Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy ends here, in an epic novel which advances the story of Mathieu Delarue on his quest for personal freedom. The Age of Reason and the Reprieve, over 600 pages, develop his character considerably, from a bumbling university professor to a man on the brink of war, before, finally, being thrown into battle for Iron in the Soul (also known as Troubled Sleep – for this review, I’ll stick with its original translation).
The project was intended to be a tetralogy, but Sartre abandoned what was to be called the Last Chance after only two chapters, which were published in a magazine and then, following Sartre’s death in 1980, was released as a book with annotations and critical assessments about the author’s potential plans for the rest of it. Those enigmatic final two chapters add extra life to what occurs in Iron in the Soul – all will be revealed later on.
As Sartre decided to abandon the novel, I don’t regard it as part of the canon and the publication of those two chapters would likely have been against his wishes. If he’d wanted to complete the book, he would have done, but you may find it interesting to learn of his ultimate plan for Mathieu Delarue.
As always, brace yourself as there are spoilers ahead; these reviews only scrape at the surface of full scale, 80,000+ word novels, but some key plot developments will be revealed. Ultimately, if you go and read the novel afterwards thanks to this review, then I will be a happy bunny as this is the point of Moonshake Books.
Iron in the Soul
The trilogy closer, published in 1949, covers a critical time in France’s history, with the French army at a loss, demoralised, and awaiting the Nazi army to sweep in and take over the country. Defeat, in other words; a most horrendous situation for anyone to find themselves in, not least as the terrifyingly uncompromising Nazis are the victors.
Awaiting the Armistice, and considering their lot, Sartre brings events up to speed some 21 months after the Reprieve, when dreams of peace had appeared to be fulfilled. Set nine months after the UK and France declared war on Germany, the situation isn’t looking good.
Sartre’s lead character, Mathieu Delarue, has finally been mobilised and has been in action since late 1938. This character, who I believe is intended, at least in part, to represent Sartre, reflects the author’s trip into the army. Sartre was drafted in 1939 and, interestingly enough, his intellect was put to good use as a meteorologist, as opposed to a soldier. During this time, he wrote extensive war diaries to his lifelong partner, Simone de Beauvoir, which were later published. This wasn’t an easy time of it, however, as Sartre spent nine months as a POW after the Nazis captured his unit.
Released in April 1941, he was eventually able to regain his civilian life after a Jewish teacher was banished from a role at Lycée Condorcet by the stringent anti-semitic laws enforced after the Battle of France, which remained in effect until Allied liberation several years later.
Whilst the novel is semi-autobiographical in this respect, and the writer mixes in other elements of his life into Iron in the Soul, for Delarue, fighting on the front was quite removed from Sartre’s situation.
Saturday, 15th June 1940
The novel begins with themes of defeat – get used to that as Iron in the Soul provides everyone with a liberal leaning a dreadful thrashing. The Nationalists have won in Spain and the painter Gomez (wife to wealthy Sarah, a Jew), who had been fighting for the Republicans, is stationed in New York. His wife is fleeing Paris in a long line of refugees with her son Pablo – France has fallen and many have decided the best course of action is to run.
A vast crowd was sweeping over road and fields, close -packed, mullish, implacable; a human flood. Not a sound but the susurration of boot-soles on hard earth. Sarah had a moment of panic. She wanted to run somewhere – anywhere – into the open countryside. But she pulled herself together, took a firm grip on Pablo, and dragged him along, letting herself be swept forward. Stench: the hot, stale stench of human beings, the sweet, acrid stench of destitution, the unnatural stench of thinking animals. Between two red necks topped by bowler hats, she could see the last of the cars vanishing into the distance: her final hope. Pablo began to laugh and Sarah gave a start: ‘Ssh!’ she said shamefacedly, ‘this is no time for laughter.’
Meanwhile, Gomez is distraught about his situation, having seen his ideologies collapse around him and, now also separated from his wife and son, he contemplates his lot. Whilst in America, he’s feeling somewhat alienated from the locals.
He needed a drink. A while back he had thought that he was alone in his concern for France. The fall of Paris had been his affair, a private worry – at once a misfortune for Spain and a just punishment for the French people. But he knew now that France was in this bar like a real presence, that it was eddying, in no matter how vague and abstract a form, in six million minds. It was almost more than he could bear. He had broken his personal link with Paris, and now here he was, an immigrant of only a few weeks’ standing, preyed upon, like the rest of them, by a sort of collective obsession.
