The Don Quixote of Bourgeois Ruin
Louis Guilloux and Albert Camus
From The New Republic:
Albert Camus considered Blood Dark one of the few French novels to rival the great Russian epics. “I know of no one today who can make characters come alive the way you do,” he wrote to Guilloux in 1946. Guilloux, Camus said later, was uniquely attuned to the sorrow of others, but he was never a novelist of despair.
Camus was only one of many French writers at the forefront of literary life in the 1930s and ’40s who considered Blood Dark a masterpiece. Louis Aragon said that Cripure was the Don Quixote of bourgeois ruin; André Gide said that the novel had made him lose his footing. On the left, Guilloux’s contemporaries understood Blood Dark as an important political response to Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s nihilistic Journey to the End of the Night, published three years earlier. “The truth of this life is death,” Céline wrote in Journey, and Guilloux responded: “It’s not that we die, it’s that we die cheated.” The publisher used that line on a paper band around the book cover. For French intellectuals in the 1930s, there was a crucial difference between Céline and Guilloux: Both writers denounced the patriotic lies that lead men to their deaths, but for Céline the violence of man to man was inevitable, biological. Guilloux, by contrast, held out hope for fraternity and for collective struggle. In his world, and in his fiction, there were always causes worth fighting for, always zones of tenderness.
When Blood Dark missed winning France’s biggest literary prize, the Goncourt (just as Journey to the End of the Night had missed it in 1932), Guilloux’s fellow writers, among them Gide, Dorgelès, and Aragon, as well as Paul Nizan and André Malraux, protested by organizing a public meeting to laud his vision and underline his blazing critique of war and human hypocrisy.
Literary historians of existentialism have argued that Blood Dark launched the notion of the absurd well in advance of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, and Camus’s The Stranger. Yet Guilloux is often dismissed as a regionalist. In fact he was a transnational writer at a time when many of his contemporaries were taken up with ingrown literary rivalries.