside–without sacrificing the aesthetic possibilities of realism….
… It is a matter of real importance, then, that we have this translation of his best novel, not only, because Antoine Bloyé is a brilliant example of modern European literature but because it can serve to refine our awareness of the life and work of a significant literary figure….
What makes Nizan,s chronicle of a wasted life so vivid is the author,s awareness of Bloyés human possibilities. Writing from within the mind of an “ordinary” man, he was able to depict the circumstances, emotions and desires, the consciousness of which is necessarily diminished in those whom labor has robbed of the abillty to reflect. School, sexual adventures, marriage into a bourgeois family, the death in early childhood of a daughter; the birth of a son, promotions, vacations: these are mere events, and their qualities as lived experience he buried beneath obligation and blind will. Nizan tells us that Antoine Bloyé wasn’t “meditative,” that “events rolled past without his taking notice.” But the texture of Nizan’s prose, viscous and laden with sensation, imitates the world through which Bloyé moves. While his own life is crushed, “caught like an insect in this quivering web of railway lines,” the richness of the natural world surrounds him like a penumbra of unrealized hope. And that is what is most remarkable about Nizan’s achievement. Despite Antoine Bloyés docility, he sees, through the lens of Nizan’s sensibility, the world’s possibilities: the heaviness and indolence of Sunday, summer evenings on the waterfront, the memories of childhood whose atmosphere settled over the dinner table on visits to his parents’ home.