Georges Duhamel Essay - Critical Essays

Duhamel, Georges

Duhamel, Georges 1884–1966

A French novelist, essayist, short story writer, playwright, and poet, Duhamel is a seriously neglected writer (outside of France) whose novel sequence Salavin is a classic of world literature. Duhamel's outstanding characteristics are his compassionate understanding of society's outcasts and his psychological depth. His simple and lucid writing is enriched by an abundance of strikingly original metaphors and infusions of warm humor. It is Duhamel's humor, in fact, which tempers an essentially tragic view of humanity. Dostoevski was an obvious influence, while today's existentialists might well claim Salavin as a forerunner of the modern anti-hero found in the works of Camus and Sartre. Duhamel has written under the pseudonym Denis Thevenin. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Georges Duhamel enjoyed the advantage of clear prose and an apparently effortless and smooth narrative, which designated him as the successor to Anatole France. His work, however, wore thin after he had drawn on his war experience and on his postwar vision of men bound by friendship and a kindly desire to rebuild a better world. His long and facile saga-novel, Chronique des Pasquier, in spite of occasional charm and freshness, fails to hold the attention of readers; Duhamel's one determined attempt to renovate his inspiration, after World War II, with Le Voyage de Patrice Périot (1951) resulted in an unconvincing picture of a doctor's family torn by ideological feuds and of naïve scientists becoming the playthings of political exploiters. These novels start auspiciously and are delineated in pleasing and precise outlines, displaying a gift for draftsmanship, which has become a rarity nowadays. They breathe a human warmth that is also rare in the pessimistic literature of our age. But they fail to expand and to be sustained to the end by sufficient creative fire. It is sad to nourish an author's energy more persistently than pity and love. (p. 46)

Duhamel tempers his picture of man with humor. His sentimentality is closer to the tragic kind that is found in Russian fiction. His characters lay their hearts bare with humility and a passion for abject confession of their weaknesses and sins; but they do not revel in it with the pride of sinners who wish to unbosom their secrets so as to make room for more sins in their unburdened souls.

The lifelong concern of Duhamel, apparent in all his essays, reminiscences, and novels, is one that he shared with Charles Péguy, Romain Rolland, Jules Romains, and other writers of his period: an idealistic impulse to save men. Duhamel, like young Péguy, then an unbeliever, turned all his meditations around the categorical imperative inspired by Joan of Arc: 'One must save.' But save whom? For men are stubbornly reluctant to be saved…. Duhamel smiles at the men and women whom he wants to continue loving in spite of themselves. He is not blind to the disappointments that an optimist must endure, and all his novels display the gradual collapse of a rosy dream. He will not seek a solution in an easy catchword, tendered by Christianity, which he respected but never professed, or in science, which he always admired, though he was aware of its limitations. Friendship is the feeling of which he spoke most nobly (in Deux Hommes especially); like Romains, Vildrac, and later Malraux and Saint-Exupéry, he would have liked to build a virile and warm regeneration of mankind upon friendship, that is, upon the most beautiful of all words and ideals proposed by humanism and by Christianity—fraternity. (p. 48)

Henri Peyre, in his French Novelists of Today (copyright © 1967 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press-Galaxy, 1967.

Though his novels are mainly concerned with the adventures of individuals supposedly seen in terms of their situation in the twentieth century, the climate of Duhamel's work is clearly related to the traditional values and beliefs of a pre-World War I "petite bourgeoisie"; this may explain both its wide appeal and its fundamental insignificance in the development of the novel. Duhamel's humanism is sincere and his concern with the frustrations and joys of the man in the street is real, but the rather facile sentimentality of his approach, the naïve ethical evangelism of his attitude, based on vague spiritual values, hamper the creative artist he might have been. The long list of his essays and articles, their monotony and increasing self-righteousness, reveal Duhamel's intellectual limitations. (p. 63)

"Georges Duhamel or the Bourgeois Saved" is the apt title of a critical essay on Duhamel. The bourgeois may or may not need salvation, but his salvation as a bourgeois is not a very potent theme in a novel. Duhamel's faith in the values of honesty, affection, hard work, art, selflessness and devotion to humanity is above reproach, as is also his faith in the capacity of individuals to achieve ethical and spiritual greatness. He wants to put his readers into contact with those realities. But Duhamel's so-called realism moves out of the realm of objectivity. Ethical judgments are given as facts and a personal moral view as an objective truth. It is actually a form of personal idealism that imposes its limitations on the novelist. It rejects, a priori, whole segments of human experience, just as Duhamel rejects our mechanically conditioned age. Busily engaged now in putting old wine into old bottles, Duhamel becomes increasingly conventional. His books, after the Salavin cycle [Vie et aventures de Salavin (1920–32)], lack that generous and total involvement in life that characterizes the living novel. In a sense Duhamel is the Anatole France of his generation, but a France in whom earnestness has displaced whimsicality. The violence of the times proved too powerful for Duhamel to cope with. (pp. 66-7)

