With its existential themes and mission to examine and expose the nature of personal autonomy, Sartre’s epic Roads to Freedom trilogy was completed in a mighty flurry of activity, with the Age of Reason published in September 1945 shortly after the Nazi occupation of France and World War II ended.
It was joined immediately by The Reprieve, the writing style of which uses simultaneity as events unfold at the same time, with Sartre considering numerous characters at once as they jostle for position on page.
As such, the first two books were written when the outcome of the war was uncertain so, as far as I’m aware, the writer didn’t know if his works would ever be published. Hitler, most certainly, would have burned his novels to the ground had the Axis powers won the war.
Iron in the Soul concluded the trilogy in 1949, with Sartre abandoning the fourth novel the Last Chance for a variety of reasons (in part due to becoming bored with the limitations of novel writing—he’d made his point and moved on to new projects).
I first read the Age of Reason in early 2005 aged 19 and it transformed my view of literature—it’s at once a gripping and brilliant story, but it also deals with Sartre’s complex philosophical concepts.
However, the beauty here is you don’t have to be interested in any of that lot to enjoy the book, which plays out with serious verve and imagination thanks largely to the exceptional group of characters Sartre depicts.
I’ll be taking a detailed look at this trilogy over the coming months and, of course, be warned ahead are numerous spoilers. As always, my reviews comprise about 5,000 words and merely scratch at the surface of a full-scale novel like the Age of Reason.
They exist to nudge you towards discovering their full attributes, as I deliberately leave out many chapters and happenings – so by reading this review and learning the story, it shouldn’t much spoil your trip through the novel.
The central character is Mathieu Delarue who, quite frankly, you can’t help but presume represents Sartre. An intellectual and socialist, he’s a philosophy teacher at a university in Paris.
At 34, he’s anti-bourgeoisie, but this personal leaning receives a major blow at the start of the book. Somewhat importantly, it’s established he’s not a particularly good looking man, which appears to thump extra age onto his exterior.
- Marcelle Duffett is his mistress, a woman uncertain about her position in life and who has seemingly fallen into a convenient routine with Mathieu. Upon becoming pregnant, she’s clearly in two minds to keep the baby and comes to despise Delarue for wanting to rid it from her life.
- Daniel Sereno is the extremely good looking gay friend of Mathieu, although they don’t appear to get on particularly well. A darkly Machiavellian character, his outward acts are often simply foils for devious, open-ended desires. Misanthropic, narcissistic, and aloof, his actions are seemingly based on a desire to disrupt peoples’ lives.
- Boris Serguine is the highly lovable young philosophy student of Mathieu’s who worships his professor. His family is of Russian descent. He is charming, affable, naïve, and romantically fatalistic; he values his youth above all else and early in the novel exclaims his intention to commit suicide at 25 so as not to head into mental and physical decline.
- Ivich Serguine: A real oddity. She’s an extremely pretty young lady, but one plagued with all manner of strange anxieties and psychological issues. These largely make her uptight and, as she hates being touched, this creates awkward situations.
As she’s Boris’ sister, at some point she’s been introduced to Mathieu who seems to fall for her due to her looks and youth, with the two sharing an odd relationship based on the professor teaching Ivich about high culture.
Chapter one begins the trilogy, with Mathieu walking down the Rue Vercingetorix before he’s stopped by a half-drunk man (presumably homeless) eager to fuel his drinking further.
He’s handed five francs by Delarue. A policeman accuses the drunk of begging, but Delarue defends him based on the lie they were having a proper conversation.
This minor incident is important as Delarue is soon to be in considerable financial bother, but his tendency to throw his money away remains a consistent, rather inexplicable habit in the novel.
The half-drunk man suggests they head off to wax lyrical in a Parisian café over drinks, but Delarue turns him down (to his immediate regret).
Instead, he visits his mistress of seven years, Marcelle, who lives with her elderly mother. This lady, with her “masculine hands”, greets him with an affable, “Are you all right, old boy?” and their pained relationship becomes apparent from the off.
Delarue, a socialist, despises the bourgeoisie (i.e. a dislike of materialism and conventional attitudes) but is ironically finding his financial struggles something of a burden. He is currently wondering how he can survive on only 500 francs until late in the month.
Similarly, Marcelle is unhappy. Starting to age, she’s found a picture of herself from 1928 (the timeline for Age of Reason is the summer of 1938), in the picture she’s dressed in a man’s jacket and remarks to Delarue: “I was a scream in those days.”
On edge, the couple discusses what they’ve been up to, including Delarue spending time with young student Ivich. This brilliant invention of Sartre’s is a peculiar creature.
With her youth and good looks, she permeates much of the novel with a sense of loss—the ageing characters accept their 20s are gone, with the result being they seem to view Ivich as fragile and precious due to her youthful vulnerability.
