The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

0111206432-Sartre.jpg Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964. (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s death in 1980 ended the career of a prodigiously creative one-man band of modern thought and literature who did important work in philosophy, psychology, fiction, drama, biography, literary criticism, journalism, political pamphleteering, and film writing. It also began the end of a brilliant era in French contributions to philosophy, linguistics, and anthropology, as Sartre’s demise was followed within five years by the deaths of Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, and the retirement from publication by Louis Althusser and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Not content with producing four dozen volumes during his lifetime, Sartre left a rich mine of writings from which three books have so far been quarried: the two-volume Lettres au Castor (1983), a collection of his correspondence with Simone de Beauvoir; Cahiers pour une morale (1983), his notebooks for an unfinished treatise on moral philosophy; and the war diaries, originally published in 1983 as Les Carnets de la drôle de querre (notebooks during the phony war), portions of a diary he kept while a soldier during the months from his conscription in September, 1939, to his capture by German forces in late June, 1940.

When Sartre received his call-up notice, he was a thirty-four-year-old philosophy professor at the Lycée Pasteur in Neuilly, near Paris. He had begun to make his mark in both philosophic and literary circles but was far from reaching the worldwide fame which the postwar period would bring him. After graduating first in his class of 1929 from the formidable École Normale Supérieure, he taught during the 1930’s at various provincial lycées and spent the 1933-1934 academic year studying German philosophy at the Institut Français in Berlin. While at the École Normale, Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir, a philosophy student at the Sorbonne, and they soon formed a lifelong union more noted for intellectual than sexual intimacy. Two of her autobiographical texts, La Force de l’âge (1960; The Prime of Life, 1962) and La Force des choses (1963; Force of Circumstances, 1964), furnish a wealth of information about their lives together, particularly during the 1930’s, when they undertook strenuous holidays, tramping through much of Europe and England with packs on their backs.

Sartre’s first philosophical essays were influenced by the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, whose ideas he encountered in Berlin and partly agreed with, partly contested, in L’Imagination (1936; Imagination: A Psychological Critique, 1962) and La Transcendance de l’égo (1936; The Transcendence of the Ego, 1957). Sartre’s literary career began with the 1938 publication of La Nausée (Nausea, 1949), commonly regarded as his best novel. Nausea is his most philosophically compact work of long fiction, dramatizing his views on such topics as freedom, anguish, authenticity, contingency, and absurdity. Since the novel’s rootless protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, resembles Sartre in significant ways, it is worth noting that the work is cast in first-person diary form. One year later, in July, 1939, Sartre published a volume of five short stories under the title of what soon became his best-known tale, Le Mur (1939; The Wall and Other Stories, 1948). Again, each story seeks to illustrate a particular philosophical point, with “The Wall,” for example, attempting to refute the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s contention that man can live meaningfully toward his own death.

By the early fall of 1939, then, Sartre had made a name for himself as a brilliant thinker and writer capable of both abstruse exposition and memorable dramatization of a far-ranging constellation of concepts. He had done his mandatory military service in 1929 in the meteorological corps, and was therefore assigned a decade later to a meteorological section attached to an artillery headquarters just behind the French-German front in Alsace. This station was moved only a few kilometers during the ten months Sartre served, with Strasbourg a close-by metropolis. His less-than-demanding duties are best noted in his sardonic summary: my work here consists of sending up balloons and then watching them through a pair of field glasses: this is called “making a meteorological observation.” Afterwards I phone the battery artillery officers and tell them the wind direction: what they do with this information is their affair. The young ones make some use of the intelligence reports; the old school just shove them straight in the wastepaper basket. Since there isn’t any shooting, either course is equally effective.

When the Germans ended the Phony War by invading Belgium and Northern France in late May, 1940, Sartre had transmitted fourteen of his completed war diaries to Simone de Beauvoir and other Parisian friends. Three or four of them, however, were lost by Jacques Bost, a colleague to whom de Beauvoir lent them. Through other circumstances, impossible to trace, a half dozen other notebooks have also been lost, so that the volume under review, though a substantial 366 pages, consists of only five of the fourteen completed notebooks. The numbers and dates of the surviving diaries are III (November 12December 7, 1939); V (December 17December 23, 1939); XI (January 31February 19, 1940); XII (February 20February 29, 1940); and XIV (March 3March 28, 1940).

Why did Sartre write them? In a December 1, 1939, entry, he calls his journal “the notebook of a witness the testimony of a 1939 bourgeois draftee on the war he’s being made to fight.” He emphasizes the commonplace nature of his situation: Unlike such diarists as André Gide or Jean Giraudoux, he is not a distinguished writer; unlike personnel in the intelligence or censorship divisions, he is “not in a privileged position.” Yet his journal will be representative of millions of other soldiers. “It is a mediocre, and for that very reason general, testimony.” He regards himself as a spokesman for a generation confronted by an apocalyptic historical crisis; therefore, he unabashedly states, “everything I write is interesting in consequence this journal has no humility no intimacy. It is a proud, pagan journal.”

As an extremely complex person, Sartre surely kept his diary for a number of additional purposes: to explore his...

(The entire section is 2647 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXI, March 15, 1985, p. 1024.

Foreign Affairs. LXIII, Summer, 1985, p. 1123.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, January 15, 1985, p. 87.

Library Journal. CX, April 15, 1985, p. 69.

The London Review of Books. VII, February 7, 1985, p. 19.

The Nation. CCXL, April 20, 1985, p. 470.

The New Republic. CXCII, April 15, 1985, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, March 31, 1985, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, February 8, 1985, p. 65.

Times Literary Supplement. January 4, 1985, p. 16.