Memory Troubles

Remembering the Occupation in Simone de Beauvoir's Les Mandarins

in French Politics, Culture & Society
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Critics generally agree that Beauvoir's novel Les Mandarins, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1954, is an important work of historical fiction, chronicling the lives and loves of left-wing intellectuals in Paris during the years following World War II. In this essay I argue that Les Mandarins is as much about the war as about the postwar, and that its meaning for contemporary readers was deeply linked (even if not in a fully recognized way) to memories of the troubled period of the Occupation. I develop the concept of “ambivalent memory,” as it refers in particular to two of the most problematic aspects of that period: the role of the Vichy government in the persecution of Jews, and the ambiguities and disagreements concerning the Resistance. More generally, the novel raises questions about memory and its inevitable obverse, forgetting. It is from our own contemporary perspective, heavily informed by concerns over memory and World War II, that this aspect of Les Mandarins comes to the fore.