BOOK REVIEW / Ballistic missives to the chosen one: Quiet moments in a war: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir 1940-1963 ed Simone de Beauvoir, trs L Fahnstock & N MaCafee, Hamish Hamilton pounds 25

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The Independent Culture
'TODAY I put a new cartridge in my pen.' So Sartre wrote, without a flinch of irony, to Simone de Beauvoir in May 1940, just two weeks before German troops breached the Parisian periphery. These were the only weapons he fingered throughout the war. In terms of ink spilt, Sartre was undoubtedly a war hero: a postal volcano (19 letters on 13 March 1940), he also filled ranks of notebooks - later published as The Roads to Freedom trilogy, Being and Nothingness, and several dramatic works. His front-line campaigns were devoted to managing his budding literary career. Hectoring messages were transmitted - sometimes directly, usually via Simone de Beauvoir - to the whole Left Bank group: Jean Paulhan, Raymond Queneau, Brice Parain and others. The steady demands were for publication, good reviews and money.

Stationed at the beginning of the war with a meteorological unit on the Alsatian front (that his duties were light is evident from his main source of discomfort: 'I was sick and tired of using ballistic analysis sheets for . . . writing'), Sartre was interned in German POW camps before returning to Occupied Paris in March 1941. The early 1940s were spectacularly fertile for him: philosophy was composed in the mornings ('I for one, right now, have to set up a new theory of Time. It's going well. Good-bye my sweet, till later. I love you'), novels were plotted in the afternoon.

A prodigious energy runs through these letters: apart from writing, he consumed books (everything from Heidegger to pages salvaged from their destined use as lavatory paper), engaged in barrack-room pranks, and occasionally helped launch a weather balloon. Of course, there were also the women, scudding in and out of his life, presenting him with formidable logistical problems (on leave, with whom could he afford to spend how much time, without offending the others?).

In his letters, he invaribly seized the opportunity to dissect these sexual junctions and to parade the results before Simone de Beauvoir - a reassurance to her and to him that it was their laboratory of intimacy that remained the encompassing and truly stable precinct. Towards her he showed a consistent if sometimes cloying tenderness, which underlines the sense in which it was truly a necessary relation. Yet it is hard to disagree with his own judgement on himself: 'I've never known how to lead either my sexual or my emotional life properly: I most deeply and sincerely feel like a grubby bastard . . . a sort of sadistic university type and civil- service Don Juan - disgusting.'

This second volume of letters - the first appeared in translation in 1992 - is part of the rising mountain of biographical detail on Sartre, a great deal of it deposited - and edited - by Simone de Beauvoir herself. All but 50 of these 300 pages consist of his near-daily letters of 1940 written to his beloved 'Castor'. The correspondence between the two thinned over the next two decades - they were rarely apart for long periods - and after 1963 the traces of Sartre's wind-baggery were lost to the telephone. Aside from the war years, there are letters from his visit to America (he touches here on his affair with Dolores Vanetti - his second great love), and a hilarious account of his stay on John Huston's Galway estate, where the two men tried to collaborate on a Freud screenplay - a fraught and ultimately doomed project, presumably not made any easier by Huston's confession to Sartre that, when it came to the unconscious, 'in mine there is nothing'.

It can't be said that the letters infuse the work with new meaning, but they do convey what Raymond Williams once called the 'extraordinary crowded deracination' of Sartre's whole mode of life. They are a vivid record of his tenacious capacity to carry his social and imaginative world with him, in a way that left him, amid the dislocations of war, curiously unsituated. This intransigence is a clue to his powerfully lived sense of individual freedom.

(Photograph omitted)

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