Germaine Brée and Margaret (Otis) Guiton, in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus (copyright © 1957 by Rutgers, The State University; reprinted by permission of the Rutgers University Press), Rutgers, 1957 (and reprinted as The French Novel: From Gide to Camus, Harcourt, 1962).

As a short-story writer Duhamel donned his magnifying lenses, sharpened all the tools at his disposal which would help him observe his surroundings more accurately, and became a devotee of le mot juste. In each of his stories, he first outlined the situation in general, then set about filling out the various phases of the action. Uppermost, however, were the characters. These were pertinently described, in short, pithy sentences. Exteriors were focused upon first; then the surgeon-writer reached deeply into the interior of his creatures and, from there, viewed the world about him, discovering a more profound and meaningful reality: "This region of reality has its believers, of which I am one. It can even boast of having its fanatics, which I prefer not to be." Once the characters had come into full view, they lived their existence boldly or fitfully, pitifully or cruelly, according to their natures and environments.

Duhamel … was particularly interested in studying the human heart in its most sordid, cruel, and tender aspects. His vision of human suffering, noted in his war books, is again brought to the fore in his short stories, but in a different manner, frequently through satire and irony. He displays, moreover, a great flair for building suspense, a talent for creating an atmosphere of fright and awe. These devices were virtually unnecessary in his war books, since the subject itself was sufficiently horrendous and gruesome.

The title, The Abandoned Men (Les Hommes abandonnés) (1921), which Duhamel chose for his first volume of short stories, is indeed apt. The men whose lives he depicts and etches so forcefully on paper are all "abandoned" souls, rejected by society in some way, incapable of relating to others, solitary, inexplicably aggressive and introverted…. They are, for the most part, either evil in intent or the victims of some cruel act…. What is of extreme interest … is Duhamel's preoccupation, in this period, with questions of evil. (pp. 80-1)

Stylistically speaking, Duhamel's talent for storytelling is never better displayed than in The Abandoned Men. The humble lives of ordinary people are dramatized with objectivity yet with great warmth, but the treatment is never maudlin, even under the most gruesome of circumstances. The contrast in personalities, as well as the nature descriptions which frequently mirror the characters of the protagonists, make for powerful effects. (p. 81)

Literary endeavors are to be based on real-life experiences, Duhamel suggested, this being the only authentic manner of writing. The world, filled with infinite mysteries, is rich enough, he maintained, to be an eternal source of nourishment for the creative mind. Reality, however, must not be presented as is; it must be offered readers with artistry, sobriety, and reserve. Duhamel further elaborated: everything introduced into a novel must be related and intertwined and must create a type of fondu from its disparate parts, of which truth becomes the alpha and omega of the entire work. A literary endeavor must grow like a tree, have a solid foundation, give off strong shoots which eventually grow into firm and beautiful branches.

Duhamel never set down any detailed techniques for writing. Each author, he believed, must find his own reality and express it in simple and forceful terms. Prose, he intimated, should follow the rhythms of respiration, and since each writer is possessed of his own mechanism and personality, his work will have its own individual tempo. The sound of prose must likewise be varied, as is its meter. Tonal structure should include the variegated ranges implicit in the human voice. Prose, consequently, must possess the differences present in nature as well as its measured harmonies.

The Prince of Jaffar (Le Prince de Jaffar) (1924) is a work difficult to categorize. Strictly speaking, it is not a novel, nor is it an essay or a travelogue. It has the trademarks of each of these types. In it Duhamel relates, with clarity and objectivity, his impressions of Tunisia and the influences that country has undergone. (pp. 83-4)

Duhamel's intention is not to underline the differences existing between Occidental and Oriental civilizations but rather to depict man and his customs as he observes them, both outwardly and inwardly. When watching a veiled woman walk about the marketplace, for example, or a man in a burnoose, Duhamel leads his reader on—ever so gently—to examine the inner realm, thoughts, beliefs, the very souls of these people. (p. 84)

Duhamel succeeds in arousing his reader's interest through his sensitive portrayals of so many types ranging from the penurious to those wallowing in luxury and joy. His local-color tones, his images so sharply incised, enhance the meaning and flavor of this volume. It might be added that Duhamel's compassion, as always, comes to the fore, in his feelings of pity for the suffering and his anger directed at the oppressors who take advantage—everywhere and at all periods—of the less fortunate, the weak, and the ignorant. (p. 85)

What stands out most vividly in this novel is Duhamel's ability to depict his protagonist's feelings of solitude in terms of nature….

