Henri Barbusse (bar-byews) was poet, novelist, biographer, editor, and polemicist, but he is likely to be best remembered for his novels. He was born to an English mother and a French father, and though he lived some of his childhood years in England, he did not speak English in his mature life. In 1895, he published his only collection of poems, titled Pleureuses, and in 1903 he wrote his first novel, The Suppliants. He attracted the attention of Catulle Mendés, whose protégé he became and whose youngest daughter he married. In 1908, he published The Inferno; the hero of the book later served as a model for Colin Wilson’s “Outsider” because he had “awakened to chaos.”
Barbusse himself was something of an idealist about art and life. In 1914, believing in the righteousness of the cause and despite the fact that he was more than forty years old, frail, and newly recovered from tuberculosis, he joined the French army to fight in World War I. He requested frontline duty, which was granted. He won three citations for bravery in battle, but far more meaningful to him were his impressions of the filth, the futility, and the horror of war. When in 1916 he was invalided out by his third attack of dysentery, he drew on these memories for what became his most famous work, Under Fire: The Story of a Squad. The moral passion of the book, its frankness, and the author’s precise attention to detail won it the Prix Goncourt in 1917 and secured Barbusse’s reputation; the American edition alone went through seven printings in that year.
Thereafter, Barbusse involved himself increasingly with prose tracts intended to benefit humanity. He became one of those who saw hope for peace in communism. In 1930, he wrote a laudatory book on Russia, and in 1935 he published a biography of Joseph Stalin; both works seem excessively naïve to later readers, particularly the doting portrait of Stalin. Barbusse did not live to lose his beliefs; in 1935, while a delegate at the Seventh...
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