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Jean-Paul Sartre: Les Chemins de la liberté (The Roads to Freedom)

This three volume work (he actually started a fourth volume and fragments have been published inLes Temps Modernes) is, like La Nausée (US: Nausea; UK: The Diary of Antoine Roquentin), about an existentialist hero and the problems that modern man (and woman) has in dealing with freedom and decision. The first book is about Mathieu Delarue, who is clearly based on Sartre himself. He is a loner, has little money, few friends and a mistress who is unexpectedly pregnant. Much of the book is about Delarue’s attempts to find the money for an abortion, as does not wish to accept the responsibility of being a father. Other characters have similar urges to avoid responsibility. Boris, Mathieu’s student, mistreats, his girlfriend, Lola. Boris’ sister, Ivich, fails her classes so she does not have to get a job. Denying one’s true self is also a key tenet of existentialism, such as Mathieu’s friend Daniel, who denies his homosexuality. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have been boring late 20th century Scottish nihilism but Sartre manages to draw convincing characters in a period (1938) when the world is slowly going to hell.

The second novel takes place in the few days leading up to the Munich Pact and the lack of commitment by the political leaders is a key theme and counterpoint to the lack of commitment of the characters in this novel. Mathieu himself is now becoming aware of the need for commitment and he sees this commitment in his Communist friend, Brunet. But, unlike its predecessor, with its discrete sections and plot lines, this one is a mish-mash of intertwining plots and characters. As Sartre later explained in his writings, this was a deliberate attempt to move away from the narrator-as-God approach and to reflect the interdependence of life and the political situation then prevailing in Europe. Some of the same characters do appear. Daniel, the homosexual, tries to deny his homosexuality by marrying Mathieu’s pregnant girlfriend, while Boris tries to get rid of Lola through military service. But, as the title tells us, it is all only a reprieve.

The third volume, written some years later, is not a strong as the first two. The first part of the novel shows us some of the characters from the earlier volumes during France’s retreat from the Germans in June 1940. Mathieu comes out ahead (morally) as he valiantly (though futilely) defends a village from the attacking Germans, shooting at the attackers from the church bell-tower. The other characters suffer fear and shame for their behaviour but do not come out well. The second part of the book has Brunet, the Communist, in prisoner of war camp, where, as a Communist, he is better able to face up to the rigours of camp life. As well as how to face defeat, there is the issue, for a Communist, of Stalin’s pact with Hitler. Though not as good as the previous two, the trilogy as a whole is still a very fine piece of work and remains one of the key works of twentieth century literature.

Publishing history

L’Age de raison (The Age of Reason)
First published in French 1945 by Gallimard
First published in English 1947 by Alfred Knopf/Hamish Hamilton

Le Sursis (The Reprieve)
First published in French 1945 by Gallimard
First published in English 1947 by Alfred Knopf/Hamish Hamilton

La mort dans l’âme (UK: Iron in the Soul; US: Troubled Sleep)
First published in French 1949 by Gallimard
First published in English 1950 by Hamish Hamilton