Though Horeb's Stone is in many ways autobiographical since it describes Duhamel's own school days, his work in the laboratory, his rapport with his co-workers and co-students, it gives, nevertheless, an impression of artificiality at certain times. A contrived tone is most apparent when dealing with love episodes. Duhamel seems hampered, even prudish, when trying to depict feelings of love and sensuality. This may be due to his lack of experience in writing about this aspect of life. Because he fails to yield to a spirit of abandon, the novel as a whole is marred and does not seem authentic.

The Stormy Night (La Nuit d'Orage) (1928) which varies considerably from Duhamel's previous novel, is one of his most fascinating works up to this time. It is exotic in nature and, because of the excitement it generates, it brings to mind Théophile Gautier's The Romance of the Mummy and Balzac's Wild Ass's Skin (La Peau de Chagrin). More than titillating the senses and the imagination, however, The Stormy Night dramatizes a certain psychological state which we refer to today as psychosomatic illness. (p. 86)

The essay form … served Duhamel well. It became a splendid vehicle for his biting irony, satire, and jocularity. (p. 88)

Whether Duhamel levels his sarcasms at orators, who are so narcissistic as to have become infatuated with their own voices; or at those who are overly gullible and believe anything and everything, falling victim, thereby, to the stentorian voices of self-proclaimed gods; or at those who are convinced that life's problems can be answered with simple formulas and so succumb immediately to various political groups (whether leftist or rightist), without applying reason and logic to their attitude—his slings and arrows always penetrate deeply. (pp. 88-9)

Though the literary and scientific world always attracted Duhamel, he never once forgot his war experiences. These had so traumatized him that they had altered his entire attitude toward life. Indeed, he felt that the horrendous aspects of the war—as gruesome and painful as they might be—should be kept before the public's eye. He was convinced that torture, blood, gore could be instrumental in helping pacifists such as he to avert another conflagration. Who would want to suffer? Who would want to inflict pain? For this reason, every now and then, Duhamel produced a work treating of the war and its aftermath. Let man contemplate his own destructive side, the devastation he has wrought, then perhaps he will work for peace.

In The Last Seven Wounds (Les Sept dernières plaies) (1928), Duhamel takes his readers back to the World War I periods, to a hospital at the front where he had been a surgeon. He recounts, with an irony and a bitterness tinged with pathos—always with extreme understanding—certain case histories…. (p. 89)

Duhamel … was never one-sided. Whenever depicting the sordid aspects of modern society or humanity in general, he always counterbalanced his literary endeavor with its opposite, man's eternal search for serenity, his notions of joy and well-being. Duhamel, who reacted so deeply to the beauties of nature, responded equally forcefully to the canvases of Maurice de Vlaminck. He appreciated the turbulence and the violence which his friend, Vlaminck, injected into his landscapes, and noted these in an essay, Vlaminck (1927). (p. 90)

Scenes from the Life of the Future is probably the most violent attack on overcommercialization and overindustrialization that Duhamel ever wrote. It was completed shortly after he had returned from a brief visit to the United States (1928), a visit which included stops at New Orleans, Chicago, New York, and several other cities. In many respects this anti-American diatribe, as many people have labeled it, is quite a superficial work in that there is no attempt to evaluate the positive and negative accomplishments of a young people. Furthermore, it reveals an utter skimpiness of knowledge of both the country and its inhabitants. (p. 92)

Duhamel began the cycle of the Pasquier family in 1933 and terminated it, ten volumes later, in 1944. Though he invented nothing new in terms of structure, his work remains fascinating because he succeeded in enticing his readers into the heart of a bourgeois milieu. There, he permits each of the individuals to burgeon forth, to develop, and at the same time to beguile or anger the reader who is forever responding to the various acts, ideas, longings, and quixotic antics presented him. With extreme simplicity and dexterity, Duhamel depicts the workings, both psychological and intellectual, of each member of the Pasquier family. These characters are never static, but rather evolve as they normally would in the workaday world—positively or negatively. Duhamel does not describe a character just once and then permit him to vanish. Rather, he proceeds in an impressionistic manner. Each time the reader confronts a certain personality, the descriptions are slightly altered, depending upon who views the protagonists, as well as upon the action involved. In this manner Duhamel succeeds in creating a feeling of fleeting time, of life as in a state of flux.

