The American poet and critic Randall Jarrell worked as acting literary editor of The Nation from the spring of 1946 to the spring of 1947. One of the several eminent writers from whom Jarrell solicited book reviews was the English poet and critic William Empson, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), and many later books and essays. Empson taught in Japan and China during the Thirties, but returned to England in 1939, and worked for the BBC throughout World War II. Empson reviewed four books for Jarrell and The Nation, among them the first English translation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (December 7, 1946) and the Selected Writings of Dylan Thomas (February 22, 1947). Jarrell then sent Empson Stuart Gilbert’s translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit and The Flies, the French thinker’s first plays to be published in English. In 1947 Empson and his family returned to China, where he resumed his post at Peking National University; he wrote to Jarrell that the book “arrived just as we were getting on the boat.”
Empson reviewed Sartre’s plays nevertheless, sending, from Hong Kong, a typescript with a cover letter dated May 2, 1947. By the time the review arrived in New York, Jarrell was no longer in charge of the book review section, since the literary editor, Margaret Marshall, had returned from her sabbatical. The Nation and Marshall chose not to print the review—perhaps because it had arrived too late, perhaps because of the negative tone it took toward Sartre (himself a Nation contributor), perhaps because it simply got misplaced. (Empson wrote no further prose for The Nation.) This review, and its associated correspondence, along with other letters from Jarrell’s tenure, were found in Marshall’s Nation files, now in Yale’s Beinecke Library.
The review appears here in print for the first time. Empson’s review draws on his earlier interests in Auden, and in myths of sacrifice. It looks forward, too, to the arguments against Christianity he would pursue in his later prose, especially in Milton’s God (1961).
The flurry in France over existentialism deserves respect as a reaction to the German occupation and the ugly nonsense talked by Vichy politicians; it is a philosophy of a psychological method for keeping your self-respect when impotent and surrounded by evil. But so far as I can see it would not deserve respect under any other circumstances; because where there is any prospect of making things better by combined action existentialism would not encourage people to do it. The intellectual claims of the theory need not I think be worried about; it seems to be deeply confused. But the way it has been used by recent French writers to express a general way of feeling produced by the disasters of the country is certainly of great interest; it should be interesting too to see how the thing can be developed, or how they can get out of it.
The play about hell (No Exit), in which there…
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