However, Ivich is no ordinary young lady. Marcelle asks about how her studies is going. Mathieu responds:
I daresay she has [been studying hard], in her own way—that is, she no doubt sits for hours over a book. But you know what she’s like. She has visions, almost like a lunatic. In October, she was well up in botany, and the examiner was quite satisfied: and then she suddenly saw herself opposite a bald chap who was talking about coelenterata [a biology term I don’t fully understand]. This seemed to her just funny, and she thought: ‘I don’t give a curse for coelenterata,’ and the chap couldn’t get another word out of her.
It also becomes apparent Ivich is somehow studying the wrong course (presumably due to parental interference) as Mathieu observes her inability to be a doctor of any sort – a dissection would “revolt” here. However, she and, indeed, her brother are kept in this circle of grownups seemingly as Delarue, Boris’ much older girlfriend (a local Parisian singer) Lola, and various others view them as a reminder of how they were a decade earlier.
Such notions of youth are thoroughly trampled on when Marcelle announces she is pregnant. “I’m two months late,” says she. “Hell!” says he, although Mathieu’s most notable reaction is: “Well – I suppose one gets rid of it, eh?” and the matter is seemingly settled.
This triggers off the central element of the Age of Reason – Delarue’s search for 4,000 francs to secure a safe abortion for Marcelle.
This is, essentially, all there is to the plot, but from the subsequent carnage it creates, Mathieu is forced to swallow his pride and wheel and deal with his friends, such as the imposing Daniel, who clearly delights in wreaking havoc in other peoples’ lives for the sake of it.
However, despite the tone being set in this first chapter, the abortion element of the story doesn’t dominate proceedings as Delarue finds himself increasingly drawn into, particularly, the lives of young Boris and Ivich. Here he acts as a sort of mediator—an adult the young ones turn to for help as he’s mature, intelligent, and reliable.
This is opposed to the embarrassing situation he finds himself at the start of the story; his initial foray into securing an abortion ends in dismal humiliation. He heads to a backstreet practitioner (an old woman with unsightly hands), but is dismissed with the excellent line:
You’ve had an accident. All right. Then let us hope I shall be better at my job than you were at yours – and that’s all I have to say. Good night.
The lucky reader is soon introduced to the lovely Boris. Again, it’s important for the story to highlight he’s very young, but not far off 20. When I first read the Age of Reason I was 19, so I identified with Boris pretty much straight away. 13 years later, his charm and youthful naivety still make him an endearing character.
His presence continues throughout the Roads to Freedom trilogy, but he’s never more present than in the opening novel. In this chapter, he’s introduced as the good looking student who’s dating the much older Lola—a singer in Parisian clubs.
The relationship between these two becomes central in the whole trilogy as it plays out over a couple of years. It seems doomed to failure from the off, with Lola paranoid she’ll age beyond his reach and Boris too youthful to really care about anything. She’s so anxiety-ridden she’s become an open cocaine addict, which Boris and Ivich agree is a “good thing” following on from a furtive discussion.
He has a huge amount of admiration for Mathieu, but still doesn’t fancy achieving any grand age of any sort. Of older people, he notes:
They’re reliable, they show you what to do, and there’s solidity in their affection.
Along with Lola, in this chapter the couple is in a nightclub for an evening of dance. It’s a fitting way to introduce Boris, who is out of place at only 19. The pair discusses their situation, with Lola fussing over him and expressing many of the glaring foibles in their relationship.
Once they start dancing, Boris is shocked to see a young man dancing impressively who turns out to be at least in his 40s. Panicking about ageing, Sartre follows his considerations.
I won’t, I won’t grow old. Last year he had been quite unperturbed, he had never thought about that sort of thing: and now—it was rather ominous that he should so constantly feel that his youth was slipping between his fingers. Until twenty-five. ‘I’ve got five years yet,’ thought Boris; ‘and after that I’ll blow my brains out.’
The dichotomy of youthful hedonism and adulthood is expressed most obviously in this chapter. Subsequent novels in the Road to Freedom have little to do with this theme, but what Sartre did is lay bare the concerns of his central characters whilst World War II loomed casually on the horizon.
Such impending disaster makes many innocuous day-to-day endeavours trivial, of course, but at this stage his creations are busying themselves worrying about ageing, money, and relationships.
The brilliance of Boris is, at his age, he’s relaxed and doesn’t care where his future is headed – indeed, it’ll be all over in a few years, apparently.
Matters Kicking Off
The Age of Reason only concerns a handful of days, I should point out, during which time personal freedom is the main theme established.
Mathieu’s devotion to this philosophy is no secret, with Lola and Boris even openly discussing how Mathieu approaches his life with personal freedom in mind (it’s also what he teaches to his students).
In reality, Sartre was, of course, a socialist and didn’t concern himself with material wealth, dying with little fortune to his name in 1980 – once again, it’s apparent Monsieur Delarue is very much the author actively purveying over his novel.
