book of books – The Roads to Freedom trilogy

There are several famous trilogies in literature with Lord of the Rings being the most well known, but whether it is Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast or Jean-Paul Sartre‘s The Roads to Freedom the ability to use three volumes to build up characters makes the trilogy a special form in literature.

Sartre uses the political background of the turbulent 1930s in France as the background to all three of the books. There are other examples of French literature, Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education springs to mind, where characters develop over a backdrop of political upheaval.

Where the Roads to Freedom is different from perhaps using lesser know historical events is that most readers would know what happened in the Second World War and see the defeat of France on the horizon long before any of the characters in the books would.

Quick overview

The Age of Reason
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.

The Reprieve
The book starts with the politicians surrounding British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waiting for an audience with Hitler to try and defuse the rising tension about the German leader’s territorial claims in Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile the diplomatic process grips the French because they have an agreement with Czechoslovakia to come to its aid if it is attacked. The narrative follows the course of the week that led up to the Munich agreement, where in an effort to maintain peace in Europe the Czech’s were betrayed by their British and French allies. Over the course of the week the French reservists, including Mathieu (the main character from the first book) are called up and the book holds up a mirror not just to national uncertainty but also that of a handful of characters ranging from those determined to fight and die (Boris) to those at the other end of the spectrum arguing for peace (Philippe). In the end nothing is resolved and although the French people believe war has been averted those in transit to join up with the army or prepare for loss and pain are still left in a partial limbo.

Iron in the Soul
The book is split into two halves with the first concentrating on Mathieu and the second on Brunet the communist activist who tried to get Mathieu to join the party in the first part of the trilogy The Age of Reason. The story starts with France defeated by the Nazi’s but because it has not yet signed the armistice the fighting continues. The soldiers in the reserve line, including Mathieu, are humiliated at not being given the chance to prove their worth against the Germans. Finally as the approaching enemy gets closer to the village where Mathieu is he decides to fight and is left on top of a church the lone gunman as the enemy wipes out the rest of the resistance.

Then the second part takes up the story of what happened to those that were taken prisoner with Brunet being picked up with thousands of others and marched into an abandoned barracks before finally being put on trains that took them to uncertainly – probably Germany. In a desperate attempt to feel that he is doing something – just like Mathieu felt – Brunet decides to try and stir up political action against not just the Germans but also the padres in the camp. He half manages to get himself noticed but fails to make any difference on his own and it is only at the end when the German’s shoot an escaping prisoner that the hate he hoped to stir rises to the surface.

Does the trilogy work?
The Reprieve is the most difficult of the three to read and so that can have the effect of being a slight hiccup on the journey but overall the three books do work. On a historical level the political tension increases from the first volume where the communist party is mentioned but the emphasis is much more on the individual not the nation. But in The Reprieve the sense of events being dictated from elsewhere could not be more underlined with the week leading up to the Munich agreement impacting everybody in the story. Then finally with the Germans invading the question of an individual response returns because a national one has broken down.

Over the course of the three books following the lead character Mathieu there is an opportunity to see a man get to the stage where he understands what life is all about overcoming a youthful yearning for a sense of illusionary freedom. Then he does his duty and mobilises and finally takes a bullet not so much for his country, which he knows is already defeated, but as some sort of release. It is not a suicide but is not too far removed. Other characters also go on journey’s of self discovery with Odette realising she no longer loves Mathieu’s brother Jacques, Daniel facing up to his losing battle to control his homosexuality and Brunet trying to carve out a role for himself as a communist alternative.

Because it is a trilogy it helps chart those journeys of development and as long as the reader can get through The Reprieve the story of Mathieu can be told until the end.

Should it be read?
It is a challenge reading these books because of the style, which is not just one that steers away from traditional happy endings and character development paths, and also because of the numerous unanswered questions that Sartre leaves for you to ponder on. Sartre avoids the traditional behaviour of tying up all the loose ends and telling the reader what happens to people so you end up not knowing what happens to the vast majority of characters that are introduced to The Reprieve. Does that matter? Not if the point is to illustrate the transitory nature of war and the confusion that ensues when chaos is all around. But from a straight forward reading perspective it can make life difficult. For those who love history there is also the added bonus of enjoying a series of books that paint a picture of the impact of the political and then military confusion on normal French people and that is something you would struggle to get from a history book.

Versions read – all Penguin Paperbacks

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