Private Sartre

John Sturrock

  • War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War 1939-40 by Jean-Paul Sartre and Quentin Hoare
    Verso, 366 pp, £14.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 86091 087 3

Sartre had a passive, self-centred war, well-suited to his deeply civilian temper, with no heroics and a great deal of free time. He was mobilised in September 1939, served in the East of France until he was captured in the collapse of June 1940, spent nine months as a prisoner of war, then sat out the Occupation in Paris. No matter where he was, he wrote, abundantly – in the field, in the prison-camp and in occupied Paris. ‘He participated in the Resistance,’ the cover-note of these War Diaries piously reassures us, but the non-combatant Sartre’s arm was the so-called ‘intellectual resistance’, his boldest moment in it a bicycle trip round the unoccupied zone in the summer of 1941 to sound out helpers. He had neither the sense of oneness with his country’s needs nor, with only one good eye, the physique to want to do more. In these Diaries he welcomes the absolute decline of the military ideal in France by 1939. His own principles when he was called up were ones of cynical insubordination, but since he does not report having any brushes with the order-givers during his service, one has to take it that he kept his principles to himself.

The nine months of the Phoney War were phonier for Sartre than for most. He spent them behind the lines in Alsace doing what he had been trained to do, by Raymond Aron no less, when both were on national service in the Twenties – which was to let up weather balloons and take sightings on them. This quaint, undemanding routine was all the Army seems to have asked of him; there is no mention of parades, drill, training, fatigues. In Sartre’s small unit the military ideal is not in decline, it is irrelevant. These are diaries written in wartime, therefore – not diaries of war, nor very much about war. Sartre is taken up with himself and his ideas, not with what is going on in Europe; he has yet to make his portentous, unfortunate, discovery of ‘historicity’. But if military life for this as yet unrepentant individualist lacks both the servitude and the grandeur it once held for Alfred de Vigny, it does offer him the rare opportunities of exile, from his familiars in Paris, from teaching philosophy, from going after women. The sudden impoverishment of his external life prompts him to look within, to enjoy a happy, voluble season of introspection which he claims is a novelty for him.

To think as much and as freely as Sartre did on active service is an act of defiance; the soldier’s mind is intended to be dulled into grumbling acquiescence. But Sartre’s meteorology was soon done and the rest of his time was for reading and writing: ten or eleven hours a day by his own count, during which he reads a great many books, covers a great many pages of his notebooks, writes long letters to Simone de Beauvoir in Paris (with pressing requests for more writing-paper built into them), and finishes what turns out to be only the first draft of L‘Age de Raison, the first, and quite the best, volume of Les Chemins de la Liberté. He reads critically: Jules Romains, whose ‘unanism’ was a strong and damaging influence on the second volume of Sartre’s trilogy; Flaubert, derided for the awkwardness of his style in an early display of Sartre’s ambiguous negativity towards the bel écrit; Gide, admired but also found wanting as a keeper of journals because he remains irredeemably religious; Jules Renard, another diarist, dismissed by Sartre for his deeply un-Sartrian short-windedness, which prefers the economy of aphorisms to the wholesale elaboration of ideas. (For Sartre, Renard’s brevity is evidence that he was incapable of thought altogether.) So even when bent on writing a journal of his own, Sartre is full of the need to measure its distinctiveness and purity against these chosen predecessors. These are competitive Diaries.

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