Saturday, January 15, 2005

Jean-Paul Sartre's Words

A book I have had for a long time without attempting to read, suffering under the misapprehension it was some theory or other, is the autobiography - reminiscences of an excruciating post-facto analytical kind - of Sartre's life before the First World War, neatly divided into two halves: reading and writing. Each section given roughly the same number of pages: 85 and 68 : near enough: might even satisfy the statistical 0.05 level of significance. If I had written this book, it would have been exactly apportioned; making a film of it [impossible?] I would have used a stop watch to make both sections exactly the same length. By the time I have finished Words there may be an explanation for the two developmental phases being unequal.

If you are going to attempt Sartre's work, this might be a good place to start: not because it is or is not, might or might not be, an especially good or well written book - it is extremely valuable for a writer - but for two reasons: one, you will then know where he came from physically, intellectually, psychologically, emotionally; two, because he uses a lots of colons and semi-colons. If you do not get - or like - what he is saying, at least you could use his writing as a model for how to use the [:] and [;], even if your writing course tutor tells you they are not so popular or necessary nowadays.

Colons, as a species, are a constant source of fascination: if you can get hold of this book, read a passage at random: almost any page contains dozens and dozens of these rare punctuation marks. Take a piece of your work. Re-write it in the punctuation style of this book. A strange thing: if you scan a page of Words, the punctuation stands out; if you read it - silently or aloud - the punctuation magically disappears.

My punctuation is poor and will never be good: part, to be fair to myself, typo; part seemingly congenital inability. They always are in the wrong places according to other people. So it goes [Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse 5 ?] The only punctuation mark I feel fairly certain about is the full-stop. If you feel anything I write could be re-written better, please post a new version. This whole text, by the way - if you have not noticed you ought to - is scattered with [neologim anyone?] an attempt at self-mockey through plastering the text with punctuation marks which I have no idea how to use.

21 January
The book is finished: skipping a few pages near the end, admittedly; no rule which says you can't go back! Scowering the web for an online Words to avoid the longuers of copying out my favourite quotes has come up with a few useful things:

J P Sartre
Brandeis U. - good. A complete "mini-essay" within a biog/bibliog. The section on Words, useful in assessing whether to read it if nothing else, in the context of his other work.
judged by Francis Jeanson in Sartre dans sa vie as "the most accessible, and doubtless the most successful, of all the non- philosophical works of Sartre."

Jean Paul Sartre The outsider looking in
Raya Dunayevskaya, 1973: Philosophy & Revolution, Chapter 6
Briefly mentions Words in context of his work. Fascinating to go back to that time when Marxism seemed important to understand, even just for the sake of getting the upperhand at diner parties.

J P Sartre
Stanford U. : links to other entries: de Beauvoir, philospophers connected.

Wiki: J P Sartre
Whoever wrote the piece on Words knows something the other sites didn't, or is claiming something that isn't true.
In 1964, Sartre renounced literature in a witty and sardonic account of the first six years of his life, Les mots (Words). The book is an ironic counterblast to Marcel Proust, whose reputation had unexpectedly eclipsed that of André Gide (who had provided the model of literature engagée for Sartre's generation). Literature, Sartre concluded, functioned as a bourgeois substitute for real commitment in the world. In the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but, true to his views, he resoundingly declined it. This rejection hurt the prestige of the Nobel institution more than it did Sartre's.

  • In my mind two passages:

(1) beginning: "I began my life as I shall no doubt end it: among books..." [p.28 Penguin]. Quote it in full, later, but for those willing to find the book: not to spoil the pleasure of reading it to find a gem hidden at the bottom of the paragraph

(2) about film (the transition, as he saw it in 1963, from a film-mind child to a writer-mind child).

If asked what I was right inside myself, it would be afilm-maker, though the only film I ever made was a short video * sequence which showed my three year old son running away, fast, then fallingdown....{CUT}.

I looked back in my life to find no writer till the age of 18, when in the middle of an exam, I gave the poor examiner the full works - jokes, puns, allusions, double-entres : I was bored with the questions in my General Paper, sat by all "A" Level students in those days to do "What it says on the packet": examines one's general understanding.

Words is full of snippets, amongst - for my taste - the rather too finely wrought analysis, which have already been filmed in my mind. It is surprising some French director hasn't done one of those typical movies of Words: banal action superimposed upon by dense, relentless intellectual narrative. It could be done: but it would not be Words. If someone give me £100,000, o'k. £50K, lets settle for 25, I'll make a start....quick working script..... hire a few actors... trial to the producers. In my dreams.

25 January

I promised a quote. Here it is: page 28 of the penguin edition:

I began my life as I shall no doubt end it: among books. In my grandfather's study, they were everywhere; it was forbidden to dust them except once a year, before the October term. Even before I could read, I already revered these raised stones; upright or leaning, wedged together like bricks on the library shelves or nobly placed like avenues of dolmens, I felt that our family prosperity depended on them. They were all alike, and I was romping about in a tiny sanctuary, surrounded by squat, ancient monuments which had witnessed my birth, which would witness my death and whose permanence guaranteed me a future as calm as my past. I used to touch them in secret to honour my hands with their dust but I did not have much idea what to do with them and each day I was present at ceremonies whose meaning escaped me: my grandfather - so clumy, normally, that my grandmother buttoned his gloves for him - handled these cultural objects with the dexterity of an officiating priest. Hundreds of times I saw him get up absent-mindedly, walk round the table, cross the room in two strides, unhesitatingly pick out a volume without allowing himself time for choice, run through it as he went back to his armchair, with a combined movement of his thumb and right forefinger, and, almost before he sat down, open it with a flick "at the right page", making it creak like a shoe. I sometimes got close enough to observe these boxes which opened like oysters and I discovered the nakedness of their internal organs, pale, dank, slightly blistering pages, covered with small black veins, which drank ink and smelt of mildew.


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