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Louis Guilloux’s Great, Forgotten War Novel

Albert Camus thought "Blood Dark" rivalled the great Russian epics, but it is little known in English.

Central Press / Getty Images

There are no trenches, no German submarines, no gas attacks in Blood Dark, yet Louis Guilloux’s epic novel ranks among the most powerful French depictions of the First World War. By 1935, when it was published, suffering on the front line had already produced a series of classics: Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire and Maurice Genevoix’s ’Neath Verdun (1916); Blaise Cendrars’s I’ve Killed (1918); Roland Dorgelès’s Wooden Crosses (1919). Guilloux’s contribution was different. As an adolescent in provincial Brittany, he had seen war reach behind the front and penetrate civilian populations and institutions; in Blood Dark he set out to create a war literature of the home front, a toxic zone where rumors do battle with the truth and witch hunts are carried out in the name of patriotism.

Blood Dark takes place on a single day in 1917, in a town recognizable as Guilloux’s native Saint-Brieuc, population 24,000, perched on the north coast of Brittany. The war has reached a low point after the debacle at the Chemin des Dames, and the American doughboys are still nowhere in sight. Patriotism has grown hollow; for some young people, revolutionary Russia is becoming a source of hope. Into a classical frame—unity of time and of place—Guilloux sets a riotous cast of some twenty main characters whose destinies combine and reverberate in a series of short episodes. He finds a way, through this form, to explore the effects of the war on an entire community and to delve deeply into the consciousness of one flawed individual who is both a spiritual guide and a living symptom of the society in disarray.

This guiding light or rather guiding shadow of the novel is an unhinged teacher of high-school philosophy named Charles Merlin, nicknamed “Cripure” by his students—a play on Kant’s CRItique of PURE Reason. He is in charge of teaching ethics to the draft-aged boys, young men condemned to spin the wheel of fortune on the front. Guilloux’s portrait of Cripure was inspired by a teacher and mentor of his own, the eccentric philosopher Georges Palante (1862–1925), though Guilloux once said that Cripure was “derived from Palante”—a starting point for his action, rather than a model. Like Palante, Cripure is a renegade from the Sorbonne, a man of broken friendships and a failed marriage, sharing his bed with an uneducated housekeeper, the affectionate, saintly Maïa, who dispenses level-headed wisdom inflected with Gallo, the local dialect of eastern Brittany. And like Palante, Cripure is disabled in the cruelest way, with huge, deformed feet that make it difficult for him to walk. At one point, the town boot-maker shows off Cripure’s shoes to a visiting circus director, who wants to hire him: “But when the circus manager had learned that the owner of those astonishing boots was a professor, and of philosophy! He’d simply shrugged and changed the subject.”

The action of the novel revolves around a few signal events: a schoolboys’ plot to unbolt the front wheel of Cripure’s bicycle; a Legion of Honor ceremony at the local school, now partly transformed into a military hospital; rioting soldiers at the train station who don’t want to return to the front; Cripure’s aborted duel with his colleague Nabucet; and the adventures of an even larger cast of characters that includes draftees, antiwar students, amorous spinsters, hypocritical school officials, and pedophiles; slick politicians and young men on the make; a revolutionary leaving for Russia, an amputee, and a couple learning of their son’s execution for mutiny at the front.

Guilloux’s fiction touches on issues that are still matters of great contention among French historians of the Great War: To what extent was there a consensus about the fighting? What was the nature of the mutinies that broke out as the war dragged on? Did they occur at random or were they part of a deep current of antiwar sentiment? Soldiers in transit demonstrating at train stations, individual deserters, fomenters of revolt on the front were all in some sense “mutineers,” and their numbers add up to a few thousand or to tens of thousands—depending on your definition of “mutiny.” What is clear is that antiwar sentiment, moral exhaustion, and episodes of disobedience flourished in the summer of 1917, the summer of Blood Dark.

