Henri Barbusse - Philosophical novel about solipsism: a man looks through a hole in a wall in a hotel room into another room, where he observes scenes about life and death, like sex or a dying person who insults a priest


Henri Barbusse, Hell [or The Inferno], Trans. by Robert Baldick, Turtle Point Press, 2004 [1908.].

„A novel, translated by Robert Baldick. A young man staying in a Paris boarding house finds a hole in the wall above his bed. Alternately voyeur and seer, he obsessively studies the private moments and secret activities of his neighbors: childbirth, first love, marriage, betrayal, illness and death all present themselves to him through this spy hole. Decades ahead of its time, "Hell" shocked and scandalized the reviewing public when first released in English in 1966. Even so, the New Republic praised "the beauty of the book's nervous yet fluid rhythms... The book sweeps, away life's illusions."

„Although sometimes considered as an erotic work, this is in fact a philosophical novel about solipsism. This theme is treated brilliantly: a man looks through a hole in a wall in a hotel room into another room, where he observes scenes about life and death, like sex or a dying person who insults a priest. He always asks himself: is this real or are these scenes only in my thoughts? Does the world outside me exist? His answer is negative: I am alone. It brings him on the brink of schizophrenia. Even science cannot help him. But ultimately he chooses to continue to live, because there is still a sparkle of hope. To find out why, you should read this novel. An ambitious, not always well understood, but brilliant work about an essential philosophical problem.“ - Luc Reynaert at Amazon.com

"It is hard to overestimate the power of this book. A young man (it is regrettable that we never get to put a name to the narrator) cuts a small hole in the wall of his room and watches life, quite literally, 'pass him by'. He bears witness to everything: false love, carnal desire, death (there is an unforgettable scene in which a volatile old man refuses to confess to a priest on his deathbed) all the while making biting observations which strip away, layer by layer, the lies we tell ourselves to keep living. As one reads one almost feels guilty, thinking to oneself "yes, I claimed to love and didn't really love in this situation, I behaved in this way, etc...." It is that true to life despite being a work of solipsism. This is a must.“ - J from NY at Amazon.com