Drowning his sorrows, he thinks back to his life in Paris as a painter.
Gomez rested his head in his hands and stared at the wall. He had a clear vision of the engraving he had left unfinished on his table: it had needed a dark mass on the left to give it balance. Something like a bush: yes, a bush, that was it. He saw in memory the table, the big window – and he began to cry.
Just to establish an ongoing theme here, but this is the final time Sartre dealt with Gomez and Sarah’s stories. After this chapter, they play no further part in the novel – they’re left forgotten in time. In David Chaute’s introduction to the book, after Sartre abandoned the fourth novel (which likely would have developed their stories), this is similar to how Sarah and her son are abandoned on a winding road out of Paris.
Sunday, 16th June 1940
Shifting the focus to armed units fighting for France, we catch up with one Mathieu Delarue. The news is grim: “Mathieu was asleep and the war was lost. Even in the ultimate privacies of sleep it was lost.” The evolution of this character was reaching full circle for Sartre; Delarue, in the Age of Reason, was a doddering git who was messing up his affairs left, right, and centre.
Academically gifted, by the time the Reprieve arrives he’s getting his act together and behaving as you’d expect from an adult of his social standing (university professor). His emotional intelligence takes a big step forward and he begins acting with much more self-awareness; his stoic acceptance of the need to head into battle is, in fact, rather noble.
For Iron in the Soul, the normally quite aloof former professor has been bonding with his peers and has made friends with many of his comrades, despite an obvious difference in attitudes. Normally, these sorts would be divided in everyday life, but the war has ensured they’ve bonded in the battle against tyranny. Still, he’s considered as something of a pretentious git by his peers – nonetheless, he has been accepted into the army with good grace. His comrades include the likes of Charlot, Pinette (who goes on be something of a central character), Pierne, Schwartz, Luberon, Longin, and Nippert – all from various walks of life, such as bank clerks, plumbers, and tax collectors, now facing one of the most crushing forms of defeat imaginable.
Delarue is left to dwell on France’s loss – “They had lost the war much as a man loses an hour – without noticing it.” He and his battalion are even left to watch as their superiors clear off into the night, leaving their soldiers to ruminate over their loss and what could await them. Delarue is, as in the Reprieve, rather stoic about it all: “When I’m a prisoner I shall let my beard grow” is his chief concern in this chapter.
At this stage, we return to Sartre’s primary love in novel writing – characters debating the living daylights out of a situation. His ability to develop his creations into fully formed individuals is not to be underestimated, as this is why these books are so insightful and his ability as a writer was so exceptional. The characters feel so alive. The conversations are never dull, either, even if it’s (back in the Age of Reason) Delarue’s odious brother Jacques lecturing him about his hypocrisy. There’s an urgency in Sartre’s character dialogue, as if it will all pave the way forward to the meaning of life.
Engaged in a resentful debate as they await the arrival of the Germans, Delarue dwells on his lot once again. “It’s a fair bugger!” chips in Schwartz.
That’s just about it, thought Mathieu: a fair bugger. He gazed into nothingness, and thought: I’m a Frenchman… and that’s a bugger, he reflected for the first time in his life; a fair bugger: we’ve never really seen France: we’ve only been in it.
As the company debates away, events get a touch belligerent and they begin bickering. Convinced this will be the war to end all wars, Charlot emphatically breaks up a moment of fisticuffs between Pinette and Longin “with a passionate desire to make peace – peace between Pinette and Longin, peace between the Germans and the French.”
‘It ought to be possible,’ he went on – and there was a note of almost supplication in his voice ; ‘to come to an understanding with them. After all, it’s not to their interest to trample on us.’
Of course, it’s during great debates about the future of France and the political arena that Mathieu Delarue, with his education and intellect, is turned to. “Whenever there was an argument they looked to him to settle it, because he was a man of education.” Delarue, however, waves them off with “I haven’t got an opinion” – well, Delarue, the last person who said something such as that was Marvin in Pulp Fiction, and look what happened to him!
Delarue does grow quite agitated when they fail to understand a point he raises, however, even jumping to his feet and shaking his fist. “I’ve done nothing but wait ever since I was a child!” The others can’t understand him, of course, but he’s referring to his emotionally stunted nature which has held him back. Controlling himself, he asserts:
‘How can it possibly matter what we decide or what we don’t decide?’ he said: ‘Is anyone asking for our opinion? Do you realise the situation we’re in?’
