Friday 14 September 2018


(If the concept applies to Existentialist novels first published in 1945, then PLOT SPOILERS)

”Let it come! Let war come at last, let it batter at my eyes and fill them with visions of tainted, wrecked, and bleeding bodies, save me from the eternal round, from those endless weak desires, from smiles, and greenery, from buzzing flies… a fiery geyser leaps into the sky. A flame that burns the face and eyes, and seems to tear the cheeks away: let it come at last.”

“They are being taken to the slaughterhouse and they don’t realise it. They regard war as an illness. War is not an illness. It’s an abomination because it is caused by men.”

”Through these murdered streets...”

Jean-Paul Sartre set this sequel a mere two years after ’The Age of Reason’.
(Which is, ironically, about the length of time it took me to get round to reading it.) As you might expect, many of the characters from the previous novel recur. And it works within the same dramatic unities. In fact, this time they’re even tighter – the whole novel takes place within the eight days of the ill-fated Munich conference, with chapters named diary-style after the successive dates.

But the cast list of ’Age of Reason’ was relatively narrow, with few secondary characters, and with everything taking place inside Paris. Here it ventures across the map of Europe, even extending to Morocco. And in so doing introduces a whole host of new faces. Some of these only show up once, others reappear throughout. New characters are still appearing, and old ones reappearing, in the penultimate chapters. Their presence essentially usurps the tight organising principles of the predecessor book. Matthieu, last time, was clearly the protagonist – the novel started and finished with him. This time, to quote Sartre himself, “we’ll find again all the characters of ‘The Age of Reason,’but now they are lost in a crowd.”

And this changes the structure. Previously (as said last time) Sartre had been “a serial monogamist of narrative perspective, switching from the viewpoint of one character in one chapter to their being framed by the viewpoint of another in the next… [it was] impossible to be in two places at once, any more than it's possible to be in two heads at once.”

Structured as a succession of duologues, you could relatively easily reformat ‘Age of Reason’as a play. (Pointlessly, it’s true. But formally, you could do it.) This time Sartre intercuts between those many characters without warning, from one paragraph to the next,within the same paragraph or even withinthe clauses of the same sentence.

True, the accumulation of all this can present what might charitably be called a challenge to the reader. Expect to have to pay attention. Expect to scratch your head somewhat even though you are paying attention. Expect to know when to read significance into semi-colons.

It helps that Sartre’s actual writing is sharp and clear. He’s evocative and yet precise, as if he’s always able to find just the right metaphor to convey the inner workings of each character. (For example “Mother Boningue would look at him with velvety eyes and talk to him about ‘the horror of shedding blood’, waving idealist hands.”)

But also, and more importantly, there’s purpose to this. Let’s sneak up on that one slowly…

If, structurally (albeit reductively)speaking,‘Age of Reason’could be compared to a play, the temptation is to describe ‘The Reprieve’as cinematic. But the main problem with this notion is that it leadsus to think of the rapid-fire editing and cross-cutting style of our time. Whereas it’s more similar to cinematic devices of it’s day, the cross-fade and montage. In both, objects from separate spaces overlap, share the screen -one scene blurring into another. The novel itself uses a similar metaphor, through from another media, of the dial turning on a radio:

“The war – ah yes! the war. No, said Zezette, not the radio, I don’t want it, I won’t think of the war. Well, let’s have a bit of music, said Maurice. Chersau, good-b – b-r-r-r – my star – here is the news – sombreroes and mantillas – I Will Wait, at the request of Huguette Arnal, Pierre Ducroc, his wife and two daughters, Roche Danillax, Mlle Eliane of Calvi and Jean-Francois Rouquette, for his little Marie-Medeleine, and a group of typists at Tulle for their soldier sweethearts, I Will Wait, day and night, have some more bouillabaisse, no thanks, said Mathieu, something can surely be arranged, the radio crackled, sped over the white, dead squares. Smashed the windows and penetrated into the dim, humid interiors of the houses.”

