No Exit and The Flies
Jean-Paul Sartre, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert
The edition Empson reviewed, published by Knopf in 1946, is out of print. Stuart Gilbert’s translation of No Exit is available in No Exit and Three Other Plays (Vintage, 1989).
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).