This is a line of thought another character will take up, presumably simultaneously with Delarue, with the communist Brunet in Part Two. Clearly, the most intelligent intellectuals see the situation for what it is – lost. They have lost. Delarue notes this isn’t quite going to sway the rest of his peers: “They recoiled from him. They felt frightened.”
He stopped talking. He thought suddenly: ‘life’s got to go on. Day after day we have got to gather in the rotten fruit of defeat, work out, in a world that’s gone to pieces, that total choice I’ve just refused to make. But, good God! – I didn’t choose this war, I didn’t choose this defeat: by what trick of fortune have I got to take responsibility for them?
Marseilles: 2 p.m.
Back with charming young Boris Serguine (a former student of Delarue’s) and we find the chap in a melancholic mood. France has been conquered, so why not? It’s revealed he’s recently escaped peritonitis, but the guy is clearly trying to chase down a sunny disposition and feels out of sorts being in a bit of a mood.
Boris is a light, charming touch throughout the trilogy – his charm and peculiar, but endearing, nature makes him an entertaining, naive, and likeable presence. Cutting back to the Age of Reason for a moment, Boris made a pact with himself – he planned to commit suicide at 25 to avoid having to age. Several years on and he’s still prone to bouts of melancholia.
When one is melancholy all reasons for rejoicing become melancholy too, so that one rejoices in a melancholy way. Besides, he thought, I am, in fact, dead.
It’s revealed he is still in hospital (the aforementioned peritonitis operation has been more recent than Sartre initially lays on) and tucked up in his bed, running his hand over the scar on his stomach. He finds his doctor, Francillon, amusing.
He sat down by the bed and started to roll a cigarette. He had large, prominent eyes and a beaked nose. He was an odd-looking creature, and Boris was very fond of him. There were moments when the mere sight of him produced an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
Of course, these are difficult times. “Nothing doing” is Boris’ morose response to his plans. Francillon is combative.
‘The war’s not over yet … Those who say it is are cowards and liars. You’ve got to be where the fighting is: you’ve no right to hang on in France.’
Boris is unsure of his plans – presently, he is hanging about waiting for his older girlfriend, Lola; their unusual, if affectionate, relationship peppers the entire trilogy with its awkwardness. It’s made clear at this point many French citizens are, quite naturally, considering whether or not to flee the country. If a horde of feral Nazis were descending on your doorstep, you might feel inclined to do the same.
His debate with Francillon on the matter is interrupted by the arrival of his sister, Ivich, who is visiting. “Good-looker” is Francillon’s reaction to her, “without any show of enthusiasm.” Ivich is the peculiar oddity whose stunted emotional state reared itself primarily in the Age of Reason. In the trilogy opener, Ivich is young and pretty; she is the object of lust for the then 34 year old Mathieu Delarue, who seems to view her as a ticket to eternal youth.
The reality is she is a damaged individual with a difficult personality. Had she existed in 2017, she’s the type of person some individuals would so unimaginatively refer to as a “snowflake”. Back in their day, of course, in the 1940s no one was allowed to have psychological issues. Everyone was orderly, disciplined, and knew their place in society!
Ivich is highly disorderly, however, although she is amiable enough and it’s soon established she has made a rather formulaic life for herself. “Good afternoon, little brother!” is her greeting.
At the sight of Boris the [nearby] soldiers broke into speech and laughter. He was very popular. He waved his hand at them, but felt vaguely disappointed that none of them said, ‘It’s your lucky day!’ or ‘Wouldn’t mind finding that in my bed!’ The truth was, Ivich had aged a good deal and lost most of her looks since her miscarriage. Boris, of course, was still proud of her, but in a different way.
Again, back in the Age of Reason, the characters are free from war and busy with normal, rather tedious issues which remain so prevalent to this day (i.e. being “well hot” etc.); looks make for an interesting theme as Delarue struggles with his ugly appearance, whilst remaining in awe of the pretty Serguine siblings, particularly the beautiful Ivich. For Iron in the Soul, with the arrival of World War II, and subsequent ageing, the pair has lost some of its youthful vigour.
