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JEAN-PAUL SARTRE: Existential Hero
Sartre was a frequent visitor to Antibes

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE: Existential Hero

Jean-Paul Sartre, the French novelist, playwright and philosopher, was born in Paris a hundred years ago, on June 21, 1905. He was best known for his advocacy of Existentialism - a much-debated philosophy proclaiming total freedom of the individual human being within the constraints of rationality. As a passionate believer in universal freedom at any cost, he was able to apply the principle to many causes, whether to justify rebel activities in Algeria and Cuba or to explain his refusal to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature when he was awarded it in 1964. His rebellion against authority and traditional organisations made him an ideal icon for the French ‘baby-boom’ generation in their protest marches in the spring of 1968.

The names of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist novelist and essayist, are often said in one breath. They met at university when he was 24, and – despite extra-marital dalliances by both – remained together until Sartre’s death at 75. From their student days onwards, although they enjoyed separate careers, they often worked together, and they traveled extensively in the United States, Central America, and throughout Europe.

The couple decided early in their relationship that, since neither wanted children, marriage would be unnecessary. A serial womaniser, Sartre thoughtfully warned her from the outset that, married or not, he would get involved with other women - and he kept his word. But de Beauvoir seemed to accept the situation philosophically, saying that, since she had agreed the principle, it would be unreasonable of her not to accept the fact. She herself had a four-year affair with the American novelist Nelson Algren.

Sartre’s first published work - a short story - appeared when he was 17, and he remained a prolific writer – of novels, plays, stories, essays, literary criticism, biography and screenplays – for over 60 years.

He was conscripted into the French army in 1939 and was taken prisoner when the Germans invaded France ten months later. But within a year he had won his release by feigning blindness, and, with fellow intellectuals, formed a group called ‘Socialism and Liberty’, which would meet in the cafés of the boulevard Montparnasse and discuss, among other things, Resistance.

Sartre and de Beauvoir were lifelong film buffs and lovers of jazz from its first stirrings as 1920s Dixieland, through the big bands of the 1920s and 1930s, to the bebop era of the 1940s and 1950s. They were passionate skiers, and would spend most Christmas vacations in Chamonix in the Savoy Alps.

They discovered the French Riviera in the late 1930s, and worked – and played – there for almost four decades. During the Occupation, the couple, like many French writers, went south to the Free Zone to avoid the constraints of German censorship. They retained especially strong links with Antibes, where they stayed with friends and former students. It was probably de Beauvoir who best summed up its attraction – for them and for generations of writers: ‘I am just leaving for Antibes. I am dreaming of sun, silence, and time to work.’

The two writers parted for the summer of 1949, de Beauvoir to North Africa with Algren, and Sartre to the Caribbean, visiting Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway in Cuba. But they went to the Côte d’Azur together in the autumn, and the following year Sartre returned there to take part in a documentary on the life of André Gide. A photograph shows the two giants of modern French literature, aged 81 and 45 respectively, sitting like bookends in adjacent armchairs, each seemingly unaware of the other’s presence.

Sartre and de Beauvoir made a nostalgic pilgrimage to the Riviera in 1971. It was their last visit to the coast: a month later Sartre had a stroke, and although he continued to work and protest - against Castro’s imprisonment of a Cuban for homosexuality; against American and Soviet aggression in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively; against French participation in the Moscow Olympic Games – he was a sick man. He died in hospital in Paris on April 15, 1980.

Having been fortunate enough to have lived into the media age, Sartre was probably the most widely read philosophical writer in history. And despite – or possibly because of - his frequent and bitter conflicts with authority, he was almost certainly the most influential. Fifty thousand people turned out to accompany his funeral cortège, and he got more press coverage than de Gaulle. One journalist called the event ‘the closing demonstration of 1968’.

Sartre’s modest grave in the Montparnasse cemetery bears no epitaph. He might have been content with Karl Marx’s tribute to Rousseau: ‘he never accepted the least compromise with established power’.

Ted Jones

Ted Jones is the author of The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers.