Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre (1964)

I'm still slowly making my way through the 1500+ books on Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, and the next entry is The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre (1964).

The Words is Sartre's autobiography of his first ten years, written when he was 59 (and the same year he was awarded and refused to accept the Nobel Prize). This isn't a traditional autobiography in any sense, although we do get the trajectory of Sartre's childhood and a series of events from his life. Instead, The Words is sort of an explanation, or an apology. He tells the reader: "This is why I have written so much. This is why I think the way I do."

Sartre's father died when he was only a year old, so he and his mother, Anne-Marie, went to live back with her parents. Cut off from the influence of a father, and surrounded by doting adults -- a sister-mother (who shared a room with him and was also treated like a child by her parents) and two indulgent and proud grandparents -- Sartre was rewarded for being precocious and treated like he was the smartest and cutest little boy on the planet.

Because he came from a literary family, his early interest in books was not surprising. He started by pretending to read (and then to actually read, but not understand) the serious literature in his grandfather's study. Later he indulged his passion for the pulpy westerns and adventure stories that his mother would buy for him behind his grandfather's back. And soon, as his imagination, isolation, and frustration grew, he began to write his own adventure stories. Reams and reams of them. At first he wrote for his adoring public ("Isn't Jean-Paul cute hunched over his notebook like that") and later in secret, for himself and his future admirers. In fact, at a certain point in his childhood, everything he did was in service of future fame and immortality. Because he knew he would be a famous and admired writer, he wrote. Because he was sure that every small decision he made as a child would be analyzed after his death, he spoke from a script and acted from a book that would be viewed in the best light by the people of the future.

The Words is divided into two sections: Reading, and Writing. The first section is the most enjoyable, the second, although just as simply and engagingly written, is often sad, ponderous, and pitiful. Although it is certainly based on the true experiences of Sartre's childhood, the narrative is told through the lens of a grown man, a successful philosopher and playwright, who is more than a little fed up with the world, writing, and himself.

Definitely worth reading if you like books, writing, philosophy, or Sartre. I've not read any of his plays and just a bit of his philosophy, but you don't have to be familiar with his works as a whole to get quite a bit out of this book.

And because I can't resist, here is a rather long passage describing Sartre's early relationship with his grandfather's and grandmother's books:

I began my life as I shall no doubt end it: amidst books. In my grandfather's study there were books everywhere. It was forbidden to dust them, except once a year, before the beginning of the October term. Though I did not yet know how to read, I already revered those standing stones: upright or leaning over, close together like bricks on the book-shelves or spaced out nobly in lanes of menhirs. I felt that our family's prosperity depended on them. They all looked alike. I disported myself in a tiny sanctuary, surrounded by ancient, heavy-set monuments which had seen me into the world, which would see me out of it, and whose permanence guaranteed me a future as calm as the past. I would touch them secretly to honor my hands with their dust, but I did not quite know what to do with them, and I was a daily witness of ceremonies whose meaning escaped me: my grandfather -- who was usually so clumsy that my grandmother buttoned his gloves for him -- handled those cultural objects with the dexterity of an officiant. Hundreds of times I saw him get up from his chair with an absent-minded look, walk around his table, cross the room in two strides, take down a volume without hesitating, without giving himself time to choose, leaf through it with a combined movement of his thumb and forefinger as he walked back to his chair, then, as soon as he was seated, open it sharply "to the right page," making it creak like a shoe. At times, I would draw near to observe those boxes which slit open like oysters, and I would see the nudity of their inner organs, pale, fusty leaves, slightly bloated, covered with black veinlets, which drank ink and smelled of mushrooms.

In my grandmother's room, the books lay on their sides. She borrowed them from a circulating library, and I never saw more than two at a time. Those baubles reminded me of New Year goodies because their supple, glistening leaves seemed to have been cut from glossy paper. White, bright, almost new, they served as pretext for mild mysteries. Every Friday, my grandmother would get dressed to go out and would say: "I'm going to return them." When she got back, after removing her black hat and her veil, she would take them from her muff, and I would wonder, mystified: "Are they the same ones?" She would "cover" them carefully, then, after choosing one of them, would settle down near the window in her easy-chair, put on her spectacles, sigh with bliss and weariness, and lower her eyelids with a subtle, voluptuous smile that I have since seen on the lips of La Gioconda. My mother would remain silent and bid me to do likewise. I would think of Mass, death, sleep; I would be filled with a holy stillness.
(41-42)

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