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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Blood Dark

Louis Guilloux

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To purchase Blood Dark

Title: Blood Dark
Author: Louis Guilloux
Genre: Novel
Written: 1935 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 511 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Blood Dark - US
Blood Dark - UK
Blood Dark - Canada
Le Sang noir - Canada
Le Sang noir - France
Schwarzes Blut - Deutschland
Sangue nero - Italia
  • French title: Le Sang noir
  • Translated by Laura Marris
  • With an Introduction by Alice Kaplan
  • Previously translated by Samuel Putnam, as Bitter Victory (1936)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely sprawling, crowded one-day novel of 1917 France

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 15/11/1936 Harold Strauss
Time* . 2/11/1936 .
The Times* . 2/12/1938 J.S.
TLS* . 26/11/1938 R.D.Charques
TLS . 10/5/2018 Adrian Tahourdin
Wall St. Journal A 24/11/2017 Sam Sacks
Die Zeit . 22/1/1982 Peter Hamm
*: review of previous translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "(H)ere is a novel projected in the grand style of the nineteenth century, a mountain of a novel, sprawling, incomplete and sometimes even inept, out of which, nevertheless, there emerges a great tragic figure." - Harold Strauss, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is an instance of the very long novel justified in the interest of what it has to say and the merit of its thought." - J.S., The Times

  • "Le Sang Noir (...) sets out to be uncomfortable and succeeds. (...) The design of the book, indeed, is blurred and muddied; its events are incontinently crammed into the space of twenty-four hours, the middle part is tightly-packed with what appears to be trivial incident and M.Guilloux in general is inclined to blunt the fine edge of things by too many words." - R.D.Charques, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The novel depicts small-town life at its most constricting and suffocating: petty jealousies, acts of hooliganism, drunkenness (Cripure consumes epic quantities of red wine in the course of the afternoon), an absurdly inappropriate lavish municipal awards ceremony. While the tone is overwhelmingly bleak, Guilloux can also be very funny, in a rather cruel way (.....) The novel is heavy on dialogue, which presents its particular challenges to the translator: whether to modernize, how to represent regional diction, and so on. (...) (I)t’s good news that this major novel has resurfaced in Laura Marris’s attentive and accomplished translation." - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Blood Dark is a portrait not just of provincial life in wartime but of generational schism. (...) This primeval betrayal was the acid that finally dissolved the foundations of the old order, and there is a revelatory sense reading Guilloux’s novel that one has found a key text linking the sparkling contempt of Flaubert to the tender resignation of Camus, the missing evolutionary step in French literature’s progression from irony to existentialism." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Mir will dieser Guilloux eher als der deutscheste unter den großen französischen Romanciers dieses Jahrhunderts erscheinen. (...) Wie in keiner anderen modernen Romanfigur sind Erhabenheit und Lächerlichkeit in diesem Cripure ineinander verschränkt (.....) Schwarzes Blut spielt trotz einer schier unübersichtlichen, formal kühn montierten Handlungsfülle an einem einzigen Tag des Jahres 1917 und liefert in seiner Detailbesessenheit ein einzigartiges Panorama der französischen Provinz zur Zeit des Ersten Weltkriegs" - Peter Hamm, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Blood Dark is set in 1917, in a town of twenty thousand people in the author's native Brittany. It is far from the front, but in every other respect the First World War has seeped into life here, inescapable. Asked "How goes France ?", the novel's dominant figure answers: "France ? France bleeds", and indeed the blood, literal and metaphorical, is everywhere, the essence draining out of the tired nation.
       Blood Dark has a large cast of characters, including injured and broken sons back from the war, as well as some setting off for, or back to, the fighting (or looking to escape elsewhere), and a variety of townspeople and visitors. The central figure, however, is the man known as 'Cripure', a philosophy teacher at the local school who had once been a promising scholar (and even: "enjoyed a certain cult following"), but whose academic career had floundered and who wound up back in this backwater; "a so-called philosopher, but really, a disappointment", as one (jealous) colleague now dismissively describes him. His name is François Merlin, but everyone calls him Cripure:

The nickname comes from the fact that he is always talking about the Critique of Pure Reason, which the students call the Cripure of Tic Reason. Hence Cripure
       Cripure doesn't appreciate the name -- "My name is Merlin ! Hadn't he shouted My name is Merlin ! countless times, banging his fist on the lectern ?" he gets to complain in the novel's opening paragraphs -- but it doesn't just stick, it's who everyone has come to see him as. It's a perfect name for the character, whose cri -- as either 'cry' or (cri)ticsm -- is still pure, at least as far as any can be in this time and place, from a man who has been battered by life and seen (and been disappointed by) so much of history and his fellow man. (His real name is appropriate, too -- as 'François' as representative of the nation as could be, as 'Merlin' a bit of a mysterious other-worldly old magician..... [Note that Alice Kaplan is mistaken when she writes he's: "named Charles Merlin" in her Introduction.])
       The action of the novel is limited to a roughly twenty-four-hour period, from one morning to the next, yet is busy and eventful -- at least in a small-town, wartime way. Among the major events of the day is a small gathering to present the Legion of Honor to a woman who has devoted herself to the care of typhoid patients, organized by the unpleasant Nabucet, Cripure's loathed colleague (who is acknowledged to be: "a bit weird, a bit creepy"), and the preparations for it, as well as the gathering itself nicely allow Guilloux to present many aspects of town life and war sentiment (with all its extremes, for and against).
       Cripure attends the event as well, and despite his best efforts at avoidance and keeping to himself, finds a great deal else to distract him and keep him busy as well. A visit from a student brings back reminders of his failed career -- the boy has an inscribed copy of a work by Cripure that was never actually released to the public -- while his son, Amédée -- a reminder (though not the product) of his failed marriage and one true but lost love, Toinette -- must return to the front after spending a few days in town.
       Beyond the casual conversations and encounters, Cripure faces mortal dangers, discovering first that his bicycle has been sabotaged and then later almost getting run down by a car, leading him to reflect
Twice today, he'd been given notice. Twice, he'd miraculously escaped death. How much longer could he count on this reprieve ?
       Third time's the charm ? Pushed over the edge by Nabucet, Cripure slugs him -- and Nabucet wants honor satisfied: he challenges Cripure to a duel.
       The very idea is farcical and outdated -- a duel over honor, with swords, no less ! -- but such are the times and circumstances that the absurdity of these two men fighting to the death over something like 'honor' is entirely fitting. In arranging the duel, Cripure's seconds work to defend and even save him -- but can he be saved from himself ? and does he want to be ? It's a long, eventful night .....
       There are other comings and goings and personal dramas beyond these, as well -- notably the frustration of the chaos at the railway station that means no civilian traffic can leave. Tensions are high, and both in the larger abstract -- simply being fed up with the senselessness of the war -- and the personal -- both soldiers and some civilians have good reason to fear what awaits them beyond the town. Among the personal tragedies is that of the school principal, who finally gets word of his son's terrible fate -- not yet, but about to become another casualty and victim of the obscenity of playing at war. (His son's last letter to him, from two months earlier, already dripped with hatred and loathing, against father and fatherland: "Even if I survive, I'll never see you again. I'll never forgive you".)
       Revolution is bubbling over in Russia, and some see that as a possible alternative: the call: "We gotta do like the Russians" might come in the heat of the moment, but it's not unthinkable. One of the few characters who seem to have any hope for the future has made his choice, a showdown with his family over his refusal to wear his uniform for the Legion of Honor festivities the final straw, leading him to decide he would: "get out, and work toward what would change everything, including this". His escape from this town and world proves more complicated than he might have anticipated over the day that follows, but he doesn't lose sight of his goal -- to get to London, then Sweden, and then, eventually to Russia. Offering a rare ray of hope in his bleak and dark (though often comic, too) story, Guilloux does close his novel with word that the young man has made good his escape.
       Cripure's fate is not entirely unexpected. He is a bitter, angry man, living with an ugly woman whom he treats more like a maid than a lover, and he comes to realize that his pose is absurd in these absurd, outrageous times:
     How much he'd thought to scorn the world, how strong he'd been ! But the world had gotten its revenge. Cripure realized now how easy it had been to take an adversarial position. From here on out, the pose made no sense. The human experience collapsed into suffering, into blood. And he, who had always pretended, like a nobleman, to live secluded from men and scorn them, he discovered that scorn was no longer possible, except for scorning himself.
       The breaking point is not trivial but fittingly ridiculous. The annoyance of Nabucet and everything he represented, leading him to physically lash out, was one thing, but the final breaking point comes elsewhere, much more privately, a life fallen to pieces and everything finally too much.
       Blood Dark is a big, loud, busy novel. Guilloux paints much in broad strokes, and there's a sometimes jarring mix of rough humor and poignant tragedy -- intentional, of course, but a difficult balance to strike. With its very large cast -- maybe twenty very significant characters, with only partially overlapping stories -- there's considerable sprawl here, and it's not always easy to keep an overview. The mix of styles and language -- raw and refined, in what is meant to capture all aspects of society at this time -- is occasionally hit or miss -- though admittedly, overall, quite effective.
       Blood Dark is an impressive war-(away-from-war-)novel, and captures that moment in history very well -- the senselessness of the war without end having sunk in, the devastation on every level, from national to personal, now all too clear. The tight timeframe Guilloux packs it all into makes even more clear how much he is trying to stuff into his story, and it can feel like it's coming apart at the seams, but overall it's still a grand, powerful work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 October 2017

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Blood Dark: Reviews (* indicates review of previous translation): Louis Guilloux: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Louis Guilloux lived 1899 to 1980.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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