The best-known scene in the novel is certainly the riot at the Saint-Brieuc train station. Guilloux has a genius for portraying chaos and for letting us see the drama of the individuals inside a crowd. He doesn’t spare his readers a close-up of one of the men disfigured by trench warfare—a gueule cassée, or “broken face.” For his novel to begin in a carnival of cruelty and end in tenderness is one of its great achievements. Cripure, impossible to categorize by any of our literary labels—hero, victim, genius, idiot, madman, muse—is another.

Albert Camus considered Blood Dark one of the few French novels to rival the great Russian epics. “I know of no one today who can make characters come alive the way you do,” he wrote to Guilloux in 1946. Guilloux, Camus said later, was uniquely attuned to the sorrow of others, but he was never a novelist of despair.

Camus was only one of many French writers at the forefront of literary life in the 1930s and ’40s who considered Blood Dark a masterpiece. Louis Aragon said that Cripure was the Don Quixote of bourgeois ruin; André Gide said that the novel had made him lose his footing. On the left, Guilloux’s contemporaries understood Blood Dark as an important political response to Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s nihilistic Journey to the End of the Night, published three years earlier. “The truth of this life is death,” Céline wrote in Journey, and Guilloux responded: “It’s not that we die, it’s that we die cheated.” The publisher used that line on a paper band around the book cover. For French intellectuals in the 1930s, there was a crucial difference between Céline and Guilloux: Both writers denounced the patriotic lies that lead men to their deaths, but for Céline the violence of man to man was inevitable, biological. Guilloux, by contrast, held out hope for fraternity and for collective struggle. In his world, and in his fiction, there were always causes worth fighting for, always zones of tenderness.

When Blood Dark missed winning France’s biggest literary prize, the Goncourt (just as Journey to the End of the Night had missed it in 1932), Guilloux’s fellow writers, among them Gide, Dorgelès, and Aragon, as well as Paul Nizan and André Malraux, protested by organizing a public meeting to laud his vision and underline his blazing critique of war and human hypocrisy.

Literary historians of existentialism have argued that Blood Dark launched the notion of the absurd well in advance of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, and Camus’s The Stranger. Yet Guilloux is often dismissed as a regionalist. In fact he was a transnational writer at a time when many of his contemporaries were taken up with ingrown literary rivalries. Just before beginning to work in earnest on Blood Dark, he translated Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, rendering black American English in vibrant Caribbean slang—a Creole of his own making, adapted for French readers. Guilloux’s notebooks make clear that more than a realist, he was a voice writer, testing dialogues and send-ups of bourgeois language, recording conversations, and compiling lists of idioms and ridiculous expressions. The black English in Home to Harlem surely inspired Maïa’s Gallo-speak. Guilloux read well beyond the French canon, translating Steinbeck and McKay, on the one hand, and drawing inspiration from Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy on the other.

Blood Dark is still considered a masterpiece in France, but in English the book remains little known. Part of the problem is its first translation. Samuel Putnam’s version, titled Bitter Victory, appeared in simultaneous American and British editions shortly after the original French publication. A former expatriate, a columnist for The Daily Worker, and a translator of Rabelais and Cervantes, Putnam saw in Guilloux’s novel a condemnation of “the bourgeois culture that had made the war.” Was it he or his editors who chose Bitter Victory, a misleading title for a book set a good year before the war’s end, when no victory was in sight? Putnam translated in the “mid-Atlantic style” then in vogue, neither American nor English, supposedly pleasing to readers in both countries but actually quite lost at sea. As a result of this linguistic compromise, Guilloux’s most remarkable quality as a writer, his sense of each character’s unique voice, is muffled.

Part of what makes this new translation so riveting is the attention that Laura Marris has given to the novel’s distinct voices and places. As a poet, and the translator of the contemporary Breton poet Paol Keineg, Marris has immersed herself in local Saint-Brieuc culture and has studied Guilloux’s papers, attending to the voices and sense of place he captured. From its new haunting title on, she has brought Blood Dark to life for the American reader. In this centenary of the darkest year of the Great War, what truer novel to read? In one respect, Guilloux’s story could not be more contemporary: As violence and terror seep into every aspect of his characters’ lives, they try to hold the chaos of the world at bay.

This article appears as the introduction to Blood Dark by Louis Guilloux, published this month by NYRB Classics.