This means it is, naturally, in keeping with Sartre’s extensive lifelong musings on existentialism. The proposition “existence precedes essence” is what Sartre levelled at the world.
In other words, as humans we exist first, but then we do things that define who we are as individuals. Again, this is central to existentialism’s atheistic outlook – we are free agents in the world who decide our fate, with the idea being to live as morally sound a life as possible.
Whether you agree with him or not, this is the backdrop for rest of the novel. From chapter three, Mathieu begins his search for funds to fuel a professional abortion. He first tries his wealthy friend Sarah, although bumps into the communist Brunet in the process (who later invites Mathieu to join the party, but he declines).
Sarah attempts to get Mathieu to reconsider, but ultimately suggests a renowned, but expensive, doctor he can turn to. He’s also leaving for America in a few days—the need for haste is upped considerably. Upon departing, Delarue observes of Sarah:
She raised her kind, ill-favoured face to his. There was in that face an intriguing, almost volutptuous humility that evoked a mean desire to hurt her, to crush her with shame. “When I look at her,” Daniel used to say, “I understand Sadism.” Mathieu kissed her on both cheeks.
For chapter four, one of the real treats of the novel arrives: Ivich. This bizarre young student clearly has all many of psychological issues which make her difficult to be around, but due to her good looks she arouses great interest.
Delarue clearly has a thing for her, but is caught between being the intellectual elder statesman and the lust-driven buffoon.
He meets Ivich to take her to a museum and show her the works of Gaugin (a French post-impressionist artist). Before meeting her Delarue observes:
“Youth is fantastic… so vivid on the surface, but no feeling inside it.”
Thinking to himself a bit more:
Ivich was conscious of her youth, and so was Boris, but these were exceptions. Martyrs of youth. ‘I never knew I was young, nor did Brunet, nor did Daniel. We were only aware of it afterwards.’ He reflected without much pleasure that he was gong to take Ivich to the Gaugin exhibition. He liked to show her fine pictures, fine films, and fine things generally, because he was himself so unattractive; it was a form of self-excuse. Ivich did not excuse him : that morning, as on all occasions, she would look at the pictures with her wild, maniacal air : Mathieu would stand beside her, ugly, persistent, and forgotten. And yet he would not have liked to be good-looking – she was never more alone than when confronted with something to admire. And he said to himself: ‘I don’t know what I want from her.’
Now, these two are a bit odd together. Whereas Delarue offers Ivich’s brother Boris fatherly advice and encouragement, Ivich and Mathieu are something of a misfit. It becomes apparently Delarue is showing off his intellect and education, touring the young Ivich around Paris’ museums.
This has clearly been going on for a while, but Ivich has grown somewhat bored of the routine and is now resentful towards Delarue. In part, this seems to be due to the fact she can’t ever match his intellect (but is self-aware enough to realise this), whereas Mathieu is somehow clinging to his fading youth with Ivich and getting some subconscious, macho kick out of being with a pretty girl.
Ivich is a fusspot, in simple terms. Mathieu orders some mint tea after she had expressed a fondness for it. This time around, however:
‘That green, gluey stuff I drank the other day? Oh, I don’t want that, it makes my mouth all sticky. I always take what I’m given, but I oughtn’t to listen to you, we haven’t got the same tastes.’
She doesn’t let Delarue cancel the order, though, as the green liquid will be “nice to look at.” She also reveals she dislikes looking people in the face as it makes her eyes hurt. All manner of eccentricities are unearthed as the novel progresses—Ivich is simply a one-off.
A bundle of borderline madness held together by a wealthy family and good looks. It’s also apparent her studying is a dismal failure, which is leading her to sulk about her future.
Despite the peculiar relationship they share, she still seems fond of the man (in a weird, unpleasantly fueled way) and invites Mathieu to the Sumatra club for the evening with Boris and Lola.
She turned her head, and was looking at Mathieu’s hair, tilting her mouth towards him with a touch of affectionate coquetry. Ivich was not precisely a flirt, but from time to time she assumed an affectionate air for the pleasure of sensing the heavy, fruit-like sleekness of her face. Mathieu thought it an irritating and rather silly pose.
It’s at this point he makes a bizarre, seemingly deadly mistake during a taxi ride to the latest museum exhibition. Feeling annoyed by her behaviour, Delarue commits a cardinal sin:
He leaned towards her : and to punish her, he laid his lips lightly against a cold, closed mouth : he was feeling defiant: Ivich was silent. Lifting his head he saw her eyes, and his passionate joy vanished. He thought: ‘A married man messing about with a young girl in a taxi,’ and his arm dropped, dead and flaccid: Ivich’s body straightened with a mechanical jerk, like a pendulum swinging back to equilibrium. ‘Now I’ve done it,’ said Mathieu, ‘she’ll never forgive me.’ He sat huddled in his seat wishing he might disintegrate.