„The Inferno (also known as ‘Hell’) is a short novel written by Henri Barbusse, first published in 1908. The unnamed narrator is a thirty-year-old bachelor who has just arrived in Paris to start a new job at a bank. But the majority of the ‘action’ occurs inside his hotel after he discovers a small hole in the wall, which allows him to view the room next door. During the course of the following month he becomes obsessed with the events inside this room. He delays going to his new job at the bank, as the room offers such a compelling view of humanity.
During the first few pages the narrator introduces himself whilst he sits inside his sparsely decorated, slightly rundown room. He views himself as being a very ordinary person. He says: “I wished that something partaking the infinite would happen to me. I had no genius, no mission to fulfil, no great heart to bestow. I had nothing and I deserved nothing. But all the same I desired some sort of reward.” (Pg. 11 Wilder Publications 2010) The narrator, who never reveals his name, is the everyday man, with little resources and grand desires. He could be one of thousands of men in the great city of Paris.
But our narrator admits that he does not know specifically what it is that he wants. He imagines having the love of a woman but in his imagination this love becomes too idealised, too unreal. Love for a woman is interwoven with feelings of lust and he can’t separate them. He then admits: “God, I was lost! I prayed to him to have pity on me. I thought that I was wise and content with my lot. I had said that I was free from the instinct of theft. Alas, alas, it was not true, since I longed to take everything that was not mine.”(Pg.12) It is significant that he calls on God because it is mostly a spiritual emptiness that he feels. He admits that he is unwise and has unworthy desires but, at the same time, he is honest and extremely self-aware. It is this honesty about himself and the world around him – even if it is unpleasant – that makes the narrator a fascinating and ideal character for what is to follow.
It is not long into the story when he hears singing from the room next door before noticing a small hole high up on the wall. By the time he climbs onto his bed and peers through the hole the singing has stopped and the room is empty. The room looks just like his own. He then says: “I dominated, I possessed that room. My eyes entered it. I was in it. All who would be there would be there with me without knowing it. I should see them, I should hear them, I should be as much in their company as though the door were open.”(Pg. 14) It is a slightly eerie, voyeuristic comment. And indeed, the first person he watches is a young maid who, after tidying the room, sits down for a moment and takes out a letter from her pocket. The narrator soon realises that it is a letter from her lover.
For the next month he witnesses a plethora of characters inhabiting the room for different purposes. He literally sees both life and death – one day a sick man dies and on another day a baby is born – and much intimate interaction, including love affairs. The hole in the wall reveals the true drama of human life. Like all rooms, this room is a kind of sanctuary from the outside world. The people inside this sanctuary remove their metaphorical masks and become their truer self’s because they are alone (or so they believe). It is these private moments that the narrator witnesses and leads him to all sorts of profound insights about human behaviour. He is taken away from his earlier morbidity and feelings of hopelessness, as he starts to realise that he has discovered a unique opportunity to observe and understand human nature. It is as if the hole in the wall is a mysterious portal to reality.
By watching and silently listening to the various occupants of the room next door he becomes privy to all sorts of secrets. He listens carefully to the chatter of a married woman called Amy and her lover. He can’t help but feel sympathy for their predicament, particularly Amy’s. Her situation is such a difficult, precarious one that the narrator says: “Seeing this simple harrowing scene, I underwent a little of the enormous suffering of those innumerable people who suffer all.”(Pg.46) In fact, it is the pain and suffering of all these various people that our narrator feels most strongly. From his vantage point he sees their vulnerability and fragility. These people are unknowingly revealing their true self’s to him and like a sponge he absorbs it all.
As the days pass our narrator’s obsession with the hole in the wall exhausts him. Yet, the daily and nightly events inside the room offer themselves to him like a series of revelations. But standing days on end in his voyeuristic position starts to give him physical pain. Towards the end of the novel he goes for a walk and then takes his dinner at a restaurant. He has spent so much time isolated in his room that he longs for company. But in the restaurant he learns that at the table next to him sits a famous writer. He hears the writer tell a friend about his next book – a story involving a man who pierces a hole in his boarding-house-room and watches what happens in the next room. Naturally, our narrator can hardly contain his shock at hearing his own life reflected in the story of this famous writer.
But as the writer explains what his character sees in the next room the reflection dims, as he turns the story into a superficial piece of light entertainment. Our narrator soon becomes disgusted with the writer. He expresses his frustration over what he hears when he says: “I, who had penetrated into the heart of humanity and returned again, found nothing human in this jiggling caricature! It was so superficial that it was a lie.”(Pg.114) The problem is that our narrator, through his portal, has seen real life and much of this reality involves people revealing their pain and fear. The writer’s characters act as merely one-dimensional props in a story that serves only to titillate.
After about a month the narrator realises that his time at the peephole has come to an end when Amy and her lover (a poet) return to the room. The poet tells Amy that ‘the heavens have fallen on our heads’. Our narrator is almost dumbstruck by this phrase and instinctively feels that these are the words he’s been waiting to hear. He suddenly feels delivered from his duty at the peephole. He says: “…a poet’s song always gives something to us poor living shadows, and human thought always reveals the world. But I needed to have it said explicitly so as to bring human misery and human grandeur together. I needed it as a key to the vault of the heavens.”(Pgg.117) Through the words of the poet, he realises that God Himself has fallen onto our heads. Accordingly we should study ourselves with devotion in order to understand the Truth. With this knowledge our narrator is now free to leave the hotel and return to his life.
Barbusse finishes his poetic little novel with his unnamed narrator concluding: “I believe that around us there is only one word, the immense word which takes us out of our solitude, NOTHING. I believe that this does not signify our nothingness or our misfortune, but, on the contrary, our realisation and our deification, since everything is within us.”(Pg.120) Barbusse is clearly stating that to find the Truth we must look inside ourselves like the narrator looked inside The Room.“ - Greg Lawson

