It’s Hard to Stop

Michael Wood

Sartre published his novel Nausea in 1938. His plays The Flies and No Exit were first performed in 1943 and 1944, and Being and Nothingness appeared in 1943. This material is enough to eclipse almost anything and Sartre’s volume of short stories from 1939, The Wall, has not entirely escaped this fate – no doubt because, apart from the competition, we have been taught to think of Sartre as someone who uses fiction philosophically rather than someone who, let’s say, just writes it. A glance at Andrew Brown’s excellent translation of The Wall and/or at the French text shows us at once what we have been missing, and the glance very quickly turns into a long look.[*] It’s hard to stop reading.

The title of the book is that of the opening story, set in Spain during the Civil War, and the wall is where Republican prisoners are shot. In the second story, ‘The Bedroom’, a young woman can’t bring herself to have her mad husband committed to a mental hospital, as her parents recommend, and the husband speaks of a metaphorical wall between himself and his wife. The narrator describes the man’s face as ‘walled up’, muré. We begin to wonder whether all the stories – there are three more – will have something to do with walls and whether the volume’s title may be a larger clue than it looks.

The answer is yes and no. There are walls in all the stories but one, but some are just walls, not metaphors or destinies. But then the wall in the last story, a place where a Jew is beaten up by eager French fascists, does resemble the location in the first one. A wall in these contexts is a place where there is no retreat or crossing, and some sort of blockage of this kind occurs in all the stories.

The blockages are subtle and various, though. The mother of the young wife in ‘The Bedroom’ is in love with her supposed illness and thinks that ‘her most exquisite sensations would ripen her like a fine hothouse fruit’. She hates the very idea of vitality, and although she once used to shrug her shoulders, now she just raises her eyebrows. Sartre has a nice comic touch when he chooses to apply it. This woman’s husband represents rationality in its most unpleasant form. ‘He was always somewhat irritated by sick people – madmen in particular, since they were in the wrong’. A doctor in the same story cheerfully says ‘all the insane are liars.’ The young wife is kinder and more understanding, but needs to find a romance in her husband’s craziness, his visions of flying statues and gnomic remarks, his memories of what never happened. Like notionally sympathetic characters in other stories in the volume, she scorns normality – ‘She suddenly reflected, with a kind of pride, that she no longer had a place anywhere’ – and the sense of superiority that her sanity gives her over her husband fills her with ‘self-loathing’. Even so she can’t bear the thought of the unromantic forms she knows his degenerative disease will take. ‘One day his features would crumple, he would let his jaw hang open.’ She kisses his hand as he sleeps, and says: ‘I’ll kill you before then.’

Brown writes of the ‘trick ending’ of two of the stories, astutely adding that ‘for Sartre, there is a certain trickery about all endings,’ and we could take this reading further. All five of the stories show what we might call the bad luck version of existential freedom, some of the ways in which things go wrong because they just do. In ‘The Wall’, a man about to die refuses to betray a comrade, but instead of keeping quiet, decides to mock his captors by giving them false information. The false information turns out to be true, and the comrade is arrested and executed. The story ends with the unwitting betrayer’s laughter: ‘I was laughing so hard that tears came to my eyes.’ Perhaps this is the only way that self-admiring heroes know how to weep.

The other trick ending Brown refers to appears in the third story, called ‘Herostratus’, after the man who burned the temple at Ephesus in order to become famous. Sartre’s protagonist hears of this achievement in the course of the story, and promptly asks about the name of the architect of the temple. Told that perhaps no one knows, he is delighted. ‘Really? And yet you remember the name of Herostratus? As you can see, he’d calculated his chances pretty well.’ The man calculates his own chances of achieving fame by killing a handful of people in Montparnasse and then killing himself. He does shoot one person in a panic, and fires two further shots wildly. He has one bullet left and puts his revolver in his mouth. But he can’t shoot, just surrenders. Chance is a better mathematician than he is.

In the fourth story, ‘Intimacy’, a woman leaves her hopeless, angry husband for her lover, and plans to start a new life in Nice. Her friend thoroughly approves: ‘After all, a woman doesn’t have any right to spoil her life for an impotent man.’ But then the woman can’t bring herself to go, and returns to her husband for a tender reconciliation. The story ends with the friend’s distress at this conclusion, and one of Sartre’s funniest, if most bitter lines. ‘So that’s all fine then,’ the friend says. ‘So everybody’s happy!’ The narrator adds: ‘Without knowing why, she felt overwhelmed by a bitter sense of regret.’

