Jean-Paul Sartre was born 100 years ago today. His reputation has taken a bit of a battering since his death in 1980–his wilful blindness* to the atrocities perpetrated by Stalin is perhaps the biggest black mark against him. But don’t be put off by the stereotypical image of the bug-eyed monstre sacré wreathed in cigarette smoke at a table outside Les Deux Magots. His work, or at least his fiction, really does stand up to the test of time.
The trilogy, Les Chemins de la Liberté (Roads to Freedom) definitely merits its place on anyone’s ‘shelf of honour.’ The first novel in the sequence, The Age of Reason, is probably the most accessible. Unfolding over an eventful 24-hours, it revolves around the efforts made by Matthieu Delarue, a somewhat feckless 30-something lecturer in philosophy, to procure 4,000 francs to pay for his girlfriend’s illegal abortion. As the premise suggests, Delarue isn’t a particularly pleasant character and neither are the other characters who populate Sartre’s dense canvas. There’s Marcelle, Delarue’s passive-aggressive mistress; Daniel, a homosexual filled with self-loathing; a young student, Boris, who worships Delarue and commits petty crime to ‘test’ himself; Brunet, a communist who believes people are expendable to the cause; and Ivich, Boris’s troubled sister who is both Matthieu’s student and potential lover.
Despite the fact that all of these characters are in thrall to their diverse miseries, the novel nevertheless sweeps us up in their fates. This is partly because the novel, unfolding in that claustrophobic timeframe, imparts a sense of febrile urgency to events, as if every decision made at every moment represents a judgement on character. Moreover, Sartre never succumbs to the glibness of amorality or nihilism. Unlike, say, Michel Houellebecq‘s figures, who believe (or at least pretend to believe) that morality is just another Judeo-Christian sham, Sartre’s actors continually wrestle with the ethical implications of their actions, good or bad. They might be unhappy, but they are never bored (and neither is the reader). Which, I suppose, is one of the more positive consequences of Sartre’s famously gloomy dictum: ‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.’
*Unfortunately, Sartre’s blindness was a literal fact for the last seven years of his life.