Eventually, the taxi pulls up next to the museum, with Ivich and Mathieu alighting and heading into the latest exhibition without exchanging a word.
They soon rekindle their relationship whilst discussing Gaugin, until Ivich has an episode of fatigue and rushes home in a taxi. “Good-bye” she tells Delarue without so much as looking at him. With the youth gone from his life again, reality hits home on the 34 year old and his predicament becomes ever-present. He must hunt down his wealthy friends and beg for assistance.
Marcelle refers to Daniel as the “archangel”. He’s introduced in chapter 7 and it’s quickly established he’s a Machiavellian sort blessed with exceptional good looks. Initially, he’s in a warped frame of mind and has decided to drown his pet cats in the Seine.
Despite going to great lengths to achieve this, noting many French women’s startled reactions as they see his handsome mug home into view, he eventually backs out of the idea. Returning home, he finds Delarue on his doorstep.
It immediately becomes apparent Daniel, who is gay, is a duplicitous sort who seems set on playing with his victims for the hell of it. Whilst being naturally intelligent, he lacks Delarue’s education and, also, appears to be somewhat annoyed he can’t match his friend’s (although they’re more like acquaintances) outright smarts.
However, given Delarue’s situation he’s immediately able to start up one of his many games.
Delarue’s predicament actively amuses him and, although Daniel is wealthy and Mathieu knows it, he pretends to be in debt. Once it’s clear from his expression Delarue doesn’t believe him, Daniel becomes angry.
‘Mathieu can go to hell. He thinks himself deep, he imagines he can see through me. Why on earth should I help him? He’s only got to touch one of his own set.’ What he could not stand was that normal, placid air which Mathieu never lost, even in trouble.
In the book, I must point out, Daniel often says one thing to his friends to make him appear moral, likeable, and supportive. His internal monologue, however, is as above.
He’s filled with causticity and scathing asides which, naturally, includes his scheming on how he can interfere with everyone’s lives. Irritated, he levels at Delarue:
‘It has just occured to me: you always want to be free, here is a superb opportunity of proclaiming your freedom.’ … ‘You have only to marry Marcelle.’
This makes Delarue laugh, but it’s apparent it’s the only way to get the money from the conniving fiend. It’s an extensive discussion they have that sees much toing and froing of minds, but Delarue is clearly wise to Daniel’s behaviour and rejects his proposal.
As Mathieu leaves the property, Daniel is left to muse over his failed attempt at manipulation.
‘That’s final.’ And he caught his breath. But the feeling didn’t last: ‘Not for a moment,’ he said to himself, ‘did Mathieu cease to be balanced, composed, and in perfect accord with himself. He’s certainly upset, but that doesn’t go very deep. Inside, he’s quite at ease.’ Daniel walked up to the mirror and inspected his dark and comely countenance, and thought: ‘All the same, it would be worth a packet if he were forced to marry Marcelle.’
Next up, Delarue visits his brother Jacques in a desperate bid to wrest money off him, but is almost humiliated (and, for the first time, shows considerable annoyance) by his brother’s savage indictment of his life.
It’s clear his brother has been waiting for such a moment to try and bring Mathieu down a level. “Your whole life is built upon a lie”, he begins:
You get a comfortable life out of the situation [with Marcelle] and an appearance of liberty: you have all the advantages of marriage and you exploit your principles to avoid its inconveniences. You refuse to regularise the position, which you find quite easy. If anyone suffers from all of this, it isn’t you.’
The accused makes a rebuttal by stating Marcelle shares the same views on marriage. Jacques, a wealthy lawyer, responds:
If she didn’t share them she would no doubt be too proud to admit it to you. The fact is, you’re beyond any comprehension: you, so prompt with your indignation when you hear of an injustice, you keep this woman for years in a humiliating position, for the sole pleasure of telling yourself that you’re respecting your principles. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were true, if you really did adapt your life to your ideas. But, I must tell you once more, you are as good as married, your have a delightful flat, you get a competent salary at fixed intervals, you have no anxiety for the future because the State guarantees you a pension… and you like that sort of life—placid, orderly, the typical lie of an official.”
To which Delarue responds:
‘Listen, there’s a misunderstanding here: I care little whether I’m a bourgeois or whether I’m not. All I want is’ and he uttered the final words through clenched teeth and with a sort of shame ‘to retain my freedom.’
Jacques continues to accuse him of hypocrisy.
‘You have, however, reached the age of reason, my poor Mathieu,’ said he, in a tone of pity and of warning. ‘But you try to dodge that fact too, you try to pretend you’re younger than you are. Well… perhaps I’m doing you an injustice. Perhaps you haven’t in fact reached the age of reason, it’s really a moral age… perhaps I’ve got there sooner than you have.’