(And we should remember that radio, if seen by us as old-fashioned, perhaps even antiquated, was in 1945 a relatively modern medium.)

Though at the same time, it should be emphasised how much this work remains ‘literary’. There may be a temptation to compare it to Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’, as both are post-war works, albeit different wars. But Elliot is not only more fragmentary, that fragmentary nature – the way it’s only a series of parts – is central. The inchoateness is its point. This is more like a series of short stories shuffled together. While there are ellipses, they’re no greater gaps than you’d come across in a standard novel, and they’re easy enough for the reader to step over.

And the reason for this structural change is the change in circumstances. In fact it’s given away in the quote above – war is imminent .Events are suddenly bigger than Paris, so distances correspondingly shrink. War in Czechoslovakia means war in France. The bright white mobilisation posters going up across the countryact as an objective correlative of this.

As pointed out last time that, despite it’s title ‘Age of Reason’is not about a time period. This time, semi-suggested by the title, it very much is. ’The Reprieve’ is set within the brief period when the prospect of war is raised then seems averted by handing Hitler the Sudetenland. With the absurdity of mobilising for an event which doesn’t happen, married to the absurdity of preventing a war which merely comes a little later, plans go so hopelessly awry at points it almost becomes capital-A Absurdist. (This may not be a novel for those who like a story to go somewhere.)

And with this Sartre hands us back our hindsight.There’s nothing within ‘Age of Reason’,for those who didn’t already know, to tell you which way the war went in Spain. Here prominence is given to a Hitler speech where he promises the Sudetenland marks the limit of his ambitions. Previously,as he fought for the Republicans in Spain, Gomez had been kept offstage. Here he appears, just as a character who struggled for peace dies at the moment of being introduced. Peace, of course, dies alongside him.

True, some claim the thing’s avoidable. But while Sartre pointedly neither judges nor asks for sympathy with his characters, they’re clearly presented as clueless fools. Jacques was previously a minor figurewhose main function was to truth-tell his brother Matthias. Here he has more of a role, and makes a set-piece argument against Matthias’ “prejudices” about Hitler, a classic case of the main who mistakes pontificating for wisdom. Philippe the pacifist is a privileged idealist, keen to meet ‘real’ proletarians to whom he can impart his vital message. (His plans, above all, do not reach fruition.) Only Sarah, who sees with bitter eyes her young son playing at war, has integrity.

Instead, characters frequently picture the war as if they can already see it. War ismore than imminent, it’s immanent -there in things already present. War hasn’t cast its shadow over everything so much as saturated it, a stain that even now starts to show through. Nothing can resist it, remain the same or even hope to resume it’s earlier form:

“War had come: it was there, in the depths of that luminous haze, inscribed for all to see on the walls of that frail city: it was an arrested explosion that had split the rue Royale: people passed and did not see it: but Brunet saw it. It had always been there, but people were not yet aware of it. Brunet had thought: ’The sky will fall upon our heads’. The city was in the act of falling, he had seen the houses as they really were; petrified collapse. Above that elegant shop were tons of stone, and each stone, interlocking with the rest, had been falling steadily for fifty years past; a heavier thrust and the plate-glass windows would be smashed; cartloads of stone would hurtle into the cellar, and overwhelm the stores of merchandise. They have ten-thousand-pounder bombs.”

Given this, you might be tempted to think that War brings everyone out of their insularworlds of self-examined gestures and they finally set their eyes on the bigger picture. Of course that’s become the dominant narrative of the Second World War, that it was the war which had to be fought, which united everyone, the Nazis being so uniquely evil.

And characters do sometimes run into one another, or occupy the same space. But War, crucially, brings together but doesn’tunify. These narrative strands don’t tie into one. When their paths cross, rather than threading together characters either unknowingly overlap or collide and throw up friction. But more often they juxtapose. Perhaps my favourite moment is when the Munich negotiations segue into an invalid who needs to shit.

