Last year, when Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography began to appear in his review Les Temps modernes, it stirred up great expectations among its readers. One had the impression of rediscovering a voice which had spoken with great authority in the past but which had lost some of its power in more recent years. Sartre’s influence reached its peak during the occupation, when it was by necessity confined to France, and in the years immediately following the war, when it spread rapidly over the entire world, giving him an international reputation almost unprecedented in French literature; one would perhaps have to go back as far as Voltaire to find a comparable case of a writer whose influence extended well beyond literature, into the realm of philosophical, historical, and political thought. At that time, Sartre was known primarily for his first novel La nausée, two philosophical works (the book on Imagination and the treatise Being and Nothingness), and the essays of literary criticism now collected in Situations I. Somehow, during the years that followed, Sartre lost much of his influence; when one remembers, for instance, the hopes that accompanied the launching of Les Temps modernes and compares them with the present-day reputation of the review, it becomes obvious that something must have gone wrong along the way. The causes for this relative decline are complex and by no means all in Sartre’s disfavor; the rise and fall of his influence constitutes an important and still unfinished episode in the intellectual history of our century. But with the publication of The Words, one had hopes of finding the original Sartre, enriched by new dimensions of maturity and experience. After so many novels, plays, and essays in which he had put his talent in the service of causes and ideologies, he seemed to have found the way back to his own self, recovered the sense of subjectivity that made La nausée, for all its stylistic awkwardness, one of the significant books of the century. Writing directly about himself, apparently unhampered by any considerations beyond those of enlightened self-insight, with a control of language which allows him to be lucid, elegant, constantly interesting, and frequently entertaining, Les mots seemed destined to take its place among the great autobiographies in which French literature, from Montaigne to Proust, has been particularly rich.
In truth, The Words as a finished product gives a somewhat different impression. In Bernard Frechtman’s competent translation it is a remarkable book, bound to have a considerable influence on many readers. But it differs much less from Sartre’s other post-war work than may seem the case at first sight and, like all his work, it raises controversial issues in a way that no truly autobiographical book can ever do. One can dislike the Montaigne of the Essays or the Rousseau of the Confessions, but one is not inclined to argue with their views. The quality of intimacy of these books is integral to them, and has nothing to do …
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