Here in 2017, as a society, many of us are rather woefully infatuated with looks as all-important, but at no stage in the trilogy does Ivich ever acknowledge her appearance. She appears largely indifferent about men, although Sartre informs us she has formed a relationship with one (they have married, but the subsequent miscarriage has put Ivich into one of her angsty moods). If anything, the attention she receives from men is made clear as an annoyance. Elsewhere in the cast of characters, the “extremely good looking” Daniel actively uses his looks to spread mischief and dismay in Machiavellian fashion, whilst not being overly concerned about maintaining what society would class as a proper relationship.
All of this is now of little concern to Sartre’s – the melodrama of Age of Reason has been put into perspective and the harsh reality of life has taken over. The Nazis are on their way. “See the papers? Paris has fallen.” – “Yes, I know” is Ivich’s indifferent response.
Boris stifled a yawn. Ivich’s sallies no longer amused him. When she had been a young girl, it had been a pleasure to see her tugging at her hair, stamping her foot, and squinnying up her eyes. The sight had made him feel happy for the rest of the day. But now, there was a dead look in them: it was as though she were remembering something. When she was like that she resembled their mother. ‘She’s a married woman,’ he thought with shocked awareness: ‘a married woman with parents-in-law, a husband at the front, and a family car.’ He gave her a puzzled stare, and looked away because he felt that she was becoming horrible to him.
This, naturally, is Boris’ dismay at someone embracing getting older and trying to make something of it – for him, set on burning out at a young age as the epitome of youthful vigour, it’s all a bit unpleasant.
It’s during this time he makes the decision he will be clearing out of France with Ivich and her husband: “I can’t stay in France any longer.” Of Russian descent, they argue about their true origin – Boris states: “It’s France, since we have been naturalised.” Ivich, however, appears to think of Russia as her homeland. “I detest the French” is her glib remark.
As the chapter draws to a close, the pair reach something of an epiphany.
‘Boris,’ said Ivich with sudden passion: ‘I just can’t go on living with those people!’ – ‘Do they ill-treat you?’ – ‘On the contrary, they keep me wrapped up in cottonwool – their son’s wife, and all that. But I loathe them, I loathe Georges [her husband], I loathe the servants!’ – ‘And you loathe Lola,’ remarked Boris. ‘Lola’s different.’ – ‘She’s only different because she happens to be far away and because you haven’t set eyes on her for two years.’ – ‘Lola’s a singer, she drinks, and she’s lovely to look at… Oh, Boris!’ she cried: ‘they’re so ugly. If you leave me with them, I shall kill myself! No, I shan’t kill myself – it’ll be much worse than that! If you only realised how old and bad I feel sometimes!’
Boris’ reaction is: “There we go, with all the stops out!” – everything coming to a head at last. He runs his fingers through his hair and notes how he expects to go bald (something I did when I was his age – that one turned out to be true, well done me on my prescient nature), he plans to move to Guéret to become a school teacher, marry Lola, and wants Ivich to live with them.
As per the ongoing theme, this is Ivich’s swansong – an oddity in Sartre’s literary canon she remains, although a fascinating character and, essentially, the driving force in the Age of Reason, which remains my favourite amongst the trilogy. There’s something so precise, truthful, but unfortunate about the girl – a genuine psychological disaster, with many foibles hidden behind youthful good looks and financial privilege.
Padoux: 3 p.m.
Back with Delarue and his comrades – Longin’s frustration has led to a bout of tears. At this stage, it becomes increasingly apparent Delarue is something of a mediator in the troop. As the educated man, he’s the one able to provide some semblance of reason during this madness. He does, however, have a particularly close relationship with Pinette. In the oppressive heat he yawns, which leads to some playful joshing: “He’s yawning: ever seen anything like that? – one of the conquered of ’40 who’s got the effrontery to yawn!”
He looked at his comrades, and his mortal eyes met the timeless, petrified eyes of history. For the first time the robe of greatness had fallen upon their shoulders: they were the fabulous soldiers of a lost war, human no longer, but statues! I’ve spent my life reading, yawning, tinkling the bell of my own little problems, never managing to make a decision – only to find that I have decided, that I chose this war and this defeat, that today has been waiting for me since the beginning of time. Everything’s got to be done over again, and yet, there’s nothing that can be done. The two thoughts interpenetrated, cancelled one another out. Only the unruffled surface of Nothingness remained.
