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He therefore abandoned the intractable problem of an Occupation novel: “I can’t express the ambiguities of our period in this story,” he wrote of his aborted novel. These ambiguities were within and without him: just as he attacked collaborationists, some accused him of moral compromise both during and after the Occupation. The historian Gilbert Joseph, in Une si douce occupation, showed that he hardly put himself in danger in Paris, and that therefore the Resistance mantle he later assumed was undeserved (was there even implicit collaboration?). An honest novel about the Occupation would have been worth more to literary posterity than half of his postwar writings put together, but could he write it if he himself was guilty of the mauvaise foi for which he attacked others? Instead, he turned away from la vie interieure and the realistic characterisation of his novels to the more symbolic world of his plays, with their remote settings and improbable circumstances.

He had already written two of his best plays under the occupation. Les Mouches (The Flies), based on Electra, made eloquent use of Greek myth in exploring again the idea of freedom. Recalling the moment of his decision to kill his mother and Aegisthus, Orestes says: “Suddenly freedom swooped down upon me and took hold of me; nature jumped back. And there was nothing left in heaven, neither Good nor Evil, and nobody could give me orders.” This is the freedom to make a hard decision (“Never have we been so free,” said Sartre, using this paradoxical meaning, of the Occupation). After the inevitable murder, he tells Jupiter that man is free, then simply leaves, as if seeing no political way forward. “Mouches”, incidentally, was the word used in Paris for informers.

Sartre’s most famous play, No exit (or In Camera), contains the line “l’enfer, c’est les autres”, for in this bourgeois hell, free of physical torment, the three main characters, articulate and sinful, are doomed to torment each other by their relentlessly wearying obsessions, without hope of any reprieve (at the time, “les autres” often meant the Germans). This grim, witty chamber piece has lasted pretty well, though it is cynical and slight — Sartre invested far more emotional energy in his novels than his plays.

Les Mains Sales (1948) is about Communism, taking an anti-Party line because Sartre was repelled by the vicious in-fighting on the extreme Left: its hero — Hugo, a member of the Party in Eastern Europe — is ordered to kill a Party leader (Hoedere) who advocates compromise. Hugo admires Hoedere and disobeys the order, only to kill him out of jealousy because his wife is attracted to him. Despite this, he falls foul of the Party’s ruthless leaders over the presentation of the murder. Sartre suggests that such violent decisions come from unforgivably crude thinking. Vilified by Communists (which dismayed Sartre though he never joined the Party), the play’s great success proves how well he could engage his public in political issues. But it does not transcend the period.

Lucifer and the Good Lord (1951), a forceful metaphysical drama set in the German Peasants’ War, centres on an outstanding commander, Goetz (based on Goetz von Berlichingen), who espouses evil for its own sake before being persuaded to switch to an equally unbending cult of good. His peasants turn against him in the end because they want a leader to fight for their wider cause, and in due course he is persuaded to agree. Goodness is not enough even if the sheltered community is happy. The characterisation suffers from its Brechtian nature; and it can hardly be an accident that its dialectical structure coincides with Sartre’s decision to become a fellow-traveller, and to defend the Soviet Union until 1956.

There were a few intriguing plays still to come, one being The Condemned of Altona, set in the house of a German tycoon in 1958, and centred on his troubled son Frantz who has lived self-imprisoned upstairs since his return from the Eastern Front, convinced that Germany is ruined. Later we discover that, despite his idealism, he had authorised the use of torture on prisoners. The play explores the unpredictable consequences of decisions taken under stress — here both father and son are guilty. Rather overladen with complications such as incest and madness, it makes use of absurdist elements: Frantz addresses an imagined jury of crabs, to whom he says about the family business, “Evil, your Lordships, was the only material we had.” 

By 1959 Sartre had concluded, exactly like a bourgeois individualist undergoing Communist re-education, that his literary writing was “a sign of weakness”; but there was one good book to come — Les Mots, his anti-Proustian autobiography covering his childhood with his grandparents after the early death of his father. His doting mother, forced back into the position of unmarried daughter, shared her bedroom with him for years. He hates fathers, he pronounces, “who bestraddle their sons all their life long . . . I have no Superego.” He emerged with an indestructible confidence, an adventurous imagination and a bookish view of reality:  “From [books] came the idealism which it took me thirty years to shake off.” When he did shake it off, he disloyally rejected the idea of the family altogether: “I loathed my childhood,” he writes, appearing, after what we have read, disingenuous. But he often rejected what he had been most attached to, and his loathing is for everything bourgeois.

Sartre did not achieve greatness. He left many projects incomplete, thanks to his restless desire for new enterprises, new ideas and new versions of himself. He overreached himself, therefore, and his later politics, philosophy and biography (in which he conjoined Marxism and psychoanalysis) are a tangled garden rank with weeds. At the root of all lies a complex and refractory psyche: there is not only the intellectual and emotional restlessness, the inverted egotism, and the dogmatism, but also the abhorrence of his upbringing and so much else. The rejection of his family has parallels in the way he treated friends such as the more humanistic Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, and in his selfish and manipulative relations with women. Underneath it lies a persistent element of self-disgust which unites with a disgust at France to produce a raging desire for radical change in everything. Significantly, despite years of effort, he could no more complete his existentialist ethics than The Roads to Freedom: this second failure left his philosophy fatally flawed.
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