Barbusse, Henri (1873–1935)

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BARBUSSE, HENRI (1873–1935)


French novelist.

Having already earned a reputation with his naturalistic novel L'enfer (1908; Hell, 1966), Henri Barbusse was ensured mass popularity during his lifetime and beyond thanks to his war novel Le feu (1916; Under Fire, 1917), which sold five hundred thousand copies and won the Prix Goncourt in 1916. In this novel he embodies the ideas of the pacifist veteran and of the politically committed intellectual.

Born into a family of the intellectual bourgeoisie on 17 May 1873—his father was a theater critic—Barbusse chose a literary career and married the daughter of Catulle Mendès, one of the most celebrated French poets of the time. His first literary efforts were in a symbolist vein, poetry such as the Pleureuses cycle (1895; The hired mourners) and Les suppliants (1903; The supplicants), a novel in verse. It was during this time that he began to take an interest in pacifism and socialism.

And yet this "antimilitary socialist" joined the army at the age of forty-one when World War I broke out. On 9 August, a week after enlisting, he explained himself in L'humanité: "This war is a social war that will help our cause take the next, and perhaps definitive, step. Its target is the oldest and vilest of our eternal enemies: militarism and imperialism, the Sword, the Boot, and, I would add, the Crown. Our victory will mark the obliteration of this den of Caesars, crowned princes, lords, and ruffians who imprison an entire people and would seek to imprison everyone else" (1920, p. 7; here translated).

Barbusse spent over ten months on the battlefront, first as an infantryman and then as a stretcher-bearer. Twice cited for bravery, he was transferred to military headquarters for health reasons. It was then that he wrote Le feu, which was first published in installments, then as a novel in 1916. It achieved enormous success. Even though the novel presents French soldiers as both heroes and victims of the war in a style that shifts between raw realism and apocalyptical mysticism, its overarching message remains ambiguous, since the legitimacy of the war against Germany is never truly questioned. Nevertheless, it was critically received as the paradigmatic and pioneering book of the veterans for peace movement. Indeed, veterans themselves received it enthusiastically.

Clarté, published in French and English translation as Light in 1919, was Barbusse's second novel and contained the same pacifist message, which became something of a revolutionary prophecy. The novel gave its name to the journal and international pacifist intellectual group that Barbusse founded that same year. Two years earlier, in November 1917, Barbusse had cofounded, with Raymond Lef èbvre and Paul Vaillant-Couturier, the Association Républicaine des Anciens Combattants (ARAC; Republican veterans association), a clearly leftist group. In Barbusse's ideological battle against the intellectual Right represented by Henri Massis and company, he was joined by Romain Rolland. But in 1921 and 1922, Barbusse began taking his distance from Rolland and becoming more closely associated with the Communist Party, which he finally joined in 1923. Henceforth, he pledged his pacifism to the revolutionary cause and urged intellectuals to support unambiguously the Bolshevik Revolution.

Barbusse wrote many essays: La lueur dans l'abîme (1920; The glimmer in the abyss); Le couteau entre les dents (1921; Knife in one's teeth); Paroles d'un combattant (1920; Words of a soldier), and others. He also worked as a journalist for L'humanité and for the weekly journal Monde, which he founded in 1928. In the early 1920s Barbusse became an untiring propagandist for the cause of communism, simultaneously pursuing his career as a novelist, with Les enchaînements (1925; Chains, 1925) and Faits divers (1928; Current events). These novels were less inspired than his war novels. The surrealists thoroughly despised his books, though they sometimes shared his ideology.

Barbusse cofounded the Association des É crivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (AEAR; Association of revolutionary writers and artists) in 1932 and was one of the principal actors in the antifascist Amsterdam-Pleyel Committee. In 1933 he was named president of the Comité Mondial de Lutte contre la Guerre et le Fascisme (World committee to fight war and fascism) but, despite the backing of the Communist Party in 1934, did not succeed in taking control of the Comitéde Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (CVIA; Vigilance committee of antifascist intellectuals), which spearheaded intellectual antifascism.

The battle against fascism proved to be his last. Henri Barbusse died in Moscow on 30 August 1935. He had published a biography of Joseph Stalin that year, with an eloquent subtitle: "A New World Seen through a Man." Barbusse was given hero's status. His funeral, attended by several tens of thousands of people, became the pretext for an enormous propaganda campaign by the Communist Party, which was in the midst of its struggle against fascism, just before the rise of the Popular Front. That ceremony also revealed the passion that the author of Le feu still inspired in the leftist community.

See alsoPacifism; Rolland, Romain; World War I.


Primary Sources

Barbusse, Henri. Le feu. Paris, 1916, 1988.

——. Clarté. Paris, 1919, 1978.

——. Paroles d'un combattant. Paris, 1920.

Secondary Sources

Baudorre, Philippe. Barbusse. Paris, 1995.

Lindner-Wirsching, Almut. Französische Schriftsteller und ihre Nation im Ersten Weltkrieg. Tübingen, Germany, 2004.

Relinger, Jean. Henri Barbusse écrivain combattant. Paris, 1994.

Nicolas BeauprÉ