Having covered Sartre’s brilliant the Age of Reason some time ago, we’re now getting round to his sequel the Reprieve (1945). These are part of the philosopher and writer’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, which expounded on his ruminations on existentialism and personal freedom, by merging them with the onset of World War II in France (principally Paris).
Stylistically, Sartre tried something rather novel with his sequel, abandoning building on much of the story laid out in Age of Reason in order to focus on a large selection of new characters. Individually, they come to terms with the buildup to the 1938 Munich conference, which ultimately averted war temporarily as Edouard Daladier, Neville Chamberlain, and Adolf Hitler signed the Munich Pact, handing Czechoslovakia to Germany. The political ramifications on the human conscience are what Sartre set out to consider here, in what is a monumental piece of writing.
During the eight day buildup to the signing on 30th September 1938, the French government mobilised its capable citizens in the event of war. This is the overriding theme of the novel, as Mathieu Delarue (the principal character from the Age of Reason) and many others attempt to come to terms with heading into battle and facing death.
With around a dozen characters available for Sartre to weave his magic, he explores the theme of personal freedom in the most brutal of circumstances. Delarue (a philosophy teacher at a Parisian university) treats being called up stoically, whilst others get drunk, panic, become nostalgic, or consider the outbreak of war as an opportunity for glory.
He does this with an unusual literary method, cutting randomly (and, seemingly, wildly) back and forth between characters throughout the narrative. It’s tempting to describe it as Sartre writing in a stream of consciousness style (as the likes of James Joyce mastered), but he was more deliberate than this. It isn’t random – it’s carefully constructed to create a manic world of different emotions to represent the thoughts and fears of those involved.
Initially, the style can be unsettling. Throughout the story, it can be confusing to tell which character he’s referring to, which is arguably why Sartre did this, to unnerve the reader but also to ensure there is no emphasis on any particular character. War hits everybody, after all.
You’ll eventually settle into his technique and appreciate it for what it does – it melds everyone’s respective story into one. As the reader, you jump between characters and move between fear, patriotic reverence, stoicism, and inebriation with rapid-fire paragraphs and, simply put, it’s a brilliantly hypnotic piece of writing.
Roads to Freedom
What was intended to be a tetralogy turned into a trilogy as Sartre didn’t finish the fourth book in the series. Iron in the Soul, consequently, would be the final entry and returned to a traditional style of storytelling as it deals with the full on outbreak of international warfare. We’ll review this later in the year, and will also be having a detailed look at the entire trilogy on our other blog Moonshake Books.
Sartre, being a multi-talented genius, eventually grew tired of the limitations of novel writing and moved heavily into philosophy and writing plays. He was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but essentially turned it down in disgust.
He had a lifelong relationship with fellow genius and trailblazing feminist Simone de Beauvoir. She once said: “When I was a child, when I was an adolescent, books saved me from despair: that convinced me that culture was the highest of values.” It’s with this commitment to their intellectual pursuits the two helped to shape their literary, philosophical, and social era, which is an influence which continues to this day.