As ever with Sartre, the frequent crowd scenes just emphasise how the responses to War are unique and internalised.War doesn’t surmount subjective responses, it precipitates them. This is summed up by the response to that two-faced Hitler speech, and again it uses the radio as a metaphor. Ella, herself Jewish, does not receive it well:

”The voice was there, enormous, the very voice of hatred: this one man versus Ella. The great plain of Germany, the mountains of France, had dissolved, he confronted her as an absolute enemy, outside space, he was threshing about in that box of his – he’s looking at me, he sees me. She turned to her mother, to Ivy: but they had suddenly receded. She could still see them but not touch them. Paris had drifted out of reach, the light from the windows fell dead upon the carpet. Contacts between people and things were imperceptibly disintegrating, she was alone in the world with that voice… He was addressing her as though they two were alone, his eyes glaring into hers.”

To listen to the radio, your mind tunes into it and consequently tunes out of the room you’re in. The room’s still there but dissociated from the sound you hear, you regard it as peripheral. Other people may be there, but we listen as if we were alone. Form and content fuse. Radio is as isolating as Hitler’s murderous intent is for Ella.

And those subjective responses vary greatly between those separatingsemi-colons.Gomez, who can no longer see outside of war, not only sees its extension to France as inevitable but welcomes it. (“He needed shouts, shrill songs, swift and violent pains, he loathed the soft atmosphere in which he lived.”) Boris, made aware of his own mortality, picks a date for his death and starts to count down to it. Maurice, loyal Communist party member, looks forward to getting – and then keeping - his gun. Daniel reassures his new wife with pacific platitudes, while inside longing for the war to arrive, a conflagration to burn away “the eternal round” of his domestic bourgeois life. (See the opening quote.)

But most significant is Matthieu. Jacques mistakenly sees in him the opposite perspective to himself, a keenness to fight. Previously, he was acutely aware he had a life but was equally aware he had no notion of how to spend it, his considerations became self-perpetuating and ultimately paralysing. So the prospect of volunteering for Spain produced in him nothing but a(nother) existential crisis. Now,he feels lifeless, devoid of agency. Significantly, he no longer lives alone but as a house guest of his brother. So he phlegmatically accepts the call-up, one decision he won’t need to make himself. And, while he’s given personalised reasons for this resigned response, his being what passes for our protagonist gives it a greater weight.

Which is quite a bizarre twist. Normally, Existentialism presupposes that consciousness compels us to make choices, hence (in the infamous phrase) we’re condemned to be free. Fighting in Spain really just provides an instance for this. But here War overrides any such compulsion. Conscription makes us history’s passengers, obediently boarding conscript trains bearing correct papers, and so offers a kind of surrender that can be easeful.

This is made most clear not by Matthieu but when French negotiator Daladier succumbs to the inevitable like a warm bath:

”He thought: ‘Things are slipping out of my grasp’. It was a kind of relief. ‘I have done everything,’ he thought, ‘to avoid war: and now war and peace are out of my hands. There was no further decision to take, nothing to do but wait; like everybody else, like the loafer at a street-corner.’ He smiled, he was that loafer, he had been stripped of his responsibilities: the position of France is clearly defined… A relief.”

”There are eyes upon me”

Novels normally divide between external and internal perspectives. Some work as reportage, delineating what happens like a diligent eyewitness, while others are psychological. We see their world from inside a character’s head, filtered through their eyes. We even ‘see’ their thoughts and impulses, as if they’re somehow projected in front of us, like at a planetarium.

Traditionally novels stick to one or the other of these modes, not normally shifting the audience’s seats mid-show. Moreover, Sartre - and Existentialist writers in general - are considered psychological – less concerned with what happens than with their characters’ motivations. And indeed, page after page can go by where characters do nothing except think.

