André Schwarz-Bart Essay - Critical Essays

Schwarz-Bart, André (Vol. 2)

Schwarz-Bart, André 1928–

A French novelist, Schwarz-Bart won the Prix Goncourt for The Last of the Just. His latest novel is A Woman Named Solitude.

[In] the atmospheres of the two Rousseaus, Jean-Jacques and Henri, the peace [in A Woman Named Solitude] is created, then exploded; and along with Bayangumay's troubles, Schwarz-Bart's begin. The viewpoint, which has been (let's call it) intelligent-primitive, now interweaves with the viewpoints of white characters and of the author….

The parallel with The Last of the Just goes deeper than the fact that both of Schwarz-Bart's books are chronicles of oppression, ending with the death of the protagonist and the quasi-mystical effect of that death. Fundamentally the author is writing about waste: the waste of the humanity of the persecuted group and also of the persecutors. He quickly dispels any suspicion on the reader's part of patronization: that after sophisticated Jewish culture, he is looking amiably at simple African culture. His best triumph may be that, without any smell of the lamp or of propaganda, he has made the blacks, in Africa and in Guadeloupe, members of a complex and rich culture, less familiar to us in character and referents than Jewish culture but full of courtesies, truths, and contradictions, as any culture should be. He does particularly well with the range of attitudes and memories in a group some of whom were born free and some slave; nor does he blink facts—some of them had been slaves in Africa to black owners.

The concept of the book is purer than its execution; the constantly mixed views blur it somewhat. And there is a touch of conscious Gothic grandeur in the way Schwarz-Bart makes Solitude a legend in her lifetime and after—she even chooses her own new, self-dramatizing name. We are given to understand that much of her story is based on fact; still there is inflation in the handling. But, with its shortcomings, the new book achieves, on a smaller scale, some of the quality of the first: paradox. It becomes an idyll of horror.

Stanley Kauffmann, in World, January 30, 1973, pp. 76-8.

André Schwarz-Bart, whose prize-winning The Last of the Just appeared here in 1960, has extended his range in this new novel from the horrors of European Jewry in our times to the West African slave trade of the eighteenth century and the plight of Caribbean slaves during the French Revolution. The extension is rightly based on the assumption that the suffering of enslaved peoples is universal—and the perhaps more questionable assumption that one diaspora is pretty much like another—but a good deal of the passion and immediacy of his first novel seem to have been lost along the way….

Schwarz-Bart so distances himself from the material (Solitude, being more myth than human, is also rather abstract) that his novel lacks the texture that involves a reader in fiction. He has created, instead, something like a jungle painting by le douanier Rousseau—one of those lush, still dreams whose only tension is the threat of the intangible.

The language (in this translation, at any rate) works hard to produce this kind of effect: the author is given to expressions like "there were clouds in the sky of his gaze" and to moments of people staring into the distance, singing haunting folk songs like reveries, or laughing into space. There are virtually no relationships at all in the novel, just people glancing off each other for their close-ups, each one meant to be a parable of historical trauma.

Schwarz-Bart depends heavily on our shared response to the horror of the situation, but since he does not make us share its experience it seems a little easy, like coming out against war. A Woman Named Solitude is a book so eager to make a statement (and confident of its reception), but so detached and unsure of its approach, that it keeps slipping away, depending on the reader to supply the emotions that would bring it to life. This is incantation without the background that makes it meaningful.

Jack Spencer, "Still Life in Guadeloupe," in Saturday Review of the Arts (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, February, 1973; used with permission), February, 1973, p. 66.

Between 1959, when he won the Prix Goncourt for his first novel, The Last of the Just, and now, André Schwarz-Bart has published only one book: Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes (1967), so far untranslated into English. Clearly, his is a selective and economical sensibility incapable of being stampeded or seduced into output for output's sake. Rather, its motion is patiently to distill experience until an epitome has formed that transcends him, thus permitting him a degree of impersonality unfamiliar in French novelists since Camus. No anti-novelist, Schwarz-Bart is more a meta-novelist, for whom fictional artifice exists only to record and dramatize his conscience. Anyone looking for narcissistic squeeze-and-tease à la Robbe-Grillet, or for mathematical infra-puzzles à la Raymond Queneau, should leave this book [A Woman Named Solitude] alone: far from being à la mode, it has something timeless to it, and non-spatial as well….

