“I raised myself on my elbow as on a clipped wing. I wished that something partaking of the infinite would happen to me. I had no genius, no mission to fulfil, no great heart to bestow. I had nothing and I deserved nothing. But all the same I desired some sort of reward.”

Henri Barbusse wrote one of the greatest novels of the First World War and is credited with turning French literature around in the twentieth century. It is surprising then that he is so little known today. Perhaps it has to do with his communist politics and the fact that he lived out his later years in the Soviet Union.

The girl, a woman already, leaned her face on the back of the sofa, her eyes shining. Her cheeks were plump and rosy, tinted and warmed by her heart. The skin of her neck, taut and satiny, quivered. Half-blown and waiting, a little voluptuous because voluptuousness already emanated from her, she was like a rose inhaling sunlight. And I—I could not tear my eyes from them.

Hell is an overlooked 20th century masterpiece, an account of voyeurism first published in France in 1908. In translation it scandalised a British readership. A young man in a Paris boarding-house spies on his neighbours through a hole in his bedroom wall, witnessing marriage, adultery, birth, death, lesbianism and all manner of human behaviour. Eternity is revealed to him in fiery glimpses.

“Here they will pass again, day after day, year after year, all the prisoners of rooms will pass in their kind of eternity. In the twilight when everything fades, they will sit down near the light, in the room full of haloes; they will drag themselves to the window’s void. Their mouths will join and they will grow tender. They will exchange a first or a last useless glance. They will open their arms, they will caress each other. They will love life and be afraid to disappear….”

 

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