Being and Nothingness (1943), of course, remains Sartre’s great essay – a phenomenological (the study of consciousness) work on ontology (in metaphysics, this is the nature of being) – it makes the famous claim “existence precedes essence” and how free will is a real thing.
As a reminder – existentialism is, fundamentally, the theory every individual has free will. Each person is a free agent and they should define their existence in as morally sound a way as possible (typically free from the belief in a divine creator). In the basic form that’s it, although it’s much more complex if you want to delve on in, but this was the central purpose of the Roads to Freedom trilogy – this was Sartre exploring the nature of free will at one of the most horrific moments in human history.
Sartre was self-aware and knew he was always searching for meaning in things, whether it was scratching his head with his left hand or right, he had a deep desire to understand the human condition. I have a similar trait (although I’m nowhere near as smart as Sartre was), and it’s one of the reasons why I particularly admire writers, actors, and musicians, the very best of whom can expose the nature of humanity, peoples’ machinations, and ultimately make existence somewhat understandable.
This is, in many respects, what Mathieu Delarue’s role is in the trilogy. He is Sartre, at least in alter-ego form and literary expression of his ideologies, and he wants to understand why people do what they do. As the emotionally beleaguered Delarue observes his comrades debating the living daylights out of the situation, he gets his big old brain ticking over again.
Their austere lucidity had driven them to put aside the consolations of greatness. They were denying even their right to suffer, were refusing to strut as tragic or even historic figures. They could not so much as bring themselves to say we’re just a lot of cheap heels, a bundle of predestined failures: could not even comfort themselves with the thought that life was a gamble. All they could do was laugh, blundering against the walls of Absurdity and bouncing back from them. Their laughter was an instrument of self-punishment, of self-purification, of vengeance. They were, at one and the same moment, less than human, and more. They had stopped short of despair and transcended it. They were men.
With good timing, Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk is about to be released in cinemas. It deals with the near half a million troops trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk following Nazi Germany’s frighteningly easy conquering of a giant nation such as France.
The nation was stunned. For Iron in the Soul, Daniel Sereno makes his return on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. He’s in Paris, which has taken on an eerie, abandoned quality after the Fall of France and he notes “for the last three days it had been Sunday.”
At this point it’s revealed Daniel and Mathieu had (whilst the latter was on leave) dined at a restaurant in the area. This signals the two haven’t abandoned their borderline friendship, which had been suggested in the Reprieve. Bored, he is walking around the city taking in this new state of affairs. He notices a morale-boosting poster which ironically reads WE SHALL WIN BECAUSE WE ARE THE STRONGER.
The walls of Paris were still clamorously extolling their merits and their pride: we are the stronger, the more virtuous, the sacred champions of democracy, the defenders of Poland, of human dignity, of hetrosexual love: the wall of steel will be unbreached, we shall hang out our washing on the Siegfried Line.
He reveals his wife Marcelle is “pupping” in Dax, but he muses over the fate of his other peers. He believes Delarue to be a prisoner, whilst the communist Brunet “almost certainly got himself bumped off.” This isn’t quite the case, with the final 100+ pages of Iron in the Soul dedicated to Brunet’s POW status as he muses on the political ramifications of defeat. More on this in Part Two.
Meanwhile, Daniel is suddenly distracted from his musings – he says aloud to himself:
‘What cars?’ He looked up; his heart began to thump so violently that he could feel it in his head, and then he saw them. They were standing upright, images grave and chaste, fifteen, twenty of them together in long camouflaged lorries, moving slowly towards the Seine, effortlessly gliding, standing stiffly, letting the inexpressive glances of their eyes rest momentarily on him … In the whole length of the avenue he was the only Frenchman, the only civilian, and the whole of the enemy army was looking at him. He had no sense of fear. He surrendered with confidence to these myriad eyes. He thought: ‘Our conquerors!’ – and was caught up on a wave of happiness.
Later he notes “Today the Reign of Evil begins”, but Daniel’s naturally duplicitous nature makes him a difficult one to fathom. He doesn’t play much further part in the novel, being included as someone present when the Nazis made their first appearance in Paris – his exultation at their arrival is, once again, an indication of what a git he is.
Sartre briefly readopts his simultaneous approach again in this chapter, cutting to Mathieu as he, too, experiences the arrival of the Germans. His experience is entirely different as his troop has yet to surrender – it is, in fact, mulling over the decision of whether or not to go out with a last stand.
