Chester W. Obuchowski
Inasmuch as war looms large in Les Bêtes and lies at the very center of Le Temps des morts Gascar impresses one as being of that class of writers, of which Ludwig Renn and Norman Mailer are prominent representatives, who achieve by far their highest literary flights under its crushing impact.
With Les Bêtes it is the world of Kafka born anew: strange, somber, mysterious, irrational, eternally menacing. The animals, swarming everywhere, quail helplessly before the onslaughts of their human tormentors, who, in their turn, fail not only to breach the curtain of incomprehension isolating the species but also that which segregates them from their fellow creatures. And in the three most powerful stories, those directly embraced within this study, a Kafkaesque dream-like haze envelops the impotent animals and anguished humans, overlying the world of reality and lending an air of timelessness to their tragic situation.
Not necessarily intended as such, "Les Chevaux," the book's opening selection, can readily be taken to be a strong indictment of war…. Throughout, war is ingeniously painted as epic chaos and a massacre des innocents. (pp. 327-28)
The grim face of war again terrorizes men and animals alike in "Les Bêtes," which gives its title to the volume. A masterly contrived piece, it would rate inclusion in any anthology of contemporary short stories…. In a world gone mad, in a concentrationary world, humans thus become dehumanized, being reduced to life on an animal plane.
"Entre chiens et loups" … has as its setting a military kennel in the French zone of occupation of post-World War II Germany. Here, under simulated conditions of war, human targets, grotesquely clad in not entirely protective clothing, are pitted against dogs whose savagery is as nurtured as it is natural. (pp. 328-29)
On balance, the book's human kind have all the better of it in their relentless strife with their animal relations…. It is with the grim consequences of the brutalization of man that Le Temps des morts deals. (pp. 329-30)
Gascar obviously had an initial advantage in writing of a world he experienced in his own person, albeit outside the gates. In addition, perhaps because he avoided even a literary entry therein, he has had to trust in the magic of poetic suggestibility where others have, in large part, relied upon the elaborations of a grim realism. His oblique, insinuating approach, one thinks, served him well. (p. 332)
Gascar's is a highly exceptional gift for generating mood, for evoking atmosphere. He is a master at giving broad resonance to the naked word, to the isolated, seemingly insignificant act. The narrative is stark and the language fittingly laconic, if occasionally disfigured by an imagistic extravagance that savors of surrealism's automatic writing. An air of mystery shrouds the village and the surrounding countryside. The atmosphere is heavy with anxiety…. The author, who continually employs counterpoint in contrasting the Arcadian peacefulness of the cemetery, where men leisurely transplant sod and water flowers, with the madness of the world without, again effectively resorts to it [in depicting the crowded death-trains], simultaneously detailing the appalling suffering of the doomed deportees entombed within the boxcars and the symbols of peace visible to those of them gazing out of the narrow open panels: luminous landscapes, trees, free men standing relaxedly in fields, mechanical harvesters. (pp. 332-33)
Le Temps des morts discreetly eschews needless refinements and graphics, is piously conceived. The macabre, always a dangerous obstructant in works of this sort, does once impose itself, when the cemetery hands accidentally uncover a mass grave. For the most part, however, it has yielded to poetic evocation. These factors, united with the becoming economy of words and simplicity of intrigue, the admirable consonance of mood and expression, the sustained emotion, and the deep, if verbally restrained compassion, serve to make of Le Temps des morts the work of power and artistic integrity demanded by the subject. It may well be the most effective fictional portrayal of the concentrationary universe yet to have appeared in any language. Surely its position of preeminence in France cannot be seriously challenged.
The one piece by Gascar related to war and the concentrationary world that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be conceived as having been inspired by a moral intent is the not at all short short story "Le Bonheur de Bolinka" [also published as "Les Femmes"]…. A gross, roughhewn comic element ceaselessly disturbs this atmosphere of tragedy, further debilitating the slack narrative and converting Le Bonheur de Bolinka into the only artistic malheur amongst the works by the author bearing on the miseries spawned of war.
Looking back upon the war-associated stories of Les Bêtes and the elegiac Le Temps des morts, one deduces that Gascar could not but have been aiming to shock the reader into a sense of moral outrage, to sound a mighty note of warning. The concentrationary world, he clearly predicates, lives on, if in shrunken proportions. At any moment, anywhere, it is suggested, mass exterminations could again be launched. Alas, he would strike at our conscience while holding out no great hope of regeneration. He seems to see us all as infected with a malignant cancer of the soul, as potential accomplices in murder. And he finds no God to buttress us. Incomparably more than anything else, it is this deep-dyed pessimism that subtracts from his missionary effort. (pp. 334-35)
Chester W. Obuchowski, "The Concentrationary World of Pierre Gascar," in The French Review (copyright 1961 by the American Association of Teachers of French), February, 1961, pp. 327-35.