Hermit_ionescoReview of the novel ‘The Hermit’ by Eugene Ionesco

One of the most famous philosophical maxim’s is ‘The unexamined life is not worth living (1)’. Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco’s only novel ‘The Hermit’ (1973) (2) is the absolute embodiment of this aphorism, albeit the conclusion presented being that, actually, life isn’t worth living examined or not.

An anonymous clerk inherits a small fortune which permits him to quit his meaningless office job where he is at most distracted to derision by the romances and mini-dramas that play out before him. On his last day, the clerk and his colleagues retire to the local restaurant for drinks out of social duty more than actual like of one another. This is where Ionesco excels: a complete affinity for the everyday interactions of ordinary people, especially their subtexts and suspicions masked by social airs and conformities. It’s what makes ‘The Hermit’ an interesting study of late 20th century man without being particularly kind about him.

Yet somehow we readers warm to the rich hermit who has now moved to the suburbs of France but still within reach of the all-important restaurant where he can gorge himself whilst watching the world go by and satisfy himself about his suspicions of the people that pass in the street or spy on him behind net curtains. And so our sympathies for the hermit begin to wain as he descends deeper and deeper into paranoiac excursions compelled by his own loneliness. Imagine a French bourgeois Charles Bukowski where, like Buk, there’s plenty of drink and little work, but here women are replaced with a seething disdain for fellow man writ large and even existence itself.

Temporarily distracted by a brief and dour affair with a waitress, her leaving triggers a full-on descent into darkness. This descent coincides with the onset of events a bit like Paris 1968 and the unrest arising but as a fantasy of revolt and revolution akin to that kind of civil spark. Soon, though, there’s blood in the streets and shootings, which to me felt like the fall of Yugoslavia happening just a few streets away. Rather than engage, our protagonist for the most part sets himself as observer whilst workers drink up their wine with revolvers in their pockets and rifles at their side waiting to return to the barricades. The hermit questions the point of revolution, and makes no distinction between left and right, love and hate, participation and non-participation even as violence erupts around him, on the periphery. We’re never told what’s happening, like the hermit we just experience the outcome, just as he experiences life in general from the outside.

Later still the revolution now perhaps just a mess of reactionary forces and then even worse just factions of the same side in some areas (a nod to the example of the anarchists and communists during the Spanish Civil War, perhaps?): but everything is questioned and assessed for its value and meaning albeit without consequence or engagement.

At one point the hermit muses that he wishes he’d study philosophy more, to be able to understand the meaningless of the universe as he sees it and perhaps therefore find some kind of purpose.

Best known for his absurdist plays like ‘The Chairs’, ‘Rhinoceros’ and ‘The Lesson’, Ionesco spent most of his life in France and was amongst those who formed the theatre of the absurd in the 1950’s. This novel is at its best when it observes our ordinariness.

Ultimately ‘The Hermit’ is a downbeat analysis of humanity not least since the absurdity of life being meaningless is, in this instance, not providing us with freedom from restrained opportunity or social structures like the church and such like as the existentialists argued. Only love hints at the possibility of meaning but the sad fact is that the hermit in question, despite all his fair riches, just isn’t very good at it.

At one point a waitress observes of him: ‘You keep to yourself too much, Monsieur.’ To which he replies – summing up the book entirely – ‘I’m surrounded by people. I’m surrounded by the crowd. By the crowd or by nothing.’

‘The Hermit’ is a gloomy book and yet engaging until the end even as it becomes more and more absurd. In that absurdity it also becomes more satirical, almost a different book. Yet somehow its pace from the banal to the absurd works – it makes the essence of the absurd all the more believable.

I don’t know why Ionesco never wrote another novel, returning to plays and literary criticism. This might be a shame, as the tension of an impending insurrection is palpable in the second half and the descent into loneliness compelling in the first – and because of this the scope of this possibly allegorical sweep of humanity and the universe of emotion and reality means the work takes on a wider importance than its easy-to-read style would suggest. Moments of cynical humour show Ionesco as a master of timing and that ability to make an unappealing protagonist a figure of our continued interest is always the mark of a quality writer. Worth reading. Worth living.

 

  1. Spoken by Socrates through Plato’s Apology
  2. I was reading the 1983 English translation published by Calder – looks like it’s currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online
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