Kirkus Reviews QR Code


November 1939 March 1940

by Jean-Paul Sartre

Pub Date: April 2nd, 1985
Publisher: Pantheon

An interesting find, but not a real trouvaille. These notebooks, just recently discovered, date from the months Sartre spent as a "mobilized reservist" in Alsace during the Phony War. They were meant, he suggests toward the end, "to accentuate the isolation I was in, and the rupture between my past and present lives." This caesura, however, had little drama in itself, and much of the material in it can be found in more polished form in Being and Nothingness (1943) and The Words (1964), not to mention the earlier Nausea (1938). Still the curiously appealing, even pathetic features of Sartre the atheistic saint seen in The Words (and elsewhere, such as de Beauvoir's Adieux) often light up some otherwise perfunctory pages. On one of these Sartre mockingly celebrates his triumphs as a prepubertal lover: "I insist on the fact that I wasn't yet ugly. I had fine, fair hair and plump cheeks; my squint wasn't yet very visible. Let us say rather that, even if I wasn't ugly, with sure instinct I was getting ready to be so." Sartre registers his embarrassment and disgust at the sight of male bodies, including his own. He does an unintentionally comic, high-powered psychological analysis of his desperate, losing attempts to diet. He struggles and strains in his never-ending effort to be "authentic," like a medieval monk seeking purity of intention. He endlessly denigrates himself: "I feel no solidarity with anything, not even with myself: I don't need anybody or anything. . . Truly what the Nazis call 'the abstract man of the pluto-democracies'." Yet for a man who claims to be a stranger to intimacy, Sartre displays a good deal of affection (and a great deal of discretion) in recounting his affairs with de Beauvoir and other women. The many long philosophical sections of the notebooks would be impressive ii he hadn't reworked them elsewhere. As it is, they tend to jar with the more personal entries, as Sartre primly/pedantically shifts gears: "I return to time." "I must begin to set my ideas about morality in order." Nonetheless, some of those ideas on morality, such as his rejection of stoicism as a violent form of self-deception, are striking. Important as a document--if not a major event.