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...
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