“I do not recall my own first glance of love, my own first gift of love. Yet it happened. Those divine simplicities are erased from my heart. Good God, then what do I retain that is of value?”
Read: 16th October, 2017
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes 40 seconds. Contains 1534 words.
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My Rating: 5 Stars
Description: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.”
It was a strange little book and it hit me in a good way. Its been a few months now, but I remember how I cherished this book and I would totally love to experience what this character experienced, I’m a sucker for slice of life stories and here in this book there were many. I love watching people, people are fascinating that way. I don’t think I ever get bored while waiting for someone or while standing in the queue or even while traveling, I either read or there are always so many people to watch.
“There is no paradise except that which we create in the great tomb of the churches. There is no hell, no inferno except the frenzy of living.”
Hell, a novel by Henri Barbusse was written in the year of 1908(I’m not sure though, it might be the year of publication), also know as The Inferno, is story of an unnamed narrator who lives in a boarding house and there he finds a hole pierced in the wall which gives him access to look into the adjacent room, and there he gets to see the life of people unfold in front of him without them having any clue. The whole story occupies less than a month of time but makes the narrator, as well as the reader, reflect upon the philosophy of life and most importantly reflect upon their own life. So, this man in this book confronts the realities of life.
“Like everybody else, I am a copy of the truth spelled out in the room, which is, “I am alone and I want what I have not and what I shall never have.” It is by this need that people live, and by this need that people die.”
I’m going to divide this review based on different topics, like love, or rather, lack of it, death and innocence. There are many things in this book that one can talk about; however, I’m going to talk about the ones that moved me and touched me.
I like how James Joyce once wrote that: “For myself, I always write about Dublin because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”
Similarly, in this book through a small hole on the wall we get to see life, not the grand aspect of it if we consider the whole world, but how it can be contained even in the stories of people we come across in our lives. It is true, in the particular is contained the universal.
In this book, the reader along with the narrator, get to witness, incest, marriage, adultery, birth, lesbianism, lost passion, young love, the first kiss, illness and death and the emotions associated with them.
I feel strange about this, but if I really extract from all that I have read, then I can say that Barbusse played with this theme on very many different levels.
“We deceive ourselves a good deal about love. It is almost never what they say.”
Adultery and lost passion: Here we get to see a husband and wife, and the strangeness that creeps between them.
You think you know a person, you enjoy being with them, and you feel safe in their company and, one day out of nowhere the strangeness creeps in, you look at that familiar face that you loved for months or for years, but somehow now you see a stranger in them and you no more feel safe and somewhere deep down you know that you lost something and that is how it is with everything that transcends time. If I talk about myself then I can say that I hate that strangeness and I find it absurd.
Other person doesn’t have to be your lover, it can be a friend, maybe a best friend, your sibling or even your parents.
“Perhaps she denied herself to him.”
Here we come across lost passion between husband and wife, and their loveless marriage.
“Because he did not know her, because she was different from the one whom he knew. To have what one has not.”
Narrator: “I’m sorry for the men and women who go through life together in the chains of indifference. I am sorry for the poor heart that has what it has for a short a time. I am sorry for the men who have the heart not to love any more.”
The reader also gets to see, the lover of the wife, but even there I don’t find the fulfillment, they might have had a wonderful start, like every other love affair, but like every other love affair, it ends in disappointment.(I may be generalizing a lot here, sorry)
“Do you know what we are?
he murmured. “Everything we say, everything we think, everything we believe, is fictitious. We know nothing. Nothing is sure or solid.”
Old man’s Young Love:
“Everything reminded me of her. I was full of her, and yet she was no more!”
The dying old man talks about the girl he loved when he was young and who he lost to some disease(I forgot which one). I really liked his story, and since I don’t want to spoil it for you, I’ll just say, whatever they both created together had a great value for him because that contained the love they had for each other, only that now when he looks back, he doesn’t feel same about them, those things were no exception, it was only the experience that they both shared with each other that made those things worth it. Nothing is really exceptional, it is only what you associate it with that makes it exceptional. You have to read the book to see what I’m talking about.
Two young lovers:
In the book, we also come across the innocence of young lovers and their vulnerability to the newness of things and first experiences.
“Once more their lips joined. Their mouths and their eyes were those of Adam and Eve. I recalled the ancestral lesson from which sacred history and human history flow as from a fountain. They wandered in the penetrating light of paradise without knowledge. They were as if they did not exist. When – through triumphant curiosity, though forbidden by God himself – they learned the secret, the sky was darkened. The certainty of a future of sorrow had fallen upon them. Angels pursued them like vultures. They grovelled on the ground from day to day, but they had created love, they had replaced divine riches by the poverty of belonging to each other.”
On Death: I don’t have much to say here, but I can quote all that I liked.
“We do not die. Each human being is alone in the world. It seems absurd, contradictory to say this, yet it is so… All we can say is: I am alone.
And that is why we do not die. Once, bowed in the evening light, the dead man had said, “After my death, life will continue. Every detail in the world will continue to occupy the same place quietly. All the traces of my passing will die little by little, and the void I leave behind will be filled once more.”
He was mistaken in saying so. He carried all the truth with him. Yet we, saw him die. He was dead for us, but not for himself…
“Every human being is the whole truth.”…. We do not die since we are alone. It is others who die. And this sentence, which comes to my lips tremulously, at once baleful and beaming with light, announces that death is a false god.
But what of others? Granted that I have the great wisdom to rid myself of the haunting dread of my own death, there remains the death of others and the death of so many feelings and so much sweetness. It is not the conception of truth that will change sorrow. Sorrow, like joy, is absolute.”
And this is how the book ends, “I believe that the only thing which confronts the heart and the reason is the shadow of that which the heart and the reason cry for. 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 realization and our deification, since everything is within us.”
I loved reading this book and I must say this book is so human and one of my favorite books from the year of 2017. To end this, I would just say, “Don’t look around because everything you need is within you.”