Yet, not content with just his sudden narrative leaps, Sartre shifts between these perspectives without warning. When Hannequin is called up, the novel faithfully reports his planning with his wife the minutiae of what he needs to take and what to carry it in. Yet after his wife leaves him alone in the train carriage, he becomes contemplative and the mode shifts...

“The young man and the woman are still on the platform… he too has been called up. They have ceased to talk; they are looking at each other. And I look at their hands, good hands that wear no wedding-rings…. Doors are slammed, they do not hear: they no longer look at each other, they no longer need to, in their inmost selves they are together.”

The empty fraudulence of his relationship is exposed by contrast to the truth of another. Only then can it be seen. And there’s a variant on this when Maurice and his girlfriend are talking to Party leader Brunet, and he catches sight of another group. Except this time it’s themselves he sees, reflected in glass:

“A dark window mirrored their reflections: Maurice saw a woman without a hat, and a tall strapping fellow with a cap on the back of his head, bursting out of his jacket, talking to a gentleman.”

In other words he becomes self-objectifying, he sees himself – and those he’s with – as though they were others. And the contemplated self inevitably becomes the split self, the contemplator detached from the contemplated. This is mostly developed in the returning character Daniel:

“He was sick of… looking at himself; especially as, when I look at myself, I am two people. I want to be: in the unseeing darkness.”

And this inevitably gets attached to notions of morality. We might be more loathe to, for example, push into a queue if we can picture ourselves as others would see us. And this in itself becomes bound up with the concept of an all-seeing God. And so, after no hint of this in the first book, we find he has taken to religion. (Notably when the day-derived chapters reach Sunday, he’s the only character to be found in Church.) He looks at another penitent:

“An eye sees him – sees his hard heart, as I see his hands, sees his greed, as I see his straggling hair, and the patch of pity that gleams through his avarice, as his skull gleams through his hair: all this he knows as he turns the thumbed pages of his missal, and says with a groan: ‘Lord, Lord, I am a miser.’ The Medusa’s petrifying gaze will fall upon him from above… Here am I as thou hast made me, a vile coward, irredeemable. Thou lookest at me, and all hope departs: I am weary of my efforts to escape myself. I shall enter, I shall stand along those kneeling women, like a monument of iniquity. I shall say: ‘I am Cain. Well? Thou hast made me, now sustain me.’ Marcelle’s look, Mathieu’s look, Bobby’s look, my cats’ look: they always stopped sort at my skin.”

Daniel’s philosophy distils into the Descartes-distorting “I am seen, therefore I am”: “I’ve always done everything for the benefit of an eye-witness. A man evaporates without an eye-witness.”

While Matthieu, very much an author surrogate, goes through a similar crisis but is specified as an atheist. There’s the same outside perspective, but no-one to inhabit it but himself:

“There lay his hands on the white parapet: bronze hands they seemed, as he looked at them. But, just because he could look at them, they were no longer his, they were the hands of another, they were outside, like the trees, like the reflection shimmering in the Seine: severed hands… ‘I am free for nothing,’ he reflected wearily. Not a sign in the sky, nor on the earth, the things of this world were too utterly immersed in the war that was theirs.”

Sartre wasn’t merely an atheist, he placed this at the heart of his philosophy. We are born not made, which means we do not come with any factory defaults. Whatever we do, it must come from our own choices. It’s from this basic, inescapable fact of life that the whole “condemned to be free” business stems. Deferring to God is not wrong because it feigns a presence out of an absence, but because it defers our responsibilities from ourselves out into the void.

And, particularly with ‘Age of Reason’ essentially being resolved by a conversation between Daniel and Matthieu, I wondered if this book would conclude with their finally meeting and engaging in some knock-out debate.

As it happens Daniel writes Matthieu a letter, which he doesn’t get round till reading till already aboard the conscript train. He reads  for a few pages about the gaze of God, before muttering “stale trash” and throwing the thing out the window.

I guess that settles that.

Coming in another two years! The third book of the trilogy...

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