Delarue and the others, for now, hide from the occasional German battalion which passes through the local town. Mathieu and his friend Pinette even have time to flirt with locals – the latter chasing a younger woman who works at a post office. The mood, however, remains tense – Paris has been taken over, and now the whole of France will soon be swallowed up by Nazi rule.
Monday, 17 June
Whilst surveying the local vicinity and still planning their next move, Delarue and Pinette stumble across a dead man, propped up in an odd position next to a tree. Pinette is matter of fact:
‘He’s a goner.’ – ‘It’s Gerin,’ [Delarue] explained. Then, turning to the east: ‘Come over here, you boys: jump to it!’ The four soldiers got up and started to run. ‘Gerin’s got his!’ [Delarue] called to them. ‘Hell!’ They stood about the dead man, staring down at him suspiciously. ‘Funny he didn’t fall.’ – ‘Happens like that sometimes.’ – ‘Sure he’s dead?’ – ‘These blokes here says as he is.’ All of them, simultaneously, leaned over the dead man. One felt for his pulse, another listened to his heart, a third took a mirror from his pocket and held it in front of the dead lips – as is always done in detective novels. Then, they straightened themselves, satisfied that is was indeed a case of death.
I include the above section as it’s dark humour (which I’m particularly fond of), but it’s also an example of the commonplace nature of death during a war. I’ve never seen a dead body and it would cause considerable consternation if I did, but during WWII it was a trivial event everyone was used to.
Later on in the evening, the comrades decide to drown their sorrows, although Delarue isn’t able to capitulate to his desires to join in the merriment. Longin immediately gets drunk (‘He’s in there; tight as an owl!’), and whilst Pinette heads off to join him, Charlot confides in Delarue about a major concern: “Corporal Cabel’s going about saying as how the Jerries cut off your you-know-whats.” Easing his fears, Mathieu is still unable to control Charlot’s growing sense of panic about Nazi remorselessness.
At the time, for many, it must have been unthinkable – the idea the Nazis could be quite so psychotic in their plans. Even Delarue refuses to believe the Nazis have evil intentions for the Jews. At this point: “Longin appeared at a ground-floor window and belched loudly. His eyes were bloodshot and one side of his face was black and blue.”
Longin blinked at them. When he realised who was there he raised both arms in a gesture of tragedy: ‘Delarue!’ – ‘Hello.’ – ‘I’m bloory disgrace!’
Delarue heads into the building to help Longin out.
Someone was singing ‘L’Artilleur de Metz’ in a sleepy and discordant voice. He was reminded of the time in 1924 when he had gone to see his mad old aunt in an asylum at Rouen. Some of the lunatics had been singing at the windows. On the left-hand wall there was a notice under a wire screen. He went up to it and saw the words – GENERAL MOBILISATION. I was still a civilian – that was a long time ago.
He stumbles across the drinking mob in the process of helping Longin to bed: “A roar of greeting welcomed him.” His comrades are already well on the way by this stage and Delarue is frustrated by their drunken stupidity. He attempts to join in (i.e. a drinking bout “with t’ lads”, as we’d say in Manchester) but fails, annoying himself in the process due to his sensible nature.
They did not disgust him, these beaten men who were draining defeat to the dregs. If he felt disgust at anyone it was at himself. Longin bent down to take hold of his mug, and fell forward on his knees. ‘Merde!’
As it becomes increasingly rowdy, Longin fulfils his destiny and vomits everywhere, whilst Menard and Grimaud become rather menacing, attempting to force Delarue to drink. He eventually heads off with Pinette for a “Sunday walk”.
Later on, Pinette and Delarue hang out in the French countryside. It’s not established earlier in the novel if they were good friends at this point but, going forward, the two have regular intimate conversations about their lives and future plans. Pinette’s post office girl is also in tow. With sadness, she notices the wedding ring on his finger. He reacts quickly to this.
‘Just you watch!’ He pulled at his finger, grimacing with his face, wrenched off the ring and flung it into the growing corn. ‘Oh, you didn’t ought to have done that!’ said the girl. She sounded shocked. He took up a knife from the table, Ivich was bleeding: he drove it into the palm of his hand: acting: little gestures of trivial destruction that get you nowhere: and I took it all as a fine manifestation of freedom. Mathieu yawned.