The conversation trails off, however, with Delarue retorting: “Pah! Your age of reason is the age of resignation, and I’ve no use for it.” Jacques goes on to provide Delarue with a familiar ultimatum—marry Marcelle to clear up the situation.
Exasperated by his brother’s assessment, Mathieu heads off out into the streets of Paris once again.
Boris and Daniel
Boris reappears throughout the novel adding a cheerful, youthful edge to proceedings. In typically chipper mood, ruminating on where his life is at in 1938, he’s planning to steal a book from a shop in an attempt to prove his metal.
He’s an inquisitive sort who is sure of his professor’s ability to reveal the truth about existence.
In the philosophy class there had been a good deal of lively interest in Communism, and Mathieu had evaded the issue by explaining what freedom was. Boris had promptly understood: the individual’s duty is to do what he wants to do, to think whatever he likes, to be accountable to no one but himself, to challenege every idea and every person. Boris had constructed his life on this basis, and he kept himself conscientiously free: indeed, he always challenged everyone, excepting Mathieu and Ivich: that would have been futile, for they were above criticism. As to freedom, there was no sense in speculating on its nature, because in that case one was then no longer free. Boris scratched his head in perplexity, and wondered what was the origin of these destructive impulses which gripped him from time to time. ‘Perhaps I am naturally highly strung,’ he reflected, with amusement and surprise.
He soon concludes he’ll ask Delarue:
Boris considered it indecent for a fellow of his age to aspire to think for himself. He had seen enough of such people at the Sorbonne, pretentious young wiseacres, bleak, bespectacled products of the Ecole Normale, who always had a personal theory in reserve, and invariably ended by making fools of themselves somehow.
During this theft-based excursion, he bumps into Daniel who he considers to be “splendid”.
He had fairly to recognise that Sereno presented an extremely elegant appearance. In point of fact, there was, in the almost pink tweed suit, the linen shirt, and yellow necktie, a calculated bravado that rather shocked Boris. Boris liked a sober, slightly casual elegance. None the less, the total effect was irreproachale though rather lusciously suggestive of fresh butter. Serono burst out laughing. He had a warm, attractive laugh, and Boris liked him because he opened his mouth wide when he laughed.
Daniel suggests the pair head off for a drink, but even young Boris has picked up on the archangel’s dangerous air.
He would have indeed liked to go to the Harcourt with Sereno: he was an odd fellow, he was extremely good-looking, and it was amusing to talk to him because of the need to be constantly on guard: the persistent sense of danger. He struggled against himself for a moment, but the sense of duty prevailed.
This sense of duty is in stealing a book, although he wonders if he’s offended Sereno with his rejection. Regardless, with Daniel’s departure he duly has off with a textbook without even attempting to conceal the thing.
It’s soon revealed Daniel has his own plan. With a trick up his sleeve to get one over on Mathieu, he heads off to see Marcelle in an attempt to manipulate her thoughts surrounding Delarue, although he now considers having to deal with him: “another plunge into the clinging slime of pity”.
Finding Time to Unwind
Despite his predicament, Delarue still finds time to catch up with his younger friends in the evening. He meets them in a club where Ivich is drinking vodka and Boris a peculiar cocktail. Again, Mathieu reflects on “How young they are!” whilst Ivich manages to not hurl despite drinking the vodka. Incidentally, as everyone is about to get pretty inebriated in this section, during this era getting drunk is referred to as being “tight”. Boris:
‘I have a horror of being tight,’ he explained apologetically, ‘I drink, but my whole body revolts against drunkenness.’
With alcohol in his system, Delarue begins to opine over the nature of Ivich, remarking: “I love that girl for her purity.” But with Ivich becoming increasingly tight, her petulant nature begins to come forward. Boris busies himself with girlfriend Lola, and the jazz band plays whilst the characters take turns to dance. Even Mathieu and Ivich share a moment on the dancefloor (this, of course, being the 1930s—no breakdancing would have occurred).
Filled with mirth and their senses dulled with alcohol, Boris unexpectedly produces a Basque knife upon everyone’s return to their table.
It’s at this moment Delarue finally announces his situation to Boris, who suggests Lola will provide him with the four thousand francs he needs. “You don’t understand,” he tells Boris, “I don’t want to borrow from Lola because she dislikes me.”
By now, even the reader is getting a bit exasperated by Delarue’s behaviour, is he a coward or a pretentious buffoon? He certainly has scruples, you can’t argue against that.
Then, in one of the novel’s most memorable sections, a rather drunk Ivich takes Boris’ blade. As she plays with it, several nearby patrons who have been complaining about her conduct kick up again.
Peeved, Ivich’s strange mind kicks into action—she begins hacking and slashing at her left hand, spilling blood onto their table. This causes some consternation but, drunk, she announces it to be a “very agreeable sensation” and she likes “seeing [her] blood”.
