As an adult, Jean-Paul Sartre would deny any influence from his father, dead before the son’s second birthday, yet Annie Cohen-Solal chooses to open her study with this absent father and his bourgeois milieu, seeking the traits common to Jean-Baptiste and his son: their impatient intelligence, ambition, and yearning for the unknown and exotic. Jean-Paul Sartre enjoyed a privileged, bookish youth. He studied in the most elite of French schools and, upon graduation, began a career as a teacher of philosophy in secondary schools. He formed lifelong ties with the brilliant philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir in an open relationship that was not quite a marriage but which yet served as the base for a large, extended “family” of friends, former students, and lovers.
As his first writings took shape, Sartre already was repudiating the bourgeois society of his childhood. World War II and the occupation of France swept him into uniform, through prison camp, and into the Resistance. His thought and writing changed under the pressure of war, and he emerged as the preeminent figure of the intellectual group known as the existentialists. His major works established him as a novelist, philosopher, dramatist, and journalist, bringing him into contact with the leading literary and political figures of the postwar period. The development of the Cold War opened a new role for Sartre as a political activist who became progressively more radical in thought and rhetoric. He traveled the world to observe developing revolutions and decry racial and political abuses. His fertile life as a writer yielded him a worldwide circle of influence, his gifts as teacher and friend secured for him a role as grand old man of the anarchic European left.
Cohen-Solal remains stylistically restrained as she presents an impressive body of information, following the path of Sartre’s love affairs as well as his philosophic and political development. She produces a rich and coherent portrait, impartial in its reflection of the history of an epoch as well as one very highly individual life.
Anna Cancogni’s excellent English translation is flowing and unobtrusive. The text is accompanied by notes, a full index, and an exhaustive bibliography. SARTRE: A LIFE is an easily read book on a complex and difficult man.