The bold text is a nod to Delarue’s incident in the Age of Reason with Ivich in a Parisian nightclub. At the time, Delarue was enamoured with her and was attempting to ingratiate himself through daft behaviour such as slicing his hand up to ape her juvenile attention seeking.
The trio returns to the drunken battalion hanging out in the abandoned building they’ve procured. With Charlot, who is Jewish, Delarue shares a silent moment as they ponder the future. “It’s not me that’s frightened, but the Race deep down in me”, Charlot tells him.
In the evening, the soldiers gather with what remains of the population in the local vicinity, where false news of peace spreads. “The Fritzes, there they are!” – skirmishes can be seen in the distance, bright lights dancing away. There is a minor panic as the call to surrender spreads through the crowd, but it’s left to Mathieu to point out: “Can’t you see they’re French, you fools!” – the lieutenant of this new brigade asks where the present officers are: “They’ve hopped it!”, but the lieutenant crashes down on Charlot’s answer by enforcing procedures: “Would it be too much to suggest that you say ‘sir’?”.
Whilst some depart from the town, Pinette and Delarue discuss what their next action should be. The former’s female companion makes a reappearance and calls out for “Henri” repeatedly. Pinette and Delarue hide in a ditch to avoid her – they can’t be seen in the dead of night. Mathieu confides in him:
‘She gets on my nerves, besides, I’m not particularly interested in women just at present. Still, it was wrong, you know, to do what you did, if you meant to drop her like a hot brick.’ – ‘Blast the ‘ole bleeding show!’ said Pinette: ‘According to you everything one does is wrong.’
As they walk on in the night, they judge how long it will take the Nazis to arrive. Pinette seems set on fighting them when they arrive as one final act of defiance.
‘I don’t think they’ll get here before tomorrow morning,’ said Mathieu. A moment later, he added, not looking at Pinette: ‘You’ll be killed to the last man.’ – ‘That’s war, that is,’ said Pinette hoarsely. ‘You’ve got it wrong,’ said Mathieu: ‘the war’s over.’ – ‘Armistice isn’t signed yet.’ Mathieu took Pinette’s hand and squeezed it gently; it was icy. ‘Sure you really want to get it done in?’ – ‘I certainly don’t want to get done in: I want to knock over a Jerry.’
“He’s going to die for nothing” Mathieu thinks.
‘What right have I to stop him? What alternative can I offer?’ He turned his head, looked at Pinette, and began to whistle softly. Pinette was far out of his reach, marching blindly through the darkness of his last night, marching but not advancing: for whither he was going he had already come: his birth and death had swung full circle, and met.
Delarue tentatively decides to join his friend and the two exchange knowing smiles – “Once again they had become almost contemporaries.”
‘Delarue, dear old pal,’ he said passionately, ‘come with me. It’ll be lovely having you: I shan’t know any of the other chaps.’ Mathieu hesitated. To die, to enter into the eternity of a life that was already dead… to die together… He shook his head.
In trademark Delarue fashion, he then dithers, before finally acknowledging he’s “fed up!” and agrees to head off with Henri Pinette.
The pair walk into an abandoned building and Mathieu takes Pinette’s torch: “I’m choosing a rifle” he says. They soon meet up with the lieutenant in the local Mairie (town hall) and they are stationed inside with the orders: “Open fire at discretion: you can use up every scrap of ammo.” The others at the Mairie introduce themselves: Clapot, Chasseriau, and Dandieu.
It’s worth noting Sartre takes great efforts to develop the camaraderie between soldiers for Iron in the Soul. The bromance between Pinette and Delarue is a touching one – it’s a situation which can be found in many war books. All Quiet on the Western Front provides a particularly heartbreaking tale of youthful friendship blown apart by warfare. For this review, I’ve skipped out a lot of the conversations between Sartre’s two characters, but they do become fond of each other, despite their differences, and make the pact to essentially die together.
In the Mairie, however, the other soldiers don’t see any romantic notion of going down with all guns blazing. Chasseriau is particularly argumentative.
‘What you come here for?’ – ‘I told you: we come to do a bit of fighting.’ – ‘But why? – you didn’t have to?’ Pinette laughed in a foolish sort of way: ‘Oh, I don’t know – for a bit of fun, I suppose.’ – ‘You’ll get your fun all right, ‘said Clapot unsympathetically: ‘I give you