Dominic Brown reviews The Incorrigible Optimists Club. A native of Glasgow Dominic Brown wonders how poverty continues to exist when the poor can vote the rich out any time.
Set almost entirely in Paris in the late 1950s and early 60s, it describes the coming of age of Michel Marini, who stumbles upon a circle of political exiles from Eastern Europe. Former airline pilots and ambassadors drive taxis wait at tables, play chess and very occasionally find love. Through loneliness and subsistence living, they maintain sanity in each other’s company, in scamming customers and above all in humour. (Example, for anyone who hasn’t heard it: Stalin gets up in the morning and enquires of the sun, who is the greatest human in history? “Tis you, oh great Stalin”, replies the sun. He repeats the question at midday, and gets the same answer. In the evening he can’t resist asking it again. This time, however, Stalin is told to fuck off; “I’m in the west now,” says the sun. Ha ha ha.)
The theme of exile recalls Albert Camus’s classic novel The Plague, in which a city is quarantined for months. However, Guenassia’s characters are menaced by genuine historical facts, rather than by fictional allegory, and a possible reading of this is that his fiction has a more realistic basis than that of leftists such as Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.
The exiles, of course, have diverse and tragic back-stories, and not all are anti-communist; their number includes commies who fell foul of changes in the political wind. Generally, they all get on fine. There’s little fighting over ideology, a fact which seems to illuminate the author’s intentions; Guenassia is keen to emphasise the limitations of philosophy.
This is particularly apparent in his depictions of Sartre, whose funeral provides the setting for the opening scene, with the narrator observing “a writer is being buried today”. In a country where philosophy is celebrated, calling Sartre simply “a writer” is akin to calling Lionel Messi a journeyman footballer. In case we don’t get the point, the narrator describes him as “a man who was wrong about almost everything… who put his talents into defending the indefensible”. No-one could accuse Guenassia of equivocating in regard to a philosopher whose support for the Soviet Union was a major irritation to the French establishment for much of the 20th century.
In spite of the author’s criticisms, he’s careful to recognise Sartre, who makes several walk-on appearances, as a kind individual, helpful to the refugees. Existentialism is a humanism, after all, and it’s possible to be good in personal dealings, but the opposite historically. And despite Sartre’s wrongness, the refugees accept his help, which (as they recognise) means they too are complicit, like Mathieu in Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason. The theme of universal guilt is repeated at the beginning and end, with Maksim Gorky quoted that “No single betrayed people exists”; many of the exiles have betrayed loved ones in order to survive. All peoples have their own “comforting collective lies”, hence the impossibility of coherent philosophy.
It might be imagined that Michel’s intellectual curiosity would stimulate an interest in the basic questions of existence characteristic of French philosophy; after all, he’s reaching (and living in) the Age of Reason, but in fact his concerns are more everyday (friends, music, girls), and he displays little interest in the ongoing War of Algerian Independence, despite having more than one personal connection to it. Guenassia’s contention that history is redundant is apparent also in the frustrated efforts of one eye-witness to publish the definitive account of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in which newly Communist Russia made peace with the Kaiser’s Germany; despite the potential embarrassment to the USSR of such a work, the French won’t publish it before the Americans, and it’s too long for the US market. It remains unpublished, and the historical facts are all but forgotten.
In all this, Guenassia seems to be implying that the big picture isn’t worth thinking about. Michel declares that “there will not be a better society”, which looks like a nod to political philosopher Leo Strauss’s contention that reason is over-rated, particularly in its capacity to create social justice. The title (of both novel and club) speaks of defiantly making the best of things, and echoes the 17th century school of Optimism, (“the world we have is the best of all possible worlds”), ridiculed by Voltaire but rehabilitated in this novel.
If life does have a meaning, it can be found in art. To assist Michel’s quest for a girl, one exile provides him with poems, which turn out (movingly, it must be said) to have been written by victims of Soviet purges. It’s all been said before, is the implication, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real or beautiful. The source of the poems, an outcast among the exiles (who nonetheless pay for his funeral), is buried in same cemetery as Sartre, both funerals attracting folk who were enemies in life. The personal is political, but as Christy Moore sang, “everybody in the graveyard votes the same”.
To be successful, historical fiction must make the reader feel like they’ve travelled in time. In that regard, the novel works fairly effectively. It’s split approximately 50/50 between Russia and France; one suspects the French stuff contains a fair degree of autobiography, and it’s here that editing would have helped most; a bit less of the Catcher In The Rye stuff would have sharpened the focus on the real drama, which is that of the East Europeans. The philosophy doesn’t always appear to stack up; for example, despite the dismissal of Sartre, material conditions are clearly important in determining the story’s events, while the cover recommendations from Sunday Express and Mail on Sunday suggest a particular target market. Nevertheless, overall, The Incorrigible Optimists Club is the literary equivalent of a convivial evening in the company of an intellectual or political adversary.
Jean-Michel Guenassia, 2015. The Incorrigible Optimists Club. Published by Atlantic.