You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Uncivil Servant: A Novel of Provincial Pettiness Amid War

Mitchell Abidor
October 23, 2017

Discussed in this essay: Blood Dark by Louis Guilloux, translated by Laura Marris. NYRB Classics, 2017, 514 pages.

LOUIS GUILLOUX’S brilliant 1935 novel, Blood Dark (Le Sang Noir), is a classic and mordant portrait of provincial life in an unnamed provincial town modeled on Guilloux’s hometown of Saint-Brieuc in Brittany. (In the photo at top, Guilloux is shown at the far right among the men of Saint-Brieuc in 1934.) The events all occur over the course of one day in 1917, against a backdrop of the seemingly never-ending World War I and the distant but feared Bolshevik Revolution.

In her introduction to this volume, Alice Kaplan, who has written an excellent book on the experiences of Guilloux (1899-1980) as in interpreter for the U.S. Army during World War II titled, appropriately enough, The Interpreter, says that this “epic novel ranks among the most powerful depictions of World War I.” The war, which only appears offstage, serves as a catalyst for much of the meanness and pettiness of small-town life, with the men on the home front all too willing to support sending young men to their deaths in the trenches. Guilloux presents the petty ambitions and lubricious conduct of a Tartuffe-like high school teacher, a two-bit phony who is feared and hated by all the women in town; people organizing a charity event for wounded soldiers who are only too happy that the room in which the event is being held is too small to hold the actual wounded and their wheelchairs; fathers who encourage their sons to be brave and be killed in the fight, and the sons who are disgusted by their fathers who are encouraging them to be brave and be killed in the fight.

Young people in Blood Dark are in general disgusted with the France they are living in, the world they are living in, and dare hope for a world of poetry and fraternity. Their elders’ flaws are painted sharply and acutely by Guilloux, who writes movingly about Saint-Brieuc but left it for Paris as soon as he could.

KAPLAN’S INTRODUCTION exaggerates the centrality of the war, though. No one reading Blood Dark will see it as addressing “issues that are still matters of great contention among French historians of the Great War.” It does do that, but what matters most in the novel is the tragic and brilliant character of Cripure, the deformed, eccentric, mocked and reviled philosophy teacher at the local high school. Cripure is the derisive nickname given him by the students and adopted by all, derived from his love for Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, a book he quotes in class at every opportunity. Guilloux’s depiction of the character is a masterpiece of insight and sympathy for a character he knew well, for Cripure was based on his own philosophy teacher and longtime friend, the pessimist individualist philosopher Georges Palante. Palante, like Cripure, lived with an illiterate woman who understood nothing of his work and who destroyed the works she found in the house after his suicide. He was known around town as Schop, after Schopenhauer, whom he loved above all philosophers. Cripure, like his model Palante, suffers from acromegaly, a disease that resulted in abnormally long arms and outsized feet, making him an easy target for the wickedness of children.

Guilloux, who also wrote a touching book of memories of Palante called Souvenirs sur G. Palante, presents a précis of Cripure’s ideas, which, along with his personal eccentricities made him a hated figure among the adults and his fellow teachers. The mother of a student under his sway says of Cripure that she “wished [her son] had never met him, that no one had ever met that teacher of disorder, that enemy of family and society who didn’t believe in God or the devil and who spit evil around him like a tubercular man spits germs.”

Cripure is, indeed, full of contempt for the world around him, a world that he despises and which for the most part despises him. But it is Guilloux’s genius in Blood Dark to make Cripure a man who suffers not just from the ostracism of others, but also from the loss of a wife he loved to another man, and from the realization that in many ways he is like those he despises. “If only they knew how I envied them,” he says to himself. He is driven by self-doubt, hatred for others, and wounded pride. The genuine affection of the few who do care for him is unable to break through his carapace of loathing of himself and others.

In 1923, Palante engaged in an ugly polemic with his erstwhile friend, the philosopher Jules de Gaultier. The exchange grew venomous until Gaultier challenged Palante to a duel. Palante failed to respond to the challenge in time, and was considered to be in the wrong. Considering his honor to be irreparably stained, he never recovered from the shame of it and killed himself on August 5, 1925. Similar shame drives Cripure to his final act.

Camus, a friend of Guilloux’s, said of Blood Dark that it “is situated beyond despair and hope,” but the title of a work by Palante perhaps sums it up better: The Antinomies Between the Individual and Society. Or perhaps something Guilloux said in his Souvenirs sur G. Palante about Palante’s philosophy says it better still: it “is nothing but the history of Palante’s struggle with himself.” Blood Dark is the fictional transposition of that struggle. It is a beautiful novel of hopelessness.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.