BOOK REVIEW / Words without end from the comic genius: Witness to my life Tr. Lee Fahnestock & Norman Macafee Hamish Hamilton, pounds 20

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The Independent Online
WITH the passage of time, Sartre has come to blur into a composite of the great screen comics: Monsieur Hulot for the pipe, Harold Lloyd for the spectacles, but most of all Buster Keaton, for wide-eyed innocence in the pursuit of his quest while the world falls around his ears. Then, with Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre formed a perfect Laurel and Hardy, making a rumbustious double-act that kept French intellectual life in stitches for more than a quarter of a century.

Any guilt I felt about seeing Sartre in this way was assuaged when I began this collection of letters to De Beauvoir, which range from his age of reason (1926) to the early days of the Second World War. Almost at once I realised that Sartre saw eye-to-eye with me: 'Never scorn Chaplinesque gestures,' he wrote to Simone Jollivet, a sort of dress rehearsal for the other Simone, 'in trying to understand what Charlie Chaplin wants to be as 'the little tramp', learn the psychology of my 'innate soul', this sad soul that commits those follies I spoke of at the movies.'

Thus he goes on, revealing to her and other apparently willing victims all the nooks and crannies of that innate soul, composed largely, as he admits, of 'ambition and cowardice'. His driving ambition seems to have been to fill the world with paper he had written on.

It must have been a real joy to see le facteur staggering up the path with yet another missive from the master: 'I really want you to feel a little how the city looked all around us . . .' he writes, before launching into 30-odd pages about squalor and poetry in Naples. Or, when put out: 'It is I who am the pearl. Who has made you what you are? Who is trying to keep you from turning into a bourgeoise, an aesthete, a whore? Who has taken charge of your intelligence? I alone.'

This scriptorrhea reached its paroxysm during the months of the 'phoney war', when Sartre was posted to Alsace. His military duties were slight and he took

full advantage, as he gleefully reports

to le Castor (the Beaver, his immensely apposite nickname for Simone de Beauvoir): 'three letters, five pages of

novel, four pages of notebook today'.

His descriptions of the other members of the meteorological unit with whom he was billeted show just how enclosed and rarefied his life was. While he could compose an ethics of existentialism before breakfast, he found it almost impossible to focus on other people. For all his theories on authentic existence, these letters reveal once more, as in his autobiographical sketch Words, that for Sartre, other people became real only when he could write about them.

Or more often, as the letters also show, when he was both seducing them and reporting in detail about it to De Beauvoir: 'After which she relaxed completely and said, 'Sartre, my own little Sartre, I'd like you to run your fingernails across my stomach and breasts.' I said, 'I have a rendezvous at 11 o'clock' - with the Lady - 'but from 10.30 to 11 I can render you that service.' '

In her preface to this volume, the Beaver is quick to exact her revenge. The first sentence is a superb put-down, which quotes a friend saying that Sartre would live for posterity as 'letter writer par excellence, author of a few literary and philosophic works'. This judgement of the speed with which most of Sartre's work will be forgotten is plainly shared by the translators, who omit from their bibliography of his works both A Critique of Dialectical Reason - which Sartre saw as his most important philosophical work - and his work on Flaubert, Idiot of the Family, which he considered the summit of his literary criticism.

It is surely true that little of Sartre's vast oeuvre is still readable. His plays are unplayable; his novels meander into a nothingness he did not intend; his philosophy has largely been bypassed. He has become what he most feared, a classic. In many ways, he seems like a 20th-century Victor Hugo, as revered as he is unread. Still, we did get the musical version of Les Miserables. I look forward to Andrew Lloyd Webber setting to work on Nausea, and even offer a provisional title: 'Way out West with Roquentin and the Beaver'.