This review of The Wall by Jean-Paul Sartre contains some spoilers.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher, existentialist, Marxist, playwright and critic. But he was also a fiction writer, his most famous and best novel being Nausea, published in 1938. That was his first novel. The short story collection, The Wall, came out the following year. The characters in the collection suffer alienation in different ways.
Three men are condemned to death in the title story. They share a cell with a Belgian doctor supposedly there for their benefit, but he’s actually observing their mental descent as their last night passes and a firing squad approaches. The backdrop is the Spanish Civil War. One of the condemned men is an Irishman, a member of the International Brigade. Another is the younger brother of a wanted man. The main character, Pablo, is condemned because of his association with another wanted man.
As the hours pass, the men are forced to think of their impending death. The youngest worries about the torture stories he’s heard about the Falangists (Spanish Fascists) who hold them prisoner. He wonders how much it will hurt to die.
Pablo grows to dislike his fellow inmates. There’s no camaraderie in death. Meanwhile, the Belgian doctor scribbles down their reactions with detachment and objectivity. The wall itself is the wall of the firing squad and the cell. It’s the wall between life and death. It’s also a wall of detachment and objectivity as exhibited by the doctor.
Memories seem unimportant to Pablo now. The woman he loves no longer seems important. Death itself is an aberration, almost impossible to conceive. But psychologically the characters do pass from life to death before the guards come to take them away. However, there is an ironic twist to the ending.
The Bedroom begins with a woman lying in bed, suffering from some unnamed affliction. She and her husband are concerned for their daughter whose husband is descending into some kind of hereditary and degenerative mental illness. The father wants his son-in-law put in an institution. But his daughter refuses to give up her husband. Not only that, she goes along with her husband’s hallucinations, to the extent that they almost seem real to her too.
Herostratus has a man who literally looks down on other people by looking down on them from his window. He visits a sex worker and makes her walk around naked, at gunpoint. He decides to go on a killing spree. His escape is all planned, but things don’t turn out as intended. Like other characters in this collection, he seems cut off from other people and from intimate contact. The story is named after the man who burned down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus to immortalise himself.
Intimacy is a story whose contents belie its title. Lulu and Henri clearly have a problematic marriage. Henri is impotent and Lulu has taken a lover. She plans to run away with this man, encouraged by her friend Rirette. Tricking her husband on to the balcony, she locks him out. There’s a humorous scene where an older couple turns up and Henri and Lulu act as if everything is a joke. Again, though, things take a turn at the end.
The Childhood of a Leader
The strongest story in the book is the last, which is more of a novelette or novella. The Childhood of a Leader follows Lucien, the son of a factory owner, from his early years where he is pretty and admired, through his boyhood and into young adulthood.
From early on, Lucien doesn’t seem to know who he is. But he learns early that his father is a leader, someone the workers look up to. As time goes on, Lucien becomes alienated from his mother. He obsesses over himself and his complexes. Now well into his teens, he reads Freud, falls in with a boy at school who introduces him to an older man, a surrealist. This predatory man has a sexual interest in Lucien and they go away for a weekend. Later, Lucien worries about whether he is now a homosexual. He decides to turn his attentions to the young maid who now works in his home. But when he has the opportunity to take things further, he backs off.
In time, he falls in with a new group of friends, right-wing, anti-Semitic students who call out slogans like “France for the French” and beat up Jewish people. Lucien discovers a gift for sniffing out Jews, which attracts admiration from those around him. His father approves of his new interests. Lucien joins the movement, beats up a young Jew, and snubs another at a party. And so he goes from boy to man. He sees the future ahead of himself: he will be a leader like his father, he’ll become the local mayor, he’ll find a nice virgin who’ll submit to him. He’ll be a leader of France.
Although the story was written before the war, Lucien already embodies the features of the Vichy fascist and collaborator. And the persecution of Jews takes on a whole new meaning for modern readers. The Holocaust, and the handing over of Jews by the Vichy government loom over this story in a way they wouldn’t have done at the time it was written. Sartre’s story seems to predict what lies ahead.
The Childhood of a Leader plays out against the last years of the Third Republic. To some extent, Lucien shares a great deal of his psychology with Sartre himself. Their backgrounds are similar. But Sartre made a different choice, associating himself with the Left.
Because Lucien has picked up and discarded different belief systems throughout the story, there’s reason to think he too could still change. It might not be too late. But the fear is that in the short term, and the short term being Vichy, his fascist tendencies will lead to collaboration with the Holocaust. This is a reading that goes beyond what Sartre probably intended when the story was published in 1939. But the Nazi state-sanctioned persecution of Jews was already underway. This could not have escaped Sartre, nor could the build-up of the German war machine. There had already been a near outbreak of war in 1938. Perhaps Sartre knew exactly where the world was going after all.
A version of this review of The Wall by Jean-Paul Sartre was originally published in 2005.