Delarue, again failing to act his age, makes a puerile effort to connect with her:
He felt benignantly impressive, and was a little afraid that he might faint. But a sort of dogged satisfaction, and the malice of a silly schoolboy took possession of his mind. It was not only to defy Ivich that he had stuck the knife into his hand, it was as a challenge to Jacques, and Brunet, and Daniel, and to his whole life. ‘I’m a ghastly kind of fool,’ he thought. ‘Brunet was right in saying that I’m a grown-up child.’ But he couldnt help being pleased. Ivich looked at Mathieu’s hand, nailed to the table, and the blood gathering round the blade. Then she looked at Mathieu, her expression had entirely changed. ‘Why did you do that’ she said, gently. ‘Why did you?’ said Mathieu, stiffly.
Despite “tumult” and “public opinion” arriving due to the gruesome situation, the pair is led off by a kindly cloakroom lady who disinfects their wounds and applies bandages. The two appear to connect properly for the first time as they wait and eventually return to their table with an enigmatic, relaxed air about them.
With early morning setting in, and Ivich happily admiring her bandaged hand, Mathieu reflects on a feeling of content as Lola takes to the stage and begins to sing.
Entering chapter 12 and the final 100 pages of the novel, a series of events force Delarue towards the culmination of his predicament. The sense of general foreboding in the tale suggests he’s likely to fail in some way—or he has to accept he’s a member of the bourgeoisie and his life has been a lie.
Feeling connected with the Serguines due to recent events, a bolt of lightning surrounding Lola stuns the three of them. Although Ivich is hungover the next morning and has returned to her petulant ways, she’s simply paranoid about the final exams she’s recently taken and makes a joke she could gain a career as a mannequin.
Boris then unexpectedly appears outside the cafe where they’re recuperating and, smiling crazily whilst swaying to and fro, staggers towards them and announces: “Lola is dead”.
An appalled Ivich asks if she committed suicide whilst fussing with her curled hair, and the dazed Boris begins to laugh manically. It’s at this point Delarue, as the adult, gets his act together for a moment and shows his years.
Mathieu smacked his face with a sharp, noiseless flip of the fingers. Boris stopped laughing, eyed him, muttered something, then subsided and stood quiet, his mouth agape, and still with a stupid air. All three went silent, there was death among them, anonymous and sacred.
Boris believes it to be a cocaine overdose having found her apparently cold and lifeless on his bed in the morning. Panicking, he dressed and fled. Again, Delarue takes it upon himself to visit the body and take control of the situation as Boris, who reveals he’s also dabbled with cocaine a couple of times, has left letters in Lola’s flat which could incriminate him (as he’d mentioned buying the stuff from dealers). Delarue takes charge and informs them he’ll retrieve the letters.
Mathieu walked out on to the Boulevard Montparnasse, he was glad to be alone. Behind him, Boris and Ivich would soon be whispering together, reconstituting their unbreathable and precious world. But he did not care. All around him, and in full force, there were his anxieties of the day before, his love for Ivich, Marcelle’s pregnancy, money, and then, in the centre, a blind spot—death. He gasped several times, passing his hands over his face and rubbing his cheeks. ‘Poor Lola,’ he thought, ‘I quite liked her.’
There follows a fitful few pages where Delarue reaches the apartment block and makes his way to Lola’s room, finding her naked and seemingly stone dead in bed.
As he retrieves Boris’ letters, he also notes a large amount of francs that will easily cover Marcelle’s abortion—he doesn’t take the money. Walking out of the room, he stops in the hallway and notes: “What a feeble fool I am!” Working himself into a bit of a personal crisis, he eventually decides to return to the room to take the money, only to find Lola is awake: “Who’s that”, she asks. “The little idiot!”, Delarue thinks.
Although upset Boris presumed she was dead, Lola merely shrugs off the incident as one of her episodes—the seeming dangers of regular cocaine use evidently not of much concern to her.
Returning to the not so intrepid Serguine siblings, Delarue relays the good news.
‘It wasn’t difficult at all, but look here: Lola isn’t dead.’ Boris raised his eyes, he looked as though he did not understand: ‘Lola isn’t dead,’ he repeated idiotically. He sank deeper into his chair, he seemed utterly crushed: ‘Good Lord,’ thought Mathieu, ‘he had begun to get accustomed to it.’
An upset Boris informs them all Lola now “revolts” him. Mathieu is quick to point out he’s being moronic:
‘Because you believed she was dead? Look here, Boris, pull yourself together, this is becoming ludicrous. You made a mistake, well then – that’s the end of it.’
Delarue gets up to make a call and informs Ivich to contact him once she has her exam results through—in unison, the siblings say “Good-bye” to him.
