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Ian Birchall

Antoine Bloye

(September 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 62, (September 1973), p. 31.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Paul Blackledge.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Antoine Bloye
Paul Nizan
Monthly Review Press, £3.10

IN HIS introduction to Nizan’s novel, first published in 1933, Richard Ellman hails this book as ‘one of the few truly great Marxist novels’. This is a pity, for while Antoine Bloye is a good novel and well worth reading, it doesn’t live up to that particular claim.

The story of Antoine Bloye is that of a railway porter’s son who himself goes to work on the railways and rises into the lower ranks of management. It is a story which combines the picture of a historical epoch – from the 1860s to the 1920s – with the sensitive portrayal of an individual. We see how the pressures of society stunt and dehumanise Bloye; how his sexuality is destroyed and his family life reduced to a set of mechanical gestures. Above all we see him at work, a man totally consumed by his work, and yet aware, in a quite undefined way, that he has missed out on something.

To this extent Nizan has succeeded in integrating his Marxism – he was a member of the French Communist Party in the 1930s – with his literary creativity. Not only is it a novel which takes history, including economic history, seriously, but it also draws on such marxist notions as ‘alienation’ and ‘reification’, so often the starting point for metaphysical meandering, and makes them graphically concrete.

So far, so good. Yet the work is disappointing. For its structure is basically tragic. Firstly because Nizan uses the device of beginning the book with Bloye’s funeral. And secondly because all his accounts of the security and complacency of pre-1914 bourgeois life are tinged with irony, because the reader is always aware that the end if coming, that slaughter and chaos are just around the corner. Such fatalism betrays the Stalinist limits of Nizan’s Marxism.

Worse, there is no alternative. In his youth, before crossing the class lines, Bloye tried to lead a strike. But this is one of the weakest episodes of the book, being almost completely unmotivated. Thereafter the workers who appear act as a mute reproach to Bloye, a reminder of his divided loyalties. But they do not act on their own account. They do not offer a lived alternative to the cramped existence of Bloye’s class.

It was Nizan himself, in one of his penetrating essays, who pointed out that bourgeois critics have decreed that a reception in a wealthy drawing-room is a ‘literary’ subject, but a strike is not. Yet he himself sticks to the convention that the appropriate subject for a novel is the individual destiny of a member of the middle class.

Reading Antoine Bloye I was reminded that I still have not discovered a better novel about working class consciousness and struggle than Zola’s Germinal – written in 1885. Why has no twentieth-century Marxist writer surpassed the woolly-minded radical Zola? The answer to that question would tell us a lot about socialism and culture in our epoch.

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Last updated: 3 March 2015