"So, this book is set in France, as were the previous two books I reviewed for this challenge. I think I'm cursed. And even though I liked this book more than the others from the start, it took me forever to get through it, and I'm not really sure how to write about it. So I'm just going to wing it.
This book is a work of solipsistic philosophy. Solipsism is basically the idea that the only thing of which a person can be certain is the existence of his own mind. The reality of anything outside of himself is up for debate. The final paragraph of the novel is a good summation of this philosophy, or at least a good summation of the implications of this philosophy:
I believe that confronting the human heart and the human mind, which are composed of imperishable longings, there is only the mirage of what they long for. I believe that around us there is only one word on all sides, one immense word which reveals our solitude and extinguishes our radiance: Nothing! I believe that that word does not point to our insignificance or our unhappiness, but on the contrary to our fulfilment and our divinity, since everything is in ourselves.
The "hell" that the title refers to is apparently the hell of "man's longing to live," which Barbusse claims is the only Hell there is. As is apparent from the above excerpt, this is much less a novel than a vehicle for Barbusse to expound his philosophy and his attempt to create something that is True and Beautiful. And one of the most annoying things about this book is how the author is so gosh darn pleased with himself. He constantly asserts his special status as the only person with True Knowledge of life and beauty and poetry, etc.
In an almost unbelievable and (unintentionally?) hilarious bit at the end, the protag eavesdrops on a conversation with a famous writer in which the writer announces his intention to write a book about a man who makes a hole in the wall of his hotel room so he can spy on his neighbors. The protag reacts with disgust and contempt, mocking the writer's efforts at presenting the truth of human life. I found this scene sort of bizarre, as it seems totally sincere, and it would seem out of character with the rest of the book for the author to be poking fun at himself. Anyway, I don't know what to make of it; if I were this book, I wouldn't want to call attention to how ridiculously overblown I am.
There are good and beautiful moments in this book, but a lot of it is way overblown. The conversations between his neighbors are often florid and maudlin, mind-numbingly so. Characters will go on for pages and pages about tumors, bugs, and the decomposition of corpses, but not in an interestingly morbid way. Rather, it's all very dry and scientific (and a lot of the science is wrong, anyhow). Barbusse's sex scenes are pretty painful -- I can happily go the rest of my life without hearing a woman's bits referred to as a red and/or bleeding wound. There's a doctor who is apparently an infantile commie; he pops in to espouse the evils of property and patriotism. And there's a priest who is obviously in the book to fulfill an almost villainous role, that of the Big Bad Organized Religion. He doesn't talk like any priest I've ever heard; Barbusse's supposed devotion to truth obviously flags a bit in that scene.
What I found most interesting is how often the protag refers to the powerlessness or uselessness of God in the face of human life, even as he is setting himself up as an immensely impotent little deity -- an observer who influences nothing and no one and ruins himself so doing. In this case, I think the book does contain some perhaps inadvertent truth because the way I see it, whenever men set themselves up as gods, things really do go to Hell.
In Conclusion:
I enjoyed the first hundred pages or so, but after that it was mostly tedious. I didn't love it. I'm not even sure I liked it. But I do think it's a significant book, and it deserves its place on the list.
Bonus:
Some bits from the book that I liked and/or found interesting:
Although music has attained a perfection without parallel in the history of man's pursuit of art in all its countless forms... there nonetheless existed a hierarchy among the arts, according to the contribution which thought made to them; for that reason literature occupied a place above the rest: whatever the number of masterpieces created so far, the harmony of music was not to be compared witht he whispered voice of a book.
At the touch of mankind, things wear away with heartbreaking slowness.
For if a picture is powerful and a poem is beautiful, that is thanks to truth.“ – Live Journal








 Henri Barbusse, Under Fire, Trans. by Fitzwater Wray CreateSpace, 2011.

„1917. A powerful description of the horrors of war and the experiences of the men and the wretched conditions under which they are forced to live and fight. Contents: The Vision; In the Earth; The Return; Volpatte and Fouillade; Sanctuary; Habits; Entraining; On Leave; The Anger of Volpatte; Argoval; The Dog; The Doorway; The Big Words; Of Burdens; The Egg; An Idyll; In the Sap; A Box of Matches; Bombardment; Under Fire; The Refuge; Going About; The Fatigue-Party; and The Dawn.“

„Under Fire (along with Remarque's All Quiet...) remains for me one of the most powerful descriptions of the madness and horror of war that I've ever read. What I found most compelling in Barbusse's novel is the author's use of language in describing "the tortured earth" during a passage in which French troops are being shelled. The author introduces you to a score of characters whom you really get to know as you experience the unspeakable conditions under which they are forced to survive and fight. One hesitates to use the term beautiful in referring to descriptions of carnage and agony but I can think of no other way to convey the power and, yes, poetry of his words. His language is clear-graphic-the "scenes" are enormously vivid. It would, in the hands of a competant director-one with vision- make a great film particularly if done in black/white! A great book written with sympathy towards those victims who are asked to participate in the insanity of war.“ -  Ron Boutte at Amazon.com

