This book covers two days in the life of Mathieu Delarue a professor in philosophy at the Sorbonne. But in those two days Jean-Paul Sartre manages to pack in a huge amount around the main story of the pregnancy of Mathieu’s mistress. On top of the individual concerns of the characters there is a shadow cast by the changing situation in Europe with one mention of the possibility of war.
This book really feels like the first part in a trilogy because there are plenty of places for the characters to go at the end and of course war is looming, which will change everything.
Mathieu discovers that his mistress Marcelle is pregnant so they agree on an abortion but it involves him finding 4,000 francs and in his chase for the funds he asks a rich friend Daniel, who refuses him, as well as his brother Jacques who asks him to recognise he needs to grow up and accept that he is old enough to have the age of reason. Part of the reason Mathieu does not want the child is because he has spent most of his 34 years searching for freedom and it would compromise that. Also he is harbouring some sort of fantasy love with Ivich a sister of one of his pupils Bruno. She is an odd girl who fails her exams and faces the prospect of having to go back home. In the meantime Marcelle, encouraged by Daniel who has been seeing her secretly for a long time, admits she would like to keep the baby. Daniel hopes to trap Mathieu and end his friend’s freedom. But Mathieu goes as a far as stealing from Boris’s older girlfriend Lola the money and that brings it to a head and as Marcelle refuses her long standing lover Daniel steps into the breach and agrees to marry her. Denied of love or family Mathieu seems to suddenly realise that the freedom he believed was at risk was something unattainable and as a result of this realisation accepts he must be at the age of reason.
Is it well written?
It is much easier to read than Nausea because there is much more of a story here and the chase for the abortion money gives it a momentum. The introspective philosophical moments are kept much more as a constant background theme that surface now and again. What makes it enjoyable is that there are characters that like Daniel and Lola who despise Mathieu providing the reader with a couple of outlets for letting off steam with the professor. Throughout the book the theme is age with Mathieu at 34 and Lola a bit older both feeling like they are on death’s door. The age of reason is not just about recognising personal development but you suspect there is a link to the fate of France, which was still indulging in the play politics Mathieu displays when asked if he will become a communist.
Should it be read?
To provide a glimpse into how little people cared about the world and the developments on the political stage it is worth comparing with Goodbye to Berlin where the Germans experienced an equally slow dawn. Despite the strong story, rounded characterisation and pace there are still going to be plenty of people put off by the name Sartre but this is an easier read than Nausea and even through it is a trilogy there is not a compunction on the reader to carry onto The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul. For those that enjoy history there is the added attraction here of getting an insight into the almost ignorant bliss that still existed in Paris as late as 1938.
Facing an unwanted pregnancy a professor runs around Paris trying to raise the money for an abortion but once he has it he loses his mistress and realises he was never free anyway
Version read – Penguin paperback