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How did he get to this far-out point? By any reckoning, Sartre was a phenomenon — creator of French existentialism, most fluent of political and cultural commentators, and winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature (which he attempted to decline). In 1980, 50,000 people paid tribute at his funeral, because, as James Wood puts it, “Fired by a passion for freedom and justice, loved and hated in his own day, Sartre [stood] as the authentic modern successor to Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.” Even de Gaulle, when Sartre aligned himself against the Algerian conflict in 1960, had said, generously, “You don’t imprison Voltaire.”

So, though hated and even threatened by many, he was almost untouchable in the period when he paid court to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Yet the writers mentioned were all surely greater than him: his novels are bleak, his plays mostly about ideas and symbolic acts of violence, his philosophy often obscure and comfortless, and his politics extreme. How could Sartre be their successor?

One answer is that France had suffered a massive collapse in confidence. For all the turbulence of history, previous generations did not have to cope with the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the Nazi occupation. Since France was suffering an existential crisis, uncertain of its future in a violent continent and an apparently godless universe, an authentic French existentialist was perhaps what it required. Sartre voiced aspects of the national conscience when everything had been tainted. His search for radical values spoke to many in a nation racked by shame and acute crises of faith.

Another is that he was indisputably brilliant. His output was prodigious and diverse, if uneven: most of his best work pre-dated 1950, and if he had died then he would not have been seen as a firebrand. In his thirties he was so apolitical that he said nothing about the Spanish Civil War. His reputation, as a significant rather than a great writer, should rest mainly on his novels and plays, particularly in my view the former. They are semi-autobiographical, honest and well-observed, dramatise many issues effectively, and depict their times sharply and vividly. Yet he cut short his career as a published novelist after only 12 years to devote himself to gauchisme.

Nausea, the first (1938), is one of the few good philosophical novels. It records in diary form, with sardonic wit, the drab, friendless life of Sartre’s alter ego, Roquentin, a scholar in a northern town. Among many memorable passages, there is one in which Roquentin stares at some tree roots until he is overwhelmed by the superfluity, the “contingency” and the “dismal, sickly” abundance of the natural life around him. (Sartre had been experimenting with drugs, which may be connected to this queasy vision.) Though the novel holds the spiritual kernel of Sartrean existentialism, and has much to say to the spiritually alienated, or the unbelieving but thoughtful young, it doesn’t reward re-reading as many more mature classics do — entirely introverted, it has a repetitive negative strain, and lacks the imaginative force of, say, Kafka (who is an influence).
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