Roads to Freedom

imagesAfter thoroughly enjoying Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason, I looked forward to reading the other two books in The Roads to Freedom trilogy: The Reprieve and Troubled Sleep. Unfortunately, neither of these works measured up to the excellence of the first installment in the series. In fact, I initially became so exasperated with The Reprieve that I set it aside for a few months before mustering the energy to once again make an attempt to finish it. It was a slog, but I eventually did make my way through it and Troubled Sleep, not because I found them especially enjoyable but out of a weird feeling that having started the project of reading the trilogy I needed to finish the task. And now it is done.

The Age of Reason really drew me in with the story of Mathieu, a philosophy professor in the midst of an existential crisis. Here was a book that articulated many of my own thoughts and feelings about life, meaninglessness and growing old. In another posting on this blog I detailed what I loved about this book, so here I will just report that I had expected the story of Mathieu to continue in the last two volumes of the trilogy. Unfortunately, Mathieu only makes sporadic appearances in the remaining books as the narrative structure of the story becomes much more fractured and confusing; especially in the second volume, The Reprieve.

DownloadedFileThe Reprieve consists of a kaleidoscope of stories that bleed into one another and that seem intended to convey a sense of collective, anxious nervousness in the days leading up to the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1938. The title refers to the fact that, at the end of the book, war is temporarily averted by the concessions made to Germany. The mood is frantic, and I will admit that the writing style does help to produce this effect in the reader. Unfortunately it is also at the expense of narrative clarity. Each time I felt that I was beginning to gain some orientation toward what was going on in the novel, the scene would change and I was lost once again. The transitions between the various vignettes are abrupt and unpredictable; the characters are too numerous and mush into one another; the action moves from place to place. All of this contributed to my exasperation. The back cover characterizes the book’s style as “stream of consciousness” and as utilizing a “cinema technique of simultaneity,” but to me the writing just seemed undisciplined and jarringly incongruous in comparison to the style in which the other two installments in the trilogy are written.

This is not to say that there is nothing to recommend The Reprieve. There are characters and episodes that are truly effective and that have stayed with me. We get to check in with Mathieu as he goes off to join a French fighting unit, finally making a resolute decision to act in the world and to break out of his bourgeois lifestyle. And there is Gros-Louis, a stupid and pathetic character who bumbles through the story, getting drunk, being beaten up and taken advantage of. He has orders to report to his unit, but since he is illiterate, he can’t read them and must rely on others to direct him in what to do. And there’s young Ivich who is disappointed in her hope for the utter destruction of Paris by the Nazis. Perhaps the most effective scene in the novel is toward the end when her rape is juxtaposed with the negotiations for the Munich Pact, in which Czechoslovakia was handed over to Germany without a fight. The comparison of Ivich’s personal, sexual violation with the collective, political violation of the Czech people really does produce a startling and upsetting effect.

All is frantic, anxious confusion in The Reprieve, with the characters swept up in the political uncertainty of the times leading up to World War II. Sartre, I think, was trying to convey a sense that while the world at that point in history felt out of any one individual’s control, people were still making existential decisions whether they realized it or not. This is reinforced in the scenes featuring Chamberlin, Hitler, Mastny, Daladier and other politicians. While the forces of history seem to be sweeping impersonally over the continent, behind all of this stand flesh-and-blood human beings who are negotiating, planning and scheming. There is nothing necessary or impersonal about the course that history takes. The war, which from the perspective of the people seems to loom like a threatening force of nature, is actually the result of human decision making. History unfolds according to the collective choices that humans make, and we fall into bad faith the moment that we relinquish our own responsibility for the state of the world. In The Reprieve, we meet characters who have yet to fully learn this lesson.

DownloadedFileTroubled Sleep is organized in a more coherent manner than is The Reprieve. Part One focuses on a retreating French unit, of which Mathieu is a member. This unit has failed to repel the Nazi incursion and now simply waits for something to happen. Having been abandoned by their officers, these men are leaderless and in a state of disarray. They are terrified by the advance of the German “Supermen,” and are convinced that there is nothing that they can do to stop their advance. Some of them get drunk, some of them sit around reading books that they have found in the ruins, one of them starts a sexual relationship with a French postal worker. In a way, what they do is not much different from life before the war. In the absence of leaders to issue orders, these men meander about and waste time, waiting to be captured or to die.

