Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Sunday 9 December 2012

Existential angst

Of course, I went through a period of existentialism. A friend of mine had read Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, and recommended it to me. So, having just started at art college, aged 16, I gave it a go. It had such an effect upon me that it shaped my reading matter for many years, and indeed it still does. In a way I feel it stopped me from even attempting to write, as it is such a singular achievement which could surely never be emulated. I still occasionally read it, getting something different from it each time; but something just as relevant to me.

Upon reading the book as an older person, it became clear just how self-indulgent and self-absorbed the whole thing is: but then that just adds to its magnificence. Would anyone write such a book now? It is so trivial yet so ground-breaking. Has there ever been a more fascinating yet pathetic character than the Autodidact? Doomed from the start yet compellingly so. Everything is questioned, from the tiniest detail to the broadest of concepts, and it was all so terribly important to an art student. Are art students like that any more?
Of course I had to read more by Sartre, and so I bought a copy of The Age of Reason. This is a (fairly) conventional novel putting forward a complex theory of philosophy in a very accessible manner. I lost myself in and to this book. Mathieu, the protagonist, became an obsession to me, and I tried to live my life to the ideals put forward in Sartre's prose. This is at least slightly possible when one is still at college ... but the concepts of personal freedom become a little compromised once one has to acquire a holiday job!

Part of a trilogy called, collectively, Roads to Freedom (it was great to tell people at college parties you were reading a trilogy) of great influence, it is the easiest to read. The other two, The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul are worthy books but harder work. The narrative structure in The Reprieve, whereby the action is observed through the various characters without flagging which one by the writer, is masterful but demands a lot of the reader. Sartre subtly changes his writing style to reflect the different characters, sometimes in mid-paragraph, and the reader is expected to keep up. In a lesser author's hands disaster would occur, but the effect here is breathtaking.
One of the most striking sequences of any book I have read is in The Age of Reason where Mathieu is in a nightclub with Ivich, the worthless object of his obsession, and he cuts himself with a knife to impress her. I'm still morbidly fascinated by this, despite having read it so many times.

This is the first few lines of The Age of Reason. Don't you wish you could begin a novel like this?

Half-way down the Rue Vercingetorix, a tall man seized Mathieu by the arm: a policeman was patrolling the opposite pavement.
'Can you spare me a franc or two? I'm hungry.'
His eyes were close-set, his lips were thick, and he smelt of drink.
'You mean you're thirsty?' Asked Mathieu.
'No: I'm hungry, and that's God's truth.'
Mathieu found a five-franc piece in his pocket.
'I don't care which you are; it's none of my business,' he said: and gave him the five francs.
'You're a good sort,' said the man, leaning against the wall. 'And now I'd like to wish you something in return. Something you'll be really glad to have. What shall it be?'

There ... could you resist reading on? I was hooked!

Next I tried Albert Camus ...

No comments:

Post a Comment