Needing a happy ending

Forty years ago, in the summer of 1984, I read most of Jean Paul Sartre’s novel Iron in the Soul, the third volume in a trilogy called the Roads to Freedom.

A piece of existentialist fiction, it is set against the background of the defeat of France and people waiting on fine June days for the arrival of the invader.

On Sunday, 16th June 1940, Mathieu, one of the characters in the novel, ponders his situation:

That’s just about it, thought Mathieu: a fair bugger. He gazed into nothingness, and thought: I’m a Frenchman… and that’s a bugger, he reflected for the first time in his life; a fair bugger: we’ve never really seen France: we’ve only been in it. France had been the air we breathed, the lure of the earth, having plenty of elbow room, seeing the kind of things we do, feeling so certain that the world was made for man. It has always been so natural to be French, the simplest, more economical, way in the world, to feel that one is universal. One didn’t have to explain things; it was for the others, the Germans, the English, the Belgians, to explain by what piece of ill-luck, by what fault, it had come about that they were none of them quite human. And now France is lying on her back, and we can take a good look at her, can see her like a piece of large, broken-down machinery. And we think — so that, all the time, is what it was! — an accident of locality, an accident of history. We are still French, but it no longer seems natural. It needed no more than an accident to make us realize that we were merely accidental. Schwartz thinks that he is accidental — and no longer understands himself, finds himself embarrassing. He thinks — “How comes it that one is French?”; he thinks, “With a bit of luck I might have been born a German.” And then his face takes on a hard look, and he sits listening to the approach of his adoptive country. He sits waiting for the coming of the glittering armies that shall gleefully celebrate his change of heart; he sits waiting for the moment when he will be able to trade our defeat for their victory, when it will seem natural to him to be victorious and German.

Last week, I finished the novel. It felt an accomplishment, since January, I had wade through the other two parts of the trilogy and had come to knowm Mathieu

But Mathieu changes.  He was a member of an auxiliary unit and might have sat resignedly waiting for capture, but instead he and a friend deicide to join three French regular soldiers and to climb to the top of a church tower and attempt to halt the German advance by 15 minutes. Mathieu shoots two German soldiers. His comrades fall to German bullets and the tower is blown to pieces.  It is the end of Mathieu’s part in the story.

On Monday, I read that Sartre never intended the novels to be a trilogy, but instead there was to be another novel. Parts of the fourth novel had been published in 1949, but only after Sartre’s death in 1980 was the novel put together using fragments and notes that Sartre had left behind. I ordered a copy from Waterstones and it came today.

In a twist that did not seem to match with the unremitting gloom, Mathieu is not dead but is in a prisoner of war camp and becomes once more the central figure of the story.

It seemed an unlikely comeback, there is almost a sense that even Sartre needed a hopeful ending.


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