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Book Review : Jean-Paul Sartre in Very Special Circumstances

April 03, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Quintin Hoare (Pantheon: $17.95)

France, along with Britain, declared war on Germany upon the latter's invasion of Poland in September, 1939; and then waited eight months for Germany to attack her. It was an odd situation, featuring the more or less peaceable coexistence of French and German troops facing each other across the border. An occasional patrol, venturing too far, would be seized, questioned and sent back. When one French replacement unit arrived on line, the Germans put up a sign: "Welcome The Sixty-Fifth."

It was called the Phony War, and the journals of Jean-Paul Sartre written during a tour of duty as a weather observer near Strasbourg might, in more than one sense, be called "The Phony War Diaries." He would get up in the morning, walk to the cafe where he would try with mixed success not to eat too much, watch an occasional weather balloon through binoculars, and spend roughly 10 or 11 hours a day reading and writing.

Reading and Writing

Still, for Sartre, reading and writing were war of a kind. Thinking was combat, and in any argument, aside from the element of discovery that made his thoughts so multifarious and unexpected, there was a flinty will to prevail. So much so that, in detailing his philosophical disputes, he would note with no real ruefulness the ruses and devious schemes he had used to win with.

Beyond this, though, his service as a conscript was a challenge and opportunity. Autonomy was the cornerstone of Sartre's philosophy. Later, he would refuse the Nobel Prize partly out of a sense that to accept would forfeit some part of his eternal process of self-definition. And here, suddenly, society was taking hold of him and treating him as hundreds of thousands of his countrymen were treated, without choice.

Sartre was already a novelist and philosopher of growing reputation. His conscription had an odd tendency to free him from the responsibility of his burgeoning persona. Even as a youth, certain that he was to be a Great Writer, he thought of himself, self-consciously, as "a Young Sartre," before circumstances and the journal form allowed him to experiment with writing just what came to mind.

Novel Situation

True, the circumstances were benign and the mind was too much its own for the diaries to be a dramatic breakthrough or departure. But the novelty of his situation seems to have had a drastically invigorating effect. In five months, he wrote about 1 million words, including a vast correspondence, work on a novel and the diaries. Most of the latter were lost; but what survives, ably translated by Quintin Hoare, is about one-third of the whole.

"The War Diaries" ' extensive, almost daily entries alternate Sartre's observation of his surroundings and companions, reflections upon his life in Paris, and an extensive wrestling with the mystery of his own character and biography. Beyond this, there are his thoughts about contemporary history, intensive critical passages on his readings, and a complex and rigorous working out of a variety of philosophical subjects which would prefigure one of his major works: "Being and Nothingness."

The sheer energy of eye and mind is breathtaking. All of Sartre's rather oddly assorted talents come into play: The unsparing and fertile mining of his own life and character, the pursuit of what he terms authenticity with a purist passion whose occasional absurdity recognizes and embraces--the effect is comical and intoxicating--and a delicate artistry at evoking people, places and moods.

His relations with the other members of the weather unit are pure social comedy. His combination of aloofness and disputatious zeal made him a veritable hedgehog. He tormented his corporal, a Socialist schoolteacher whose idealism made him a perfect butt for Sartre's efforts to undermine his shaky authority. Sartre himself was goaded by Pieter, a shopkeeper, whose unruffled self-satisfaction he was unable to penetrate. To his most acute arguments, Pieter would simply reply by complimenting Sartre on his "cleverness"; aside from that, he moved in a fog of complacency like "a seraph caressing its cheeks with its wings."

Sartre writes in unsparing detail about his efforts to eat less and the stratagems he uses to undermine these efforts. The difficulties of dieting have never been treated with greater philosophic sweep. "To renounce any of the things one loves is to change worlds," he writes. "And when we see the object of a desire escaping, it seems the world is slipping through one's fingers."

He develops a fascinating analysis of the war spirit of Kaiser Wilhelm and his withered arm; castigates Flaubert as good on nouns but mediocre on verbs ("he takes care of the show and neglects the event"), and reflects on his own indifference to possessions. Even his pens and pipes lose. "They're exiles in my hands," he writes. There are passages of highly abstract and technical philosophy whose jargon reflects his study on German phenomenologists and their tendency to invent word combinations to convey the complexity of their thoughts. These may be inaccessible, as a detailed exposition of a chess problem would be inaccessible to a non-player.

But the quality of Sartre's thought, the explosiveness of a mind still young and stimulated by the special circumstances he found himself in, are evident throughout. "The War Diaries" is a privileged and exciting journey through a sensibility that has shaped an important part of our own cultural history.

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