“He’s very unfair”, Boris informs Ivich whilst Delarue dashes into the cafe to ring Sarah and delay her renowned medical professional. Boris looks up to see Delarue stalk off into Paris after his call without looking at them, leaving him depressed. The two youths reconcile with one another and then make to leave.
These two, whilst lovable in their odd little ways, are clearly spoilt and don’t really know what’s going on in the world. They seem intent on making their way in life, but a mixture of laziness, eccentricity, and a reliance on their affability and good looks means they seem destined to have everything handled for them. Casual lives of serendipity, essentially. Even in the event of World War II, you can’t help but feel they will breeze through it whilst being uninvolved in any disorder.
Their sheltered frame of mind takes another knock when Ivich is groped by one member of a group of young builders who pass around them in the street.
Ivich gave a jump and uttered a piercing scream, which she promptly stifled by putting her hand to her mouth. ‘I’m behaving like a kitchen-maid,’ she said, crimson with confusion. The young workmen were already at a distance. ‘What’s the matter?’ asked Boris, with astonishment. ‘He touched me,’ said Ivich with disgust. ‘The filthy fellow.’
Regretting her scream, and feeling somewhat world-weary, the duo part ways as Ivich continues to wallow in depression about her impending exam results. Boris leaves her slumped forward on a bench awaiting her fate.
Ivich and Mathieu
In the closing chapters, Daniel once more invites Delarue round to his flat by telegram. There, he reveals Marcelle and he have been engaging in a long-term friendship – Daniel even shows him a letter she had written him, surprising Mathieu with the lively prose and use of “archangel”. He suggests the pair catch up to discuss the situation further, with a deflated Delarue agreeing to this.
Prior to this fateful final meeting, in desperation, he hits his bank and applies for a loan. All is going well until it becomes apparent he can’t receive the loan immediately, which leads him to try and chase down Sarah again.
Feeling flummoxed, he returns to his flat and is handed a recent telegram from his concierge: “Ploughed. So what? Ivich.” She has failed her exams. In a panic, believing she may throw herself into the Seine or some such behaviour, he begins a wild taxi ride across Paris in an attempt to find her.
Eventually, he stumbles across her drinking with student friends in a bar and, feeling out of place due to his age, insists she return with him to his flat to sort the situation out. She agrees, but the situation becomes worse as, back home, Delarue finally admits his feelings for her. Initially, he offers to pay to keep her in Paris, rather than her having to return to her parents (whom she loathes) in Laon. This kindess perplexes her:
‘Why do you want to do all this for me? I’ve never done anything for you. I… I’ve always been horrid to you, and now you’re taking pity on me.’
Realising the game is up, he finally levels with her (although, frankly, surely Ivich should have figured this out by now, which kind of indicates the self-indulgent frame of mind she’s often in).
Mathieu hesistated, then he said turning away: ‘I can’t endure the idea of not seeing you again.’ A silence fell, then Ivich said in a faltering voice: ‘You… you mean that your… motive for offering me the money is a selfish one?’ – ‘Purely selfish,’ said Mathiue, curtly, ‘I want to see you again, that’s all.’
A melodramatic element of the story rears itself here, as Sarah suddenly arrives to inform Delarue her Jewish medical professional is leaving for America and won’t do the operation. It’s at this point the concentration camps in operation in Europe are mentioned for the first time in the trilogy, although Delarue passes over this in an attempt to stop his personal information reaching the ears of Ivich. Once Sarah leaves, the two argue, with the young student finally breaching the kiss Delarue had forced upon her.
‘I suspected something of the kind,’ Ivich went on breathlessly. ‘Yesterday morning… when you had the impertinence to touch me… I said to myself—that’s the way a married man behaves.’ – ‘That’s enough,’ said Mathiue roughly. ‘You needn’t say anymore. I understand.’
In a rage, Delarue flees and heads off to settle his predicament.
Ending it All
At the end of the novel, Delarue and Marcelle are reunited for the first time since chapter one. He reveals his inability to secure funds for the abortion and, crushingly for Marcelle, drops an emotional bomb on her which leads her to near hysterics. His love for her having faded, he essentially acknowledges it’s time to end the seven-year relationship.
Deflated, and booted out of Marcelle’s flat, he returns to his home and finds Ivich, who has at least calmed down. She plans to return the following year and re-sit her exams, with the chance to rekindle their friendship once more.
Relieved in this respect, it is left to Daniel to make a final, slippery return to Delarue after meeting with the distraught Marcelle. The two share a drink in Mathieu’s flat and, during this encounter, it becomes apparent he has proposed to Marcelle and she has accepted. To further mix it up, he finally reveals to Delarue he’s a homosexual.
