The Inferno

Henri Barbusse
Inferno, The

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Title: The Inferno
Author: Henri Barbusse
Release Date: May 22, 2004 [EBook #12414]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1

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In introducing M. Barbusse's most important book to a public already
familiar with "Under Fire," it seems well to point out the relation of the
author's philosophy to his own time, and the kinship of his art to that of
certain other contemporary French and English novelists.
"L'Enfer" has been more widely read and discussed in France than any
other realistic study since the days of Zola. The French sales of the
volume, in 1917 alone, exceeded a hundred thousand copies, a
popularity all the more remarkable from the fact that its appeal is based
as much on its philosophical substance as on the story which it tells.
Although M. Barbusse is one of the most distinguished contemporary
French writers of short stories, he has found in the novel form the most
fitting literary medium for the expression of his philosophy, and it is to
realism rather than romanticism that he turns for the exposition of his
special imaginative point of view. And yet this statement seems to need
some qualification. In his introduction to "Pointed Roofs," by Dorothy
Richardson, Mr. J.D. Beresford points out that a new objective literary
method is becoming general in which the writer's strict detachment
from his objective subject matter is united to a tendency, impersonal, to
be sure, to immerse himself in the life surrounding his characters. Miss
May Sinclair points out that writers are beginning to take the complete
plunge for the first time, and instances as examples, not only the novels
of Dorothy Richardson, but those of James Joyce.
Now it is perfectly true that Miss Richardson and Mr. Joyce have
introduced this method into English fiction, and that Mr. Frank
Swinnerton has carried the method a step further in another direction,
but before these writers there was a precedent in France for this method,
of which perhaps the two chief exemplars were Jules Romains and
Henri Barbusse. Although the two writers have little else in common,
both are intensely conscious of the tremendous, if imponderable,
impact of elemental and universal forces upon personality, of the
profound modifications which natural and social environment
unconsciously impress upon the individual life, and of the continual
interaction of forces by which the course of life is changed more
fundamentally than by less imperceptible influences. Both M. Romains

and M. Barbusse perceive, as the fundamental factor influencing human
life, the contraction and expansion of physical and spiritual relationship,
the inevitable ebb and flow perceived by the poet who pointed out that
we cannot touch a flower without troubling of a star.
M. Romains has found his literary medium in what he calls unanimism.
While M. Barbusse would not claim to belong to the same school, and
in fact would appear on the surface to be at the opposite pole of life in
his philosophy, we shall find that his detachment, founded, though it is,
upon solitude, takes essentially the same account of outside forces as
the philosophy of M. Romains.
He perceives that each man is an island of illimitable forces apart from
his fellows, passionately eager to live his own life to the last degree of
self-fulfilment, but continually thwarted by nature and by other men
and women, until death interposes and sets the seal of oblivion upon all
that he has dreamed and sought.
And he has set himself the task of disengaging, as far as possible, the
purpose and hope of human life, of endeavouring to discover what
promise exists for the future and how this promise can be related to the
present, of marking the relationship between eternity and time, and
discovering, through the tragedies of birth, love, marriage, illness and
death, the ultimate possibility of human development and fulfilment.
"The Inferno" is therefore a tragic book. But I think that the attentive
reader will find that the destructive criticism of M. Barbusse, in so far
as it is possible for him to agree with it, only clears away the dead
undergrowth which obscures the author's passionate hope and belief in
the future.
Although the action of this story is spiritual as well as physical, and
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