Brave Genius
Sean B. Carroll
(Crown Publishers/Random House)
In 1980, word reached the elderly Jean-Paul Sartre that a McDonald's outlet had opened in Paris, right on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, next to the Thermes de Cluny in the heart of the 5ieme arrondissement. The philosopher did not take news of this calamity well. In fact, he suffered an attack of mal de tête and had to be rushed immediately from the Café de Flore to the hospital. In the intensive care ward of the Hôpital Hôtel-Dieu.

Sartre was treated with an infusion of apricot cocktail from the celebrated Bec de Gaz bar on Rue Montparnasse. The author of No Exit seemed to rally for a time, but then he somehow came into direct contact with a menu from the McDonald's restaurant, and his condition worsened. Sartre went into tonic-clonic seizure at the words "le menu Happy Meal." And when he reached En ce moment, le double Cheese est lá, hypocapnia, aphasia, and apraxia set in. He uttered a strangling sound, the heart monitor flat-lined, and then the author of Being and Nothingness was being no more. Nor being nothingness.

I was reminded of this episode in 1999, when I found myself back in Paris, after having lived there for a while many years earlier. Naturally, I put on my black turtleneck sweater and went straight to the Café de Flore, to see if any shades of the great days of Existentialism could still be evoked. Sure enough, at one empty table, I thought I saw the shadowy outlines of Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, sipping their ghostly absinthes. At the next table, the ghost of Albert Camus sat by himself. The ghosts of Sartre and De Beauvoir were cutting Camus's ghost dead, which made perfect sense, after all, because they all were dead.

The famous schisme between the two philosophers is recounted, among many other things, in Brave Genius, a terrific (if awkwardly titled) 2013 book by Sean B. Carroll. Sartre and De Beauvoir are only bit players in this book, along with François Mauriac, Louis Aragon, Pablo Picasso, General Dietrich Von Choltitz, Colonel Philippe Leclerc, Francis Crick, De Gaulle, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Les Tempes Moderne, the Sorbonne, the Pasteur Institute, bacteriophage lambda, lactose, and a camping trailer.

Brave Genius is a joint biography of Albert Camus and Jacques Monod, the great Pasteur Institute scientist who was one of the founders of molecular biology. Both men played major roles in the underground resistance to the Nazi occupation of France, four desperate years of idealism, comradeship, mortal danger, and sacrifice. Carroll suggests, persuasively, that this experience had a lot to do with shaping the tough, humanistic philosophy that Camus set forth in The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague, The Rebel , and other writings.

Monod shared similar experiences and a similar philosophy, and after the war, he and Camus became close friends. On a book of his essays published in 1950, Camus signed his name fraternellement and wrote "A Jacques Monod, sur un même chemin." [To Jacques Monod, on the same path.] Monod's copy of The Rebel was likewise signed fraternellement by its author, who added "cette réponse à quelques-unes de nos questions." [This response to a few of our questions, with nos ("our") underlined in the original. ]

Much of the first half of Brave Genius deals with the fall of France, and then with the operation of the anti-Nazi Resistance. Camus worked throughout the war at Combat, the underground's clandestine newspaper. Monod, by day a microbiology researcher, was an operations officer for the French Forces of the Interior, the underground military forces. Drawing on extensive research and interviews, Carroll presents a remarkably detailed picture of la Résistance from its organization to the final insurrection in Paris as Patton's American (and Leclerc's Free French) armed forces approached the city in August of 1944. This latter drama - - - the events depicted in René Clement's film Is Paris Burning? - - - is a real page-turner, especially for readers who know Paris, and recognize the locations. In fact, Carroll's brisk scene-setting throughout the book makes Paris itself one of the major characters.

The breakup of Sartre and Camus occurred after the latter published The Rebel in 1951. In it, Camus decisively rejected the utopian propaganda and police state realities of the Soviet Union and its satellites and acolytes. Sartre, although never a member of the Parti Communiste Français, was a textbook Soviet apologist, regularly toasting "our Soviet friends" and railing against vulgar America as the true danger to Progressive Culture: for him, the Happy Meal appeared far more menacing than Soviet tanks, the KGB, and the Gulag.

In 1956, a revolution in Hungary threw off the despotic, Soviet-line Rakosi regime and brought in Imre Nagy's reform Communist government. The USSR responded by pretending to negotiate with the Nagy government, while at the same time sending in the tanks and 17 divisions of the Red Army to subjugate Budapest and install a puppet regime. Camus and many French intellectuals denounced the Soviet aggression unequivocally. Even Sartre condemned the USSR's action, although he also blamed the development of the Hungarian tragedy on the West, just as his counterparts today blame the West for Russia's invasion and seizure of Ukrainian territory, for the global terrorism of the Islamists, for the hyperinflation in Venezuela, and for the Zika virus, the Tohoku earthquake, and disturbances in the asteroid belt.

The Soviet-installed Hungarian regime conducted a severe crackdown, arresting thousands and hanging Imre Nagy a year later. But before it sealed the border, 200,000 Hungarians were able to escape to the West, where they eventually distributed themselves in Austria, Germany, France, the UK, Canada, and the US. I was personally acquainted with a few of these Hungarian members of "the class of 1956." Among those who did not escape in time was Agnes Ullman, a biochemistry graduate student in Budapest who admired the work of Monod, and was working on her PhD thesis in a related area. In 1958, she was able to get permission to spend six weeks in his laboratory as a visiting researcher. After she returned to Budapest, Monod organized a cloak-and-dagger operation to smuggle Agnes and her husband Tamás (who had been jailed during the previous year's repression) out of Hungary, hidden in the laundry hamper of a camping trailer. It was like some of the operations Monod had managed 15 years earlier as a Maquisard, during the occupation of his own country by a different and even more brutal invader. After she got back to Paris, Agnes Ullman continued to work with Monod until the end of his life, and worked independently at the Pasteur Institute afterwards.

The spare but evocative prose of Brave Genius carries all the different narratives along effectively. What impressed me most was the range of the author's knowledge. He has a broad familiarity with Camus' biography and writing, and with French literary/intellectual/political currents just before and in the years after World War II; and with the military history of WWII; and with the post-war history of Hungary; and, finally, with the origins of molecular biology.

A professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Sean Carroll provides a perfectly accurate and beautifully clear account of the Nobel Prize work by Monod and his collaborators. Carroll's erudition in regard to everything in this wide-ranging book reveals him as one those people who are at home in both of C.P. Snow's two cultures.

Perhaps this is why he paid such close attention to Jacques Monod. Monod, in collaboration with François Jacob and others, accomplished ground-breaking research on gene expression that dominated its field for a generation. But he was also a serious musician (a cellist and conductor), a bold and highly effective organizer (as he demonstrated in the Resistance), and, finally, a philosopher. Monod's 1970 book Chance and Necessity, which became a best-seller in France, began with a long quote from Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus had cast aside the stultifying religious and social superstitions of the political Right, and the homicidal utopian pretension of the Leninist Left, for an unillusioned humanism. In Chance and Necessity, Monod elaborated on this outlook, and sought to bolster it with a scientific basis.

--- Jon Gallant
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