As a teenage existentialist in the 1970s, I feasted on Sartre. He had already become unfashionable in Paris, but now, on the centenary of his birth, France is coming to appreciate him againby Kevin Jackson / July 23, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
Confessions of a teenage existentialist: back in the early 1970s, when my mates and I were all revving up for A-levels, Jean-Paul Sartre was, simply, the most famous of all living philosophers, and just about the most famous of all proper, serious writers. He was inevitable, compulsory, ubiquitous. You didn’t even have to be a swot to have a fairly good idea of who he was, since BBC2 had just devoted 13 solid hours of prime-time viewing to its dramatisation of the Roads to Freedom trilogy. (Thinkable nowadays?) The Monty Python gang performed a Sartre sketch and for weeks afterwards, schoolyards echoed to imitations of Mrs Premise’s high-pitched telephone query to Sartre’s (fictitious) wife: “Quand sera-t’il libre?” Pay-off: “She says he’s spent the last 60 years trying to work that one out!” Oh, we did laugh.
If you did happen to be a swot and/or would-be intellectual, Sartre was even harder to avoid—he was one of the few modern gurus who could rival Kafka and Beckett in the bookish adolescent’s pantheon of lugubrious heroes. Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands) was among that year’s set texts for my local examination board’s French A-level syllabus, while my swotty contemporaries elsewhere were no doubt busy giving similarly respectful attention to Les Mouches (The Flies), or La Nausée (Nausea), or Huis Clos (aka No Exit or In Camera, a staple at the time of high-minded amateur dramatic companies, and the source of the one Sartrean line everyone could quote: “Hell is other people.”) No self-respecting south London neo-existentialist lacked a copy of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Nausea, complete with garish Salvador Dali cover; and when, at the age of 16, I went off with my army cadet unit to the Hebrides, I found a small niche in my backpack for Words, the Penguin translation of Les Mots, Sartre’s part-mordant, part-glacial account of his cosseted early years. “I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it…” ran the words on the otherwise plain front cover. Irresistible.