A truly great piece of writng. Simone de Beauvoir's novels all too often try to be proving a philosophical point, which at the best can lead to a well-written novel with an improbable, almost silly conclusion (L'Invitee) and at the worst to a dry, depressing read ('All Men are Mortal', surely one of the most depressing books ever written). The one novel in which Beauvoir is more interested in character than theory is 'The Mandarins', which must be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. I loved the descriptions of post-war France, of the Resistance fighters trying to make a new life for themselves in a very different world, of the former 'Maquis' fighters who continued to attack collaborators, and the struggle to build a new and better society. The discussions of socialism, and of how far the French could separate themselves from either the American or the Russian superpower, though slightly drawn out, also make fascinating reading; a great bit of history without ever becoming dry. There are a whole host of extremely memorable characters, from the wise and life-enhancing Robert Dubreuillh (who, despite his wisdom ends up compromising himself by becoming too friendly with the Soviet powers, to his regret), Henri, the novelist and playright who struggles to be a good and honest man but is too easily seduced by beautiful women (one in particular) and in the end finds 'salvation' in an unexpected marriage, Anne, Dubreuillh's wife, a psychoanalyst who fears death and ageing and briefly finds youth again in an affair with an American writer, Nadine, her daughter, whose fierceness and disagreeable behaviour hide a deep vulnerability and bitter memories of World War II and the death of her lover, Paula, Henri's masochistic ex-lover - and many more. This book is often cited as part autobiography, and interestingly for me the autobiographical parts were the weakest (Anne only periodically comes wholly to life, and her affair with Lewis Brogan, based on De Beauvoir's with Nelson Algren, is not entirely convincing, as it is over so much more quickly than the Beauvoir/Algren one; Brogan is also, I suspect, rather less sympathetic than Algren.) But even these sections contain much fine writing, and the book as a whole is compulsive reading: nearly 1,000 pages, it never feels too long and never gets dull.
Possibly De Beauvoir's finest work, this is necessary reading for anyone interested in 20th-century European history, in what it was like to be a woman in 1950s Europe and in the life of a writer. I re-read this book nearly every year and have never grown tired of it.