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In The Age of Reason (1945), first novel in his unfinished tetralogy The Roads to Freedom, the Sartrean alter ego has turned into Mathieu — teaching philosophy, like Sartre, at a lycée in 1938. He lives a bohemian life in the company of his pregnant mistress, a favoured student, a friend who becomes a Communist, and others. He wanders about Paris for two days, trying to find the money to pay for his mistress’s abortion, both indulging and despising himself. The novel is realistic, anti-romantic, rather relishes the sordid, and is built around the Sartrean themes of commitment — to people, careers and politics, in all of which Mathieu is patently failing — and freedom, which Mathieu does not know how to achieve. Not he, but the homosexual Daniel emerges as an unexpected saviour of the unborn child at the end.

The “age” of the ironic title is that at which Mathieu should, according to his bourgeois brother, be achieving maturity. Mathieu wants to “retain his freedom”, but Jacques retorts: “You condemn capitalist society, and yet you are an official in that society; you display an abstract sympathy with Communists, but you take care not to commit yourself.” He despises his country — “tous les Français sont des salauds” — and his lack of warmth points to one of Sartre’s failings. But, like his creator, he is sociable, a stimulating companion.

These two honest, engaging but almost nihilistic novels — studies in failure in responsibility, achievement and love — suggest Sartre’s unachieved potential. His next, The Reprieve, is set at the end of September 1938 when Chamberlain, who appears briefly, was in Munich. The influence of Dos Passos lies behind the narrative collage technique (“simultaneity”), in which the unconnected threads, involving many characters across  Europe, are switched in mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence. This jolting, disconcerting method demands concentration, but conveys effectively the confusion, nightmarish anxiety, and unreadiness of France as war approaches: all conviction is evaporating.

The third volume, Iron in the Soul, takes Mathieu and his new comrades-in-arms on to the fall of France. It should be read for its vivid dramatisation of the prevalent mood of shame and futility, and the ideological polarisation of the time. Mathieu is called up, but his unit is soon hanging about waiting for capture. Their officers desert them; Mathieu at last commits himself to a reckless act of resistance, in which “he was cleansed. He was free.” In Part Two, set in a makeshift Stalag holding 20,000 prisoners, a close friendship develops between  a Communist and a sympathiser, Schneider. In effect, Sartre kills off the drifting Mathieu to build a second alter ego in Schneider. The comradeship reflects that found by Sartre in the Stalag where he was a prisoner until his release on medical grounds, and it offers a more positive view of relationships than the rest of his work, in which many of them are fraught or half-hearted. The novel here becomes unequivocally political, with gauchistes competing with priests and Pétainistes for the men’s allegiance.

The crucial turn in Sartre’s career occurs as he completes this novel and then tries unsuccessfully in the 1950s to complete the tetralogy. There was a battle inside him not only between the literary and the political, but between the novelist and the playwright; and he gave so much of his energy to journalism (above all to the review Les Temps Modernes) and to playwriting that he did not publish Iron in the Soul until 1949. Whereas his newfound political conviction, built on his postwar study of Marx, fed naturally into the rhetoric of his playwriting, it hobbled his more subtle style as novelist. What emerged was a Marxist crusader — a Sartre, one might say, Resartus.
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