Duhamel ushers his reader into an everyday world, in which feelings are uppermost. Though the author is the supreme manipulator of his characters, they seem to move according to their own dictates. Duhamel never compels them into one path or forces them to adopt a certain and intransigent point of view. On the contrary, one feels that they are free individuals in their own right, that the author experiences their pathos, anguish, anger, moods of all types. Their daily life, therefore, becomes accessible to the reader through a variety of techniques adopted by the author: portraits, analyses, dialogues, descriptions, and narrative devices. Scenes are frequently described in order to lure the reader into a state of direct participation. He then considers the event in question, in terms of his own world; the characters' presence, both visual and psychological, conveys within him the impression of actuality. (pp. 104-05)

The Notary from Le Havre is a tightly woven work. Every aspect of this novel—from the fleeting descriptions of friends and neighbors to the family scenes, from the outer world of matter to the inner realm of feeling, from the rueful to the hilarious situations—is dexterously connected to the body of the saga. There is not one extraneous element to mar the general pattern drawn by the author. (p. 106)

There is another important protagonist in this novel: the city of Paris. Duhamel had brought this city to life in the Salavin series, thereby forming an important nucleus for the novel. He does likewise for the Pasquier works. The city thus becomes an intrinsic part of the Pasquiers' daily existence. The tortuous streets and avenues with their particularly pungent odors take on a life of their own as do the dismal parks and their shabby trees and stunted bushes. The various domiciles of the Pasquiers' also emerge as living beings—the Impasse Vandame, for example, with its lower bourgeois families, and the many abodes into which they are forever moving, both comfortable and distressingly small, sunny and dismal. Paris, as described by Duhamel, imposes itself in an utterly human manner upon the reader. (p. 108)

The Garden of the Savage Beasts [1934] is primarily a drama of adolescence. It describes the pain a young lad [Laurent Pasquier] experiences when first confronted with the world about him, when just emerging from the protective realm of innocence and childhood into the imprévu world at large, filled with ugliness and terror. "The world order was imperiled and my position in the heart of this world, perturbed; it seemed rather frightening." (p. 109)

Duhamel's detailed account of [Laurent's sister] Cécile's performance of a Mozart sonata is not only accurately transcribed, but the sensitivity and the impression the notes make upon Laurent as he listens is most unusually portrayed. All the senses, including the visual, are aroused. Duhamel infuses the reader with his own sentiments concerning music: that it is beyond description, that it nourishes and is a faithful companion at all moments of life, in joy as well as in sorrow.

One is always impressed in Duhamel's novels with his great feeling for nature in all of its phases. His finely etched portraits of clouds, as they move their massive hulks to and fro, of a solitary leaf, of the sounds emanating from foliage, from the onrush of water, those which cajole or jar the ear—all are imbued with depth and feeling. Indeed, the opening paragraph of The Garden of the Savage Beasts, a description of fish imprisoned in an aquarium, might accurately synthesize or symbolize everything that will transpire during the course of the novel. The Pasquiers are looked upon as a microcosm of the world, prisoners within its fold.

Exiled from native sands, captives in some glass aquarium, at the bottom of a laboratory … the small coastal animals continue, by means of a secret warning, to obey the rhythms of the tide, descending at floodtide, rising when the ebb uncovers the distant coast.                               (p. 112)

A View of the Promised Land, [1934, third volume of the Pasquier story] is centered around Laurent's glimpse of the promised land, that is, of independence and maturity. With infinite finesse, it recounts his inner struggles, his development, and his final break with his adolescent world and the subservient existence he has previously lived out vis-à-vis his family…. (p. 113)

The fourth volume in this series, Saint John's Eve (La Nuit de la Saint-Jean) (1935), is narrated by Justin Weill. A victim of World War I, he has left a diary which his mother finds and sends on to Laurent. After certain changes, the manuscript is published….