Daniel had flung himself backwards, and was looking at him with amazement, his eyes sparkingly with anger. ‘That disgusts you, I suppose?’ – ‘You are a homosexual?’ repeated Mathiue slowly. ‘No, it doesn’t disgust me: why should it disgust me?’—’Look here,’ said Daniel, ‘don’t feel obliged to assume a broad-minded attitude…’ Mathieu did not answer. He looked at Daniel, and thought: ‘He is a homosexual.’ He was not greatly astonished.
Delarue pressures him into revealing why he is marrying Marcelle, to which he replies: “Because I’m fond of her.”
‘But…’ Mathieu blushed violently. ‘Do you like women too?’ Daniel emitted an odd sniff, and said: ‘Not much.’
After the two depart awkwardly, Delarue finds himself alone in his flat at last. He is left to muse: “If only Marcelle did not exist.”
But in so saying he deceived himself. ‘No one has interfered with my freedom; my life has drained it dry.’ He shut the window and went back into the room. The scent of Ivich still hovered in the air. He inhaled the scent, and reviewed that day of tumult. ‘A lot of fuss for nothing,’ he thought. For nothing: this life had been given him for nothing, he was nothing and yet he would not change: he was as he was made.
Finally, in the final sentence, he acknowledges: “It’s true, it’s absolutely true: I have attained the age of reason.” This realisation arrives at a perfect time, although Mathieu Delarue doesn’t realise it yet. It’s essentially his epiphany—the realisation he’s getting older and needs to move on with his life. In the subsequent books, he’s more mature and ready to deal with the situations he faces. As one of these is pitched battle, the unpleasant emotional breakdowns with friends and lovers he suffers here stand him in good stead for warfare.
If read as a standalone novel, the Age of Reason is a brilliant drama played out over a handful of days. In the following books, as part of the Roads to Freedom trilogy, World War II enters the fray.
By 1937, the Empire of Japan was already in full-blown war with the Republic of China, but Europe in 1938 (as a reminder, the setting for Age of Reason) was largely unconcerned about proceedings. There was just a noisy chap in Germany sounding off.
With its cast of highly memorable characters, Age of Reason delivers a philosophical novel that doesn’t bore as it’s so heavily entrenched in a very real and humane perspective. I’m tempted to describe it as a melodrama, but this does it a disservice as all of the events which occur feel so real.
You can’t help but believe Sartre developed the likes of Daniel, Boris, and Ivich from people he knew, and they’re so magnificently observed as individuals it’s as if they really were living and breathing in the 1930s.
Being a borderline, if not flat out, genius, Sartre’s exploration of the human conscience, its foibles, and the mischief it can get up to makes for compelling reading. It’s at once deeply intellectual but also crude and insulting, a dithering Parisian university lecturer bumbling about attempting to solve an issue he’s created.
By making himself so vulnerable, he exposes himself to his conniving or judgemental friends and acquaintances, ensuring he takes an emotional battering on his way to an unsteady future.
The Age of Reason has long been a favourite of mine. From first reading it in 2005 I’ve since returned to it three more times and it remains such a stunning novel. It’s also added extra weight if you move on to the remaining two books of the Roads to Freedom trilogy.
Rest assured, Delarue’s personal freedom faces greater challenges as World War II commences, essentially making his problems in his first outing inconsequential.
Yes, this is definitely one of the best novels of the 20th century (in my opinion). It’s also my favourite from the trilogy—whilst the Reprieve and Iron in the Soul are profound and moving, there’s a certain unmatchable edge to Age of Reason which is delivered through its detailed analysis of its lead characters.
Not that the subsequent books lack this, but the Reprieve’s focus on simultaneity and Iron in the Soul’s immersion into total war ensure the Age of Reason maintains a humane and innocent edge as it is set prior to the world’s descent into madness.
4 replies to “Jean-Paul Sartre: The Age of Reason”
Really, a very well done, succinct and passionate review. Thank you!
I read a book by Sartre in the 1990’s. It wasn’t a novel, it was a thin book about existentialism and it took me about a half year to read it. I went to Goodreads to see if I could recognize the title.
That’s when I saw he’d written Black Orpheus. Being shallow, I’ve only seen the movie, but it is a very neat story.
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Thanks very much! I am a big fan of his, as is obvious, although he wrote so much I’ve not gone through his entire catalogue yet. One day. One day.
Very good article. I will go on to read more from your blog.
I am currently reading Reprieve. I liked Age of Reason very much, and while constant jumping of perspectives in Reprieve sounds like a good idea, I find it too difficult to follow. I admit, it is good way to show how people around Europe felt at that time, but even if I forget the plot, even ideas are very difficult to follow in this style.
I hope the third returns to the form of Age of Reason 🙂
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Thanks! The Reprieve is certainly interesting. But confusing and difficult to follow, you’re right. Iron in the Soul is somewhat similar to Age of Reason and well worth a read, but doesn’t have the same lighter tone.
I did a review here of The Reprieve and it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve had to write, thanks to the simultaneous prose.