It would be hard to find a more emblematic figure than Sartre through which to survey the complex history of France in the later 20th century. He was a man of letters - philosopher, novelist, dramatist and (auto-) biographer - but also a political thinker, writer and activist whose interventions in most of the national and international debates of the postwar decades were invariably polemical and occasionally catalytic.
His early life, in David Drake's judgment, bore witness above all to his intellectual precocity while fostering elements of the anti-authoritarianism that would mark his entire career. The writing before and during the Occupation, above all L'Être et le Néant , already introduced the central question of individual freedom in the socio-political domain that was to remain a constant of his problematics. But it was only after the Second World War that political engagement became a defining concern, most significantly the Algerian crisis, and with it the ambiguity that was to mark his relationship with the French Communist Party until his break with it in 1956 following the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
As his international reputation became established, he travelled widely, notably and repeatedly to the Soviet Union until, with the overthrow of Czech leader Dubcyek in 1968, his patience with authoritarian Marxism finally snapped. Yet it was perhaps in the late 1960s, when both he and the philosophical tenets of existentialism were increasingly perceived in Parisian intellectual circles as spent forces, that he sprang his greatest surprise on his critics: engaging with the student protests of May 1968; allying himself with Maoism and with violent revolutionary struggle; co-founding the newspaper Libération ; and forming a new and dynamic relationship with the young radical Benny Lévy, to the undisguised fury of his lifelong partner, Simone de Beauvoir.
Their own strange mixture of fidelity, formality and autonomy is handled in a straightforward way by Drake, who gives equal attention to Sartre's insatiable capacity for sexual alliances and drug-taking, without ever falling into voyeurism. Other problematic friendships, above all with Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Raymond Aron, are handled succinctly and circumspectly, as is the account of Sartre's final years of blindness and dependency, until his death in 1980.
Published to coincide with the centenary of Sartre's birth in 1905, this readable brief study affords a persuasive account of the man and the writer, in precisely the terms of the series to which it belongs, Life and Times: the basic narrative is structured biographically, with clear, informative amplification providing the political and intellectual context, reinforced by a tabulated chronology and a rigorously selective bibliography.
Even if Drake leaves something to be desired in his assessment of how far the writing transcends the ideological preoccupations of its age, he nonetheless succeeds in providing a first-rate introduction for the general reader, secure in its analyses and balanced in its overview.
Richard Parish is professor of French, Oxford University.
Author - David Drake
Publisher - Haus
Pages - 194
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 904341 85 3