Saint John's Eve is probably the least interesting of the Pasquier series. There is little or no development of personality but rather a restatement of what we already know concerning the protagonists…. (p. 115)

The remainder of the characters introduced in this volume seem contrived, as though especially invited to [Laurent's brother] Joseph's home in order to hurt Laurent even further. None is sharply delineated nor sympathetic in any way. (p. 116)

It is Duhamel's extraordinary ability to re-create the excitement of youth—the ardor, the passion to succeed, even the disillusionment—which makes for the interest of [The Bièvres Desert (1937)]. With great tenderness, coupled with feelings of nostalgia and whimsy, Duhamel recounts the step-by-step change which each of the protagonists experiences. "We want to restore purity," they say. "Manual labor is in a way a type of sacred law." (pp. 118-19)

[The Masters' (1937)] main theme is the portrayal of the dichotomy existing between two types of individuals: the cold, rational and objective scientist who thinks only in terms of his work and not the people involved [personified in the character of Laurent's superior, Rohner]; and the other type, which includes objective but tender and understanding workers who are involved in humanity's problems [personified by the scientist Chalgrin].

Duhamel attempts and succeeds in examining both types of men, who exist not only in scientific groups but in all walks of life. (p. 119)

[In Cecile Among Us (1938), as in Duhamel's work as a whole,] music is such an intense experience, such an integral part of his being, that [Duhamel] translates or transposes the effect of these tonal modulations in terms of his own senses and ideas: the notes caress his soul; they gnaw at his vitals; they soothe or arouse him as the case may be; they inflame or bring forth feelings of pathos, despondency—even anger. It is through music that both Duhamel and his characters, Laurent most particularly in this volume, are transported into another world, a realm of infinite beauty—and also sorrow. The manner in which Duhamel recounts the transition from the musical note to the emotion is valuable and meaningful. (p. 122)

The Struggle Against Shadows [1939] takes us into a world thoroughly familiar to Duhamel: that of the laboratory. In this instance, he takes an intransigent attitude and speaks forth clearly through Laurent. Scientists devoted to their professions, he maintains, should not become involved with any political group. Their lives should be devoted to science. There is no room in any laboratory for a political appointee interested merely in self-aggrandizement, in ego-building. The researcher's task is to help humanity as a whole; he should, therefore, be above the petty concerns of routine living and move steadily toward the scientific goal he has set for himself. In a way, the laboratory in The Struggle Against Shadows is comparable to the community described in The Bièvres Desert, in which each individual is dedicated to some artistic endeavor. The outstanding difference, however, is that the material problems of those working in a laboratory are taken care of, whereas in The Bièvres Desert these arose to plague the group. The scientist is concerned with the application of methods and the work involved. (p. 123)

Though interesting in the main for broaching the problem of a girl in love with the theatre, there is remarkably little suspense in [Suzanne and the Young Men]. The characters are not drawn in depth, the action is repetitious and tedious. The idyllic situation depicted has already been created and more forcefully in The Bièvres Desert…. It is more a subjective recounting of Duhamel's ideal than a well constructed novel….

Joseph Pasquier's Passion (La Passion de Joseph Pasquier) (1944), the last of the Pasquier series, analyzes Joseph's world and his downfall. (p. 124)

In this final volume of the Pasquiers, Duhamel is in the process of tying all the strings together. A sense of doom and futility reigns in the novel. Laurent stands out as the only one who has found true happiness in life and in his work. Joseph, who has spent his years amassing a fortune, gathers nothing more into his orbit than problems. (p. 125)

Certainly the writing of these ten volumes was a fulfilling experience for Duhamel, perhaps even more satisfying than the Salavin group. With the latter, Duhamel's range had been sharply restricted: one main character, his foibles and development; a series of peripheral characters who appeared most frequently in one volume and disappeared as rapidly thereafter. The central anecdotes were also limited in scope, since Salavin's abilities were far from varied. The Pasquier volumes, on the contrary, take the reader into various métiers and trades, several strata of society, which are all described in detail, as is every member of the Pasquier family. Moreover, Duhamel introduces absolutely intriguing [peripheral characters] who are drawn with depth and finesse. In this manner the author could better express his own ideas concerning science, politics, literature, the theater, music, and children.

Though Duhamel had his own social and moral code, the Pasquier series cannot really be looked upon as "thesis" novels. Quite true, Duhamel denigrated the materialism of anyone who, like Joseph, believed money to be the sine qua non of life; he believed fervently in honor and integrity as virtues capable of bringing one fulfillment and happiness; he was certain that love and kindness, man's most admirable gifts, should be central to one's relationships throughout life. Yet he did not fly the banner of the "thesis" novel as did Emile Zola and the Goncourt brothers. Duhamel's intention was limited in this respect to the creation of a family and the dramatization of its course through life…. (pp. 126-27)

Bettina L. Knapp, in her Georges Duhamel (copyright 1972 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1972.