French reviewers (a predictable lot) haven't failed to point out how this new novel renews Schwarz-Bart's commitment to the walking wounded of history, to martyrs and victims, and how it supplies an overt analogy between the tragedy of deported slaves and that of persecuted Jews. All true; but the book's appeal (and major virtue) isn't historical, ideological, or even moral, but psychological—as if, say, Georges Bernanos (one of Schwarz-Bart's favorites) had re-created a character of Amos Tutuola's, and the result is something (someone) eschatologically exotic, rippling with nuance and prepossessing openness. Solitude, as she calls herself, is more vivid than even the culture amid which she toils; her physical presence doesn't fluctuate, even within a prose that can enliven and intensify itself nonstop with … colorful native sayings…. In other words, Schwarz-Bart's style (ably rendered by the translator, Ralph Manheim) continuously sets Solitude in relief against a rainbow context….

From Gabriel García Márquez we not so long ago had One Hundred Years of Solitude, and now we have 179 pages of what sounds like the same. I wish there had been more: as much of this one as of the other. SchwarzBart is the severer writer of the two, but his exoticism is just as compelling as that of [García] Márquez….

Paul West, "An Echo, a Pendant, an Emblem of Sacrifice," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 4, 1973, p. 5.

Reading is believing. ["A Woman Named Solitude"] must be read to be believed. Surely it shouldn't be possible to tell the tortures of slavery in the manner of a fairy tale and still convey the extent of the atrocity. Or if that torture of human flesh and spirit can be so conveyed, then surely it can't be possible to distill esthetic pleasure from this bestiality, page by page, and an awesome serenity from revulsion itself. "Once upon a time," André Schwarz-Bart begins, "on a strange planet, there was a little black girl named Bayangumay."

With the brevity of the Brothers Grimm and the deftness of an anthropologist, Schwarz-Bart paints the life of a West African culture in the mid-18th century, evoking all its details through the eyes of the little black girl. One of the most interesting achievements of this short book, however, is the speed with which world views—whole and fully articulated—collapse into other world views, as the perceiving mind cracks under the weight of history….

[The black girl] becomes, in short, a legend. And to her legend Schwarz-Bart matches the style of his narrative, with emphasis on oral traditions, repetition of phrases, condensation of events and frequent ellipsis. Even for the characteristic economy of French fiction, this is incisive work, a saga pared to its epic bones. In "A Woman Named Solitude" suffering is mute; where style will not serve, silence will….

In "A Woman Named Solitude," André Schwarz-Bart will play no games at all. He has arrived at a condition of passionate detachment that can, and does, make literature out of agony…. In Schwarz-Bart one has the sense that seeing is disbelieving, that the price of belief in historical and personal pain is either madness or reverence. This novel, written by a French descendant of Polish Jews who did not survive the 20th-century extermination, by a novelist who happens to be married to a West Indian woman descended from the earlier horror, testifies to the oneness of suffering. On the last page of the epilogue "the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto," still standing in the shadows of the author's will to write, emerge explicitly from the background of the work, and two sundered strands of the ceaseless human holocaust are joined together.

Alan Friedman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1973, p. 1.

A Woman Named Solitude is a beautiful book, told in a dreamlike flow of images that is well served by Ralph Manheim's sober, underplayed English translation. But that beauty is "European" and "literary," a medium in which concern and compassion seem to confess their helplessness to penetrate and merge with an alien consciousness….

Schwarz-Bart, I feel, gets as close as a white writer probably can to an experience from which his own culture excludes him, but I suspect that a black writer would have wanted to do it differently. (Whether he could, so long after the white man laid his "thought-eggs" in black minds, as one of the Guadeloupe rebels puts it, is a painful question.)…

I don't know how Schwarz-Bart could pay tribute to the black experience of white history more honorably than by associating it with a horror closer to home. But the association seems partly false and sentimental nevertheless, a sign of unavoidable imaginative frustration. To equate Solitude and her people with the martyrs of Warsaw involves a degree of generalizing that, in the name of an impartial "humanity" of feeling, may misrepresent both cases.

No admirer of Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just will be surprised to hear that A Woman Named Solitude is the work of a conscientious and gifted writer and, more important, a good man, and it will benefit us all to read it. But it shows, I think, that the greatest tragedy of the history it tries to recover is that none of us will ever quite know what it was like.

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), March 22, 1973, pp. 30-1.