 „Henri Barbusse (1873-1935) was a middle-aged journalist when the guns of August were unleased on Western Civilization in 1914. Barbusse enlisted in the French Army serving eighteen months in the trenches. This novel was published in 1915 to huge sales and critical acclaim. Many officers requested copies of the book to distribute to their troops. It is a brutal, graphic and heartbreaking account of life and sudden death on the battlefield.
One of the literary pluses of the novel is the descriptive and poetic power of Barbusse's prose. We learn of the lives of his fellow soldiers, their longings and their desire to live through the bombardments which fall on their heads. Barbusse tells us of their love affairs, fears and dreams. He describes in detail the grisly death of many of his fellow soldiers. We lean over their shoulder as they read letters from home; meet cowards and civilans who have no concept of the horrors of modern technological warfaree. This is a description of war totally devoid of all romanticism. It is war as it is actually experienced. Barbusse's descriptions of the dead will never be forgotten by the reader.
The last pages of the novel are the most powerful. Barbusse makes a plea for pacifism as he excoriates the governmental and military donkeys who lead men into senseless suicidal charges across the no man's land of trenches. Barbusse became a well known anti-war advocate who became a Communist party member. Barbusse died in Moscow.
Under Fire is in that select company of great World War I novels and autobiographies which include Robert Graves' "Good-bye to All That"; Ernst Junger's "Storm of Steel"; John Dos Passos "Three Comrades" Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth" and Erich M. Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front." It is an essential soldier level view of the mechanized murder which was World War I and remains all wars. The book proves General William Tecumseh's Sherman's remark that "War is Hell." - C. M Mills "Michael Mills" at Amazon.com

„The introduction to "Under Fire" tells us that the book was overwhelmingly well received at the time of publication and was read widely all over Europe. However, he also tells us that some critics rejected in on the grounds that it was unrealistic, and that Barbusse's account moved too far away from the reality of life in battle, and also featured a number of historical errors, and was overall, unconvincing.
The essential point to remember is, that "Under Fire" is fiction - it is not war reportage or a literally factual account of the period.
Barbusse's work is being compared to Ernst Junger - that is not accurate in any way. Junger's chilling yet beautifully written war diaries look at war as some kind of pagan Germanic rite, and he writes in a prose and narrative style that verges on the mystical. But also, Junger paradoxically views the carnage with an emphasis on 'chivalry' and 'gentlemanly conduct' , a prism on violence which is, admittedly, often difficult to comprehend to the modern reader. Also, Junger's work is fact - Barbusse's book, it should be emphasised -- is fiction. "Under Fire" focuses on the drudgery of war, the banal boredom of waiting for days on end with nothing to do but eat rancid food,tend to the wounded,share wet tobacco, and drink dirty water in stinking, claustrophobic trenches.
Junger's book is written from the point of view, first and foremost, of aristocratic officers, whilst Barbusse's fiction is focused on foot soldiers and peasants. Junger's book focuses on bizarre, dreamlike, nightmarish and surreal aspects of war, expressed in a style which is highly cerebral and literary. Barbusse's book focuses on the stretcher bearers, the low ranking soldiers, who have to clean up the soldiers' ordure and waste.
I do not, by any means, wish to undervalue the footsoldiers' perspective on the war, or to judge it as 'less important' than Junger's officers - That is clearly not the case.But, it is rather the case that Barbusse's account simply fails to hold the reader's attention in the same way that Junger captivates.
There are moments of brilliance in "Under Fire" -- Clouds are described as being like "wicked angels" and the sorry footsoldiers appear like "survivors from some monstrous shipwreck" -- but such moments of compelling, almost mystical description are not typical of Barbusse's style.
I respect Barbusse's place in the 'literary canon', and I respect his perspective on the war, so I will give it three stars. But I have to say, I did not enjoy the book and would not recommend it.“ -  Red Eyes at Amazon.com



Henri Barbusse, Light, Trans. by Fitzwater Wray  Nabu Press, 2010.

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