Today in Literary History – May 17, 1873 – World War I novelist Henri Barbusse is born

Henri Barbusse, the French novelist who was a war hero turned pacifist, was born on May 17, 1873. His father was French and his mother was English. He was a poet and journalist well known in Paris literary circles before World War I, publishing a novel L’enfer in 1908.

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Barbusse was 41 and in poor health when the War broke out in 1914 but he enlisted as a private anyway and served with distinction, winning the Croix de Guerre and other medals for bravery. During the war Barbusse became increasingly disenchanted with the idea of military heroics and disgusted by the senseless slaughter he saw around him.

While in the trenches Barbusse had kept a diary of his experiences and during a period of recuperation from war wounds he turned the notes into a novel Le feu (Under Fire in its English translation) published in 1916. It won the prestigious Prix Goncourt that year. It is a gritty, realistic picture of the horrors of trench warfare and the first serious novel to deal with the First World War. It gained attention as well by being written by a still serving soldier.

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Barbusse had always considered himself a socialist and he became excited by the Russian Revolution. He first spent time in Moscow in 1918, where he marriec a Russian woman and joined the Bolshevik Party. He would split his time between Russia and France for the rest of his life.

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He wrote other novels after the war, but none were as successful as Le feu. He became a prominent member of the French Communist Party and participated in the international peace movement. He was a friend of Albert Einstein and the two of them kept up a lively correspondence. He was also a keen proponent of the invented language Esperanto.

Barbusse died in Moscow in 1935, at the age of 62, having caught pneumonia while writing a biography of Joseph Stalin, his final book.

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