A True Writer Has Appeared: The Publication and Reception of Thomas the Obscure (1941–1942)

In fall 1941, Thomas the Obscure, Blanchot’s first book, was published. Although one critic called it “a work of Jewish decadence,” it was not added to the list of works censored by the Nazi occupiers.1 Paulhan recorded that it was badly received by the press in Paris: “here, newspapers are discussing it nastily. Bras[illach] is even saying that Blanchot has only ever worked for the Jews.” Personally, he thought that the novel was “true”; in November he wrote to Claude Roy that “I think that this is how things happen, that the mind as well as the gaze has this blind spot.”2 A few weeks later, at Christmas, he presented this “very fine book” to Roger Caillois as the only real literary find since the series had been relaunched.3 Monique Saint-Hélier uncovered “rich gifts, slightly inebriated but with a controlled inebriation,” she admired how fresh the landscapes were as well as “the sense of light in a book constructed from night.” She evoked Lautréamont, Kafka, and notably Rilke and Kierkegaard in this book, which happily guarded its secrets, waited for words to play themselves out in “the time of other explications,” “in which each signification will break apart like a cloud and then pour down like rain.”4 Camus found the metaphysical aspect of the narrative attractive and believed that the key to it lay in the penultimate chapter: “One must then reread, and all becomes clear—but according to the light without sparkle which illuminates the asphodels of our mortal sojourn.”5 And in an elegant article in L’Action Française, Thierry Maulnier wrote that “a true writer has appeared.”6

Thomas the Obscure attracted the literary world’s attention, if not its respect and admiration. When it came out, the book perhaps was even more successful than the novels and récits to come would be. It was generally compared to Giraudoux, Lautréamont, Nerval, and the German romantics. But it also escaped these frameworks and gave its author, at the start of his literary career, a mysterious appearance. In his novels column at the NRF, Arland spoke of it as an “extremely strange book, despite the very pure line of its phrasing.” “It sounds like the phrasing of a song in an airless world, or of a long quest in a dawn which is more than half in shadow.”7 In the journal Confluences, Auguste Rivet also called it “strange.” It was said to have faults such as “sentences that get lost awkwardly among multiple subordinate clauses, a penchant for antithesis which makes some passages completely unintelligible” (and recalled Proust, a rather flattering fault), “a jargon that is sometimes scientific and sometimes philosophical,” or “a misuse of extraordinary adjectives, an excessive vividness almost comparable to that of Léon Bloy.” Nevertheless, the book had many qualities too: “its synthetic strength, its ability to evoke, the art of describing strange realities.” Rivet encouraged the author to get rid of the “junk” affecting his novel. This judgment is perhaps not unrelated to the “uneasiness” that he admitted he felt: “[the reader] feels threatened by unknown but terrible forces.” This stemmed from the mystical element within the book: Blanchot “has heard some imperious inner voice, and has obeyed the pressure of instinct.”8

In the southern, “free” zone, the Journal des Débats carried an article that was bound to be laudatory, given that this was the first novel by its faithful contributor. Jean Mousset put his name to this piece, which replaced, for the only time in four years, Blanchot’s “intellectual chronicle.”9 He began by stating “this is a great novel,” and continued: “One of the greatest novels of contemporary literature since In Search of Lost Time. Which is to say that many men of today will find it unrewarding, irrelevant, bizarre.” Such a work was damned to short-term failure, and to long-term success. Blanchot “prefigures the future twists and turns of thought.” The article gave an insipid recap of the narrative before providing an ultimately insightful remark, rare at the time and still rare today: “Mr. Blanchot’s novel is ultimately the most cutting and the most ironic refutation of the thesis according to which intellectualism detracts from sensibility.”

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