Accidental betrayal, submission to madness, loss of nerve (twice) – these elements all appear in some form in the last and longest story in the volume, ‘The Childhood of a Leader’, made into a very good film as recently as 2015, directed by Brady Corbet. The text is a kind of imaginary biography of a historical French type – well, not just a French type, but a type whose features in this instance are French. The timeframe stretches from the end of the First World War to the mid-1930s, and we hear the names of Aristide Briand, Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras and Léon Blum. For quite a while the depicted childhood seems interestingly strange, as perhaps all childhoods are if we know them well enough. The son of a Breton factory owner whose family later moves to Paris, Lucien Fleurier wonders if he is a girl when everyone says he looks so lovely got up as an angel; later he begins to imagine his parents are not his parents, just actors playing those roles – ‘or else, these really were Papa and Mama, but during the day they played a role and at night they were quite different.’ Later still, he modifies his question of reality. Perhaps it’s not that people, including himself, are acting. They just don’t exist, thus elegantly reversing Descartes’s proposition: ‘I think, therefore I’m not.’ He dreams of writing a ‘Treatise on Nothingness’, and as Brown says, this seems very close to home: ‘Sartre could easily have become another Lucien.’ While at a Paris lycée, Lucien reads Freud and is delighted to find he has a complex, even if he is not sure what it is. It’s a relief to know that he does exist after all, even if ‘the real Lucien was deeply buried in his unconscious.’ He has a flirtation with surrealism (and with a surrealist whose initials are those of André Breton), and wonders, with considerable anxiety and disgust, whether he might be gay. But he is able, with considerable complacency, to fall back on what he thinks of as the ‘moral health’ of his family and conservative tradition, and so joins the company of all the characters in these stories for whom normality is a sort of fortress or refuge. We are a long way from Sartre himself now.

We are about to go even further. A companion at school gives Lucien a book by Barrès to read, and Lucien feels ‘he was being offered a character and a destiny, a way of escaping from the never-ending chattering of his consciousness.’ The companion invites Lucien to join a right-wing group called Les Camelots du Roi, whose pledge, although Sartre doesn’t remind us of this, includes the words ‘French by birth, heart, reason and will, I shall fulfil the duties of a conscious patriot. I pledge myself to fight against every republican regime … . A regime that is French must be restored to France.’ In Sartre’s portrait, this mainly means hating Jews, and Lucien finally discovers in himself a special talent: he is an even better hater than any of his friends. He doesn’t just dislike Jews, anyone can do that. ‘Lucien’s antisemitism was of another kind: pitiless and pure, it stuck out of him like a steel blade.’ He has become, in his own mind, at least, ‘a leader among the French’. Then he looks at his reflection in a shop window, and decides his face is ‘still not stern enough’. What he needs, he thinks, is a moustache. This is 1939, too early for Sartre to be thinking of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator: he must be thinking of Hitler, master of, among many other things, the theory of hatred as a prime source of self-esteem.

This is to turn horror into farce, as Sartre, perhaps surprisingly, likes to do. And the really insidious, troubling moment in this story occurs a little earlier. Lucien goes to a party, and discovers that his hosts have thoughtlessly invited a Jew. He is deeply shocked, refuses to shake the man’s hand, and marches off, vowing never to ‘set foot in this house again’. This is still the realm of ugly farce. But then the next day his friend apologises for himself and his sister and his parents, saying they all understand that Lucien was acting ‘out of conviction’. Lucien is delighted, feels like a new man, and walks ‘down the boulevard Saint-Michel in a state of extraordinary exultation’. He thinks more and more about his victory over his hosts and his pleasure in their ‘timorous obedience’. ‘Lucien … felt filled with self-respect,’ and he now knows he was born to be a leader. ‘The real Lucien … had to be sought in the eyes of others.’ That’s what it takes. Not Freud or surrealism or philosophy or anxiety, just the fear and collusion of other people. Their collaboration, to use a word that was about to find a new life.

[*] Calder, 256 pp., £8.99, November 2018, 978 0 7145 4851 7.