Things change when another French unit arrives. This unit is also without officers but is nonetheless ready to resist the advances of the Nazis. Mathieu and some of his comrades join together with this group and resolve to fight back. When the Germans arrive, a clash ensues in which it becomes clear that Mathieu and his fellow soldiers are vastly outnumbered. As the fighting intensifies, Mathieu becomes increasingly worried that he will prove to be a coward.  But as he fires his weapon he gains courage, realizing that the Germans are human, that they are “vulnerable” just as he is; they are not “Supermen.” The French troops are overwhelmed, but they fight on, killing as many Germans as they are able and trying to hold out for just a few more minutes. “This was no more than the beginning of his own death” (p.254). Mathieu dies in battle, firing his gun and realizing that he is free. He has chosen not to be a coward through his actions. At this point in the story, I was reminded of a line from the previous book when Mathieu thinks to himself, “freedom is exile, and I am condemned to be free.  …I am free for nothing” (p. 363). This is Sartre’s message: being conscious of one’s freedom is its own reward. There is nothing but this sort of authentic self-awareness that makes life worth living. In this sense, Mathieu dies a happy man.

Part Two of Troubled Sleep details the lives of a group of French prisoners of war who wait in a camp while the Nazis decide what is to be done with them. In this final installment in the story, I got the sense that the prisoners were their own worst enemies. Sartre depicts them as hostile toward one another, fighting over food and arguing over whether the Germans are really all that bad. They become angry when one of their group successfully escapes the camp, viewing it as some sort of betrayal of their captor’s hospitality! The central character in this segment of the story is Brunet, a communist who busily tries to organize the members of the camp and to collectivize their resources. He meets continued resistance from most of the other prisoners; except for Schnieder, a printer who is helpful to Brunet, but also seemingly skeptical of his political agenda.

Part two of the book meanders on for hundreds of pages until the final scenes when the prisoners are loaded onto a train that they hope is bound for home. The reader, of course, is left with the ominous suspicion that all of these men will be taken to another camp where they will most likely be brutalized and worked to death. The book ends when one of the prisoners is shot to death and his body is left laying by the side of the tracks. The novel’s closing line, “Tomorrow the black birds would come,” refers equally well to the fate of the murdered prisoner’s body as it does to the remaining prisoners on the train. It is also a symbolic intimation of the future unfolding of the World War.

Conceptually, I like what it is that Sartre has attempted with The Roads to Freedom. Beginning with the first book, he has introduced us to a character who, in the midst of an existential crisis, illustrates the deep, spiritual difficultly of individual human choice and descion making. This is existentialism on the personal level. In the second book, we are thrust into a culture in turmoil as it struggles on a collective level with its situation and the threat to its existence. In the third book we are presented with two separate responses to the existential crisis. One the one hand, there is Mathieu who takes hold of his situation and acts in defiance of the Nazis, fighting and dying for nothing other than his own freedom. On the other, there are the prisoners of war who generally comply and submit to their Nazi captors. In their passivity, of course, they are still making a choice: the choice to obey. Unlike Mathieu who uses his fear to become self aware, the prisoners on the train allow fear to use them and to make them immobile and compliant. Both will die, but, Sarte seems to be telling us, at least Mathieu will die with a full realization of his own power and freedom to act in the world. “He fired: he was cleansed, he was all-powerful, he was free” (p. 256). Mathieu represents the individual who acts and is ultimately alone in the world, while the prisoners seem to represent the group, which is comprised of individuals who cannot bring themselves to act resolutely and independently.

In terms of aesthetic quality, The Roads to Freedom fails for me. While the first book was focused and fascinating, the remaining books are unfocused and fragmented. The Reprieve, especially, reads like it was written while Sartre was high on speed. Troubled Sleep, with its two separate parts, reads like two separate stories. I think that the material in these last two books could have been fruitfully edited down and integrated with the material in The Age of Reason in order to produce a single, cohesive story with Mathieu as the focal point.

I have just learned that there is a fourth, unfinished novel in The Roads to Freedom series. It has recently been published in English under the title The Last ChanceIt looks like my work is not yet over…

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2 thoughts on “Roads to Freedom

  1. I like your commentary of the trilogy overall but I think you’ve been too harsh on the reprieve which is an exquisite representation of life in France pre-war… The cinema technique is certainly complex and if you don’t get it then one would certainly not enjoy it, you have to be alert at all times as even the shortest sequences can change or switch to another scene without warning and go back anf forth for paragraphs on end. Overall I loved the challenge of the kaleidoscopic form of writing style and possibly enjoyed it more than the Age of Reason, nonetheless I think the style employed by Sartre in Reprieve was a risk for him especially for the period… It’s an acquired taste I suppose.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Erik.

      Perhaps I should take another look at The Reprieve with a more sympathetic eye. Sometimes it takes me more than one read to really appreciate certain books; especially those that are trying to do unusual and challenging things in terms of style.

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