Hell by Henri Barbusse

by Kristopher Cook
Time to Read: 3 minutes

Hell was a book that came to me out of nowhere. I’ve no idea how I heard about it, what compelled me to buy it, or even why I bothered to read it.

It’s not a book that’s much talked about.

Nevertheless, I must say that this book is excellent. Moreover, I mean that in every sense of the word.

Published in 1908, by French author Henri Barbusse, Hell (orig. L’enfer) became popular, and much talked about by the French public. Later, in 1917, it sold more than a hundred thousand copies, showing its longevity within the public eye.

Synopsis

A young guy staying in a Paris hotel discovers a hole in the wall, just above his bed. Through his newfound voyeurism he begins to study the lives of his neighbours; their private moments together, secret activities, childbirth, illness and death. The ever-changing occupants provide many stories and many representations of our main characters own life – all of which is viewed through his small spyhole.

As I’ve mentioned above, I had no hopes or expectations going into this book. I had a vague idea of the plot but wasn’t expecting much.

Throughout, we’re treated to Barbusse’s melancholy charm. The same charm which sees the main character flutter by through life without ever making any real impact. That is until he discovers the life of others.

The hole in the wall raises many questions, some of which I’d like you to ponder below.

Voyeurism

There’s something to be said about voyeurism. We all watch films, read books about character’s lives, enjoy plays depicting drama, but how about watching ‘real-life’ situations?

Sitting in a coffee shop, watching the people go by.

Who’s he? Where did she go last night? Why’re they so happy? What are their jobs?

These are all legitimate questions that we’ve thought about when daydreaming on a Monday morning. However, is the situation different when you actively seek out these moments?

I mean finding people, to access their lives by watching everything they do purposely.

What is it about being a voyeur? We’ve all have had the legitimate experience of being watchers of films and readers of books, full of comedy and drama about people’s lives, but what about observing real people in real situations?

Viewing a person’s life, outside of media, is something entirely different from anything else. The allure of this book provides those moments for us, to join a young voyeur on his journey of observation.

Perspective

The book follows our protagonist via a first-person perspective, keeping you inside of his head at all times.

The perspective creates a claustrophobic feeling, especially at times when you know he should turn away from the hole, but morbid curiosity refuses to allow him, which in turn, is the same reason why we continue to read it.

All lovers in the world are alike: they fall in love by chance; they see each other, and are attached to each other by the features of their faces; they illuminate each other by the fierce preference which is akin to madness; they assert the reality of illusions; and for a moment they change falsehood into truth.”

Henri Barbusse, Hell

Philosophy

We’re given two emotional responses to every situation; The situation in the room next door, and our main characters inner feelings towards the case.

These thoughts often come in the form of self-reflection and philosophical overviews about his current situation, being stuck in a French hotel.

How has he gotten to this point? Where does he go from here? What could he have done differently?

All legitimate questions that we’ve asked ourselves at some point.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, Hell is an excellent book delivered by a great French author.

Much like Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, this book focuses on the harsher side of human behaviour. The things that we cannot control and ultimately, the things that make us all human.

Whether it’s the narrator’s wrestling with his inner demons or projecting his views upon others, there’s plenty of philosophy in here to keep you questioning long after reading.

For anyone who’s already a fan of French literature, do yourself a favour, and seek out this book. It’s an absolute gem amongst the rocks.

Citations        

Harris, R. C. (n.d.). Barbusse’s L’enfer. Retrieved from https://cather.unl.edu/cs007_harris.html

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