Douglas Johnson

On the morning of 16 April 1980, two well-known Oxford figures chanced to meet in the High. ‘Have you heard the good news?’ called out the one, the former head of a prestigious college. ‘Sartre is dead.’ The other, a well-known and distinguished man about French history, was delighted. According to his own account, the two of them then enacted a little dance or jig to express their pleasure. The occasion may be compared with Mrs Bessie Braddock’s notorious celebration in the newly-elected House of Commons of 1945, when she marked the absence of Winston Churchill from the government Front Bench with a few rhythmic steps.

This endearing scene was surprising in England. The more gentle, and civilised, attitude which most English or Anglo-Saxon people feel that they ought to show towards the conclusiveness of death (Harry Truman’s remark when he heard of the death of Stalin, ‘I’m always sad when I hear of the passing of an acquaintance of mine,’ was in this sense typical) is not usually shared by the more cynical and abrupt French – ‘un emmerdeur de moins,’ replied a Paris lycée teacher when her pupils asked her what she thought about the death of Bernard Shaw. But it was the French who, on this occasion, showed the greater sentimentality. The news of Sartre’s death was greeted with general emotion, and more than fifty thousand people followed his coffin from the Hôpital Broussais to the cemetery of Montparnasse. His grave, which is only a few hundred metres from the Boulevard Edgar Quinet where he spent his last years, is constantly decorated with flowers. There is no evidence of French professors dancing with joy in any equivalent of the Oxford High, such as the Boulevard Sébastopol.

It is also surprising to find hostility to Sartre in England, where his work has always been appreciated: indeed, the French would say where his work was always over-appreciated. It is as if the nostalgic English have never lost, or allowed successive generations to be ignorant of, the enthusiasm with which the activity of Sartre and his contemporaries was greeted during the excitements of the Liberation. But in France Sartre was always controversial and always had opponents to denounce his ideas and ridicule his art. There were times when he was without doubt the most hated writer in France; people paraded in the Champs-Elysées with placards saying Mort à Sartre; more than one attempt was made on his life; and it was sometimes difficult to tell who disliked him the most, the Communist Left, the nationalist Right, or the Catholics and bourgeois who occupy a vague middle ground in French society – did not Genet describe Sartre as ‘l’emmerdeur de la bourgeoisie’? But at his death a great variety of French people vied with each other in praise of his intelligence, honesty, courage and vitality. The comparison with Voltaire was common (although Althusser preferred to compare him to Rousseau), and it was generally assumed that he had been a uniquely important figure in the culture of 20th-century France.

This desire to protect the reputation and image of someone who is now accepted as a national figure has continued. It is those who have written critically about Sartre since his death who are now attacked in France, especially if they have referred to the long list of errors of judgment which he undoubtedly made, and they have been condemned for wishing to denigrate, for lacking ‘la passion de comprendre autrui’. And even amongst those who were closest to Sartre, ‘la famille’, there is violent disagreement. Simone de Beauvoir, his close companion for more than fifty years, has been accused, on the one hand, of having taken ‘subtle revenge’ on the man who dominated her life by chronicling the years of illness and senility, and, on the other, of behaving possessively by proclaiming the intimacy which allowed the two of them to share both the pleasures and the humiliations of their last decade together. Perhaps it is in bad taste to write about Sartre’s incontinence or about his delirium, perhaps it is foolish to reveal that she wanted to lie beside the dead Sartre and only the warning that gangrene was infectious stopped her doing so. But she does not hesitate to point out that Olivier Todd, who has written of his intimate relations with Sartre whilst roundly condemning Sartre’s influence, was never on such close terms with Sartre as he claimed. She says the same about Paul Victor, Sartre’s last collaborator, with whom he was working on important projects in the months before his death. Georges Michel, a communist watchmaker who wrote plays and, through them, became linked with Sartre and Les Temps Modernes, also condemns Paul Victor (who published an interview with Sartre in which the latter made some untypical remarks) and cries scandal, claiming that after Sartre’s death, his adopted daughter, Arlette El Kaïm, and Paul Victor emptied his home of all his private belongings, profiting not only from Simone de Beauvoir’s illness but also from the bourgeois laws of property which they had always denounced: Simone de Beauvoir had never legally married Sartre and she could not claim any belongings, not even as mementos. But Michel also describes Simone de Beauvoir’s attitude to Sartre as that of a somewhat sharp mother towards her child. ‘N’oubliez pas encore vos clefs,’ he once heard her say as they left their flat. When the ill Sartre was no longer supposed to smoke, Michel would smuggle in packets of Boyards, on one occasion giving him a dummy book where the cigarettes could be concealed. But where should the book be placed so as not to arouse Simone de Beauvoir’s suspicions? Sartre was apprehensive: ‘Elle a l’oeil,’ he commented. (The matter was all the more delicate since the dummy book affected to be a work of Christian morality and was therefore even more conspicuous. When the book was finally concealed on the shelves Sartre commented: ‘C’est tout de même utile, la littérature.’)

There will, obviously, be other books about Sartre’s private life and it seems likely that some of them, at least, will be critical of the role that Simone de Beauvoir played. Raymond Aron has already said that his relations changed from the day that Sartre met her. Until then Sartre liked to have him as his companion, someone with whom he could talk: once Simone de Beauvoir had taken on this role, he was no longer interested in Aron. As the latter put it, ‘Sartre est l’homme d’un interlocuteur privilégié.’ But for many of the years which are dealt with in these books, Sartre, unfortunately, did not need an interlocuteur. He who had been, in Georges Michel’s phrase, the Borg of conversation was often silent.

In October 1973, on the day he had to appear in court and defend himself against the right-wing weekly paper Minute, he learned that there was nothing to be done about his blindness. Simone Signoret, amongst others who saw him that day, was astonished by the change in his appearance, but what concerned his friends most was his silence. Simone de Beauvoir lists many occasions when he did not say a word, including a meeting of the editorial board of Les Temps Modernes held in order to discuss an article on the Arab-Jewish conflict with which Sartre was deeply involved. He slept a great deal, and even slept when he was being read to. Simone de Beauvoir lists, rather casually, some of the books which she read to him during 1973, such as various works on Flaubert, including the different versions of a chapter in Madame Bovary, the special number of Les Temps Modernes on Chile, Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, two large volumes on Japan, the celebrated work by the historian Mathiez, La Vie Chère sous la Terreur. Georges Michel, who had aroused his curiosity once by speaking about an edition of Beethoven’s letters which he had offered to give him as a Christmas present, eventually gave him something else because he had not wished to impose upon Simone de Beauvoir the burden of having to read this correspondence to him. She herself admits that when Paul Victor became his assistant and undertook to read to him every morning, this suited her because it gave her a certain amount of free time.

There is much that is moving in these accounts. Sartre, coming to terms with his blindness, but telling others that he could only put up with it if it were temporary; asking if people had noticed that he was ill – ‘diminué’, as he liked to say; trying to summon up enough concentration to read a detective novel; sitting alone in his Montparnasse restaurant, clumsily spilling his food and looking downwards at the table rather than towards people whom he could not see. Michel tells of Sartre going to his desk, which had been a gigantic disorder of books and papers, but had become bare and empty, and offering to sign a book for him. But then, he could not remember Michel’s name, and when told it, thinking that it was a Christian name, he wrote simply ‘à Michel’.

The real interest of these publications lies elsewhere, however: with Simone de Beauvoir, who has to describe how she is totally absorbed in someone else, but who nevertheless seeks to retain her identity. And whilst in earlier days the surrender – or as she put it, the liquidation – of her ethical idealism was explained by Sartre’s intellectual forcefulness, in these years it was a matter of sentiment, of emotion, of devotion. La Cérémonie des Adieux owes its title to the phrase, spoken by Sartre, as they bade farewell to each other, one summer, for a short period. ‘Alors, c’est la cérémonie des adieux?’ he asked, and Simone de Beauvoir saw how there would come a time when the phrase would take on a different significance. Like the heroine in Les Mandarins, who knew that one day she would see her husband stretched out on a bed, his skin waxen and an unreal smile on his lips, she seems to have foreseen this moment of separation. Like her heroine, too, she has no hope of being reunited in death: ‘Sa mort nous sépare. Ma mort ne nous réunira pas. C’est ainsi. Il est déjà beau que nos vies aient pu si longtemps s’accorder.’

The period that is covered in La Cérémonie des Adieux starts in September 1970, when Sartre had an attack of vertigo. The friendship between Sartre and Georges Michel dates back to 1963, but most of their meetings took place after 1968. Thus both Michel’s book and Simone de Beauvoir’s are about the period when Sartre, having lost the illusion that political change could be brought about by literature, was trying to rethink his position as an intellectual and to find another way of closing the gap between bourgeois writer and manual worker. These are the years of encroaching senility and also of a youthful political activity, with the attempt to ‘se fondre dans la masse’ replacing creative writing. In August and September 1974 Simone de Beauvoir recorded a series of long interviews between herself and Sartre (how could she interview someone with whom she had been so close for so many years? Perhaps the phrase ‘Oui, je sais,’ which occurs, ought to have occurred more frequently) which are appended to the book: much of what is said there refers to the past, to Sartre’s childhood and early youth. They should be looked at alongside the first volume of the Pléiade edition of his complete works, which contains La Nausée, Le Mur, Les Chemins de la Liberté and a number of other texts, and which makes it possible to situate these writings in terms of Sartre’s early life. The editorial work that has gone into this volume is remarkable. With these books we can see Sartre both in his early and in his final years.[*]

In her flat, direct and clear prose, Simone de Beauvoir makes little attempt to criticise Sartre’s actions after 1970. She is content to record the meetings and demonstrations, the petitions, the interviews and statements, the law suits. She has little to say about herself. On one occasion she records her anxiety about the conversations with Paul Victor. Sartre had reported that they had been going badly, and that he and Victor were very much at odds. When Sartre reported that they had finally agreed, she feared that Sartre had simply given way and had accepted the positions which Victor (who published under the name of Benni Lévi) had insisted upon, and which were those of a former Maoist converted to the Jewish faith. Michel, who writes more dramatically about the ailing Sartre, limping his way to meetings, readily accepting to speak and to discuss in spite of fatigue and discomfort, is also more critical. He could not believe that such an intelligent, sensitive and independent man could fall into the trap of slogans and jargon, and allow himself to be identified with ‘cette masse lobotomisée des porteurs du livre rouge’. He admired Sartre for making himself available, for giving so much of himself and for discovering a second youth in his passion for justice: but he could not follow him entirely and for a time they drifted apart. Why, he asks again, was Sartre so apologetic about the book on Flaubert he was writing, why did he let himself be put on the defensive or feel obliged to try to justify his work in terms of the unknown directions which literature might take once the revolution had taken place? Why did he not simply say merde to his Maoist critics?

Perhaps one should not try to explain Sartre’s readiness to be manipulated entirely in terms of his declining health. His anxieties about money, in these bleak years, were certainly linked to many foolish generosities in the past. When he counted up, with Simone de Beauvoir, the number of apparently close and intimate friendships which had ended in quarrels and separation, he protested that he had never sought to quarrel. Aron, Camus, Giacometti, Maheu, Queneau: he suggests that it was they who sought the quarrel and he who had accepted it. Later he confesses to a certain embarrassment over intimacy with other men; he finds the exchange of personal confidences between men and the asking for advice exceedingly distasteful. He was happy at his lycée, at the Ecole Normale, even in a prisoner-of-war camp; he liked cafés, restaurants, the group around Les Temps Modernes, the company of young people in political movements. By himself he could live out an intellectual adventure. Within a group he could enact a political theatre. With individuals, at least if they were male, he was generous, helpful, accommodating – and, fleeing from intimacy, weak.

This weakness of character, unexpected in a man of a thousand vehement articles, probably explains much of his career as a novelist. ‘Je n’ai pas l’imagination romanesque,’, he wrote to Simone de Beauvoir in 1940, when he was putting the finishing touches to L’Age de Raison, and the documents in the Pléiade volume, most of them published for the first time, show what difficulties plot and character caused him. The only psychological make-up he understood was his own. It is no surprise to learn that he never liked Gide. The delayed development which he described in Les Mots – that of a child who, on the eve of the First World War, was living in the intellectual atmosphere which had prevailed in the days of Louis Philippe – persisted for a long time. When he came to Paris in 1920 and met Nizan, and his school fellows, they were reading Proust and Giraudoux, whilst he was still reading Claude Farrère and Anatole France. He told de Beauvoir that he had not been excited by any writer since the Fifties. It seems likely that much more of his thought was historical than has often been realised; when he started to collect books, after 1944, a great many of those which he then acquired were on the subject of the French Revolution.

What emerges from the Pléiade volume is the extent to which La Nausée, a work that has often been thought of as experimental and ultra-modern, is in fact traditional. The first version, which has been lost, apparently read like a 19th-century novel. The appearance of modernity comes from the liberation of style, probably under the influence of Céline: the planning and structure of the book are classical. Originally Sartre wanted to give it the subtitle Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Antoine Roquentin, which carried an echo of Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. It is possible to see in Bouville, the town where the novel is set, a realistic picture of Le Havre, with touches of La Rochelle and Rouen, and the name itself has a Flaubertian ring (as has the name of the hero, Roquentin, which appears in L’Education Sentimentale as roquentin, meaning a singer of satirical or obscene songs).

La Nausée should be seen in the great tradition of the French novel, which is not surprising, given that its author was someone for whom, as Simone de Beauvoir said, Stendhal was as important as Spinoza. In politics too, even in his Maoist or anarchist phases, Sartre was a traditionalist. He can be compared with Zola (whom he had reread during the Occupation) or with Mauriac (whom he detested) in so far as he used the press, the petition and the public meeting as the normal means of protest. Simone de Beauvoir records that one day when he was very despondent and inactive, he nevertheless wrote to the New York Review of Books to urge that those Americans who had deserted during the Vietnam War should not be punished.

Michel tells us how Sartre once visited a factory in the suburbs. The trade-unionists had locked him out, so, standing on a barrel, he spoke to the workers outside the gates: his message was that the intellectual must make contact with the workers. What is interesting is that Sartre claimed that such contact had, in fact, existed in the 19th century. It had to be renewed. Sartre always argued with himself: but whether as a creative writer or as ‘le soleil moribond’, an anxious politician roaming the streets, whether in the years of ambition or in the bleak years of illness, he was always in search of tradition. Individualist, subjectivist, romantic, moralist, humanist: to laugh at Sartre is to laugh at much of what one most admires in French culture. It was this tradition which was attacked by Sartre’s critics, the structuralists and others. ‘Man is dead,’ proclaimed Foucault, and doubtless he danced a jig on the boulevard.

[*] For an account of the literature which has been published on Sartre since his death see the special number of La Quinzaine Littéraire, No 369, 16-30 April 1982, ‘Sartre Deux Ans Après’, especially the article ‘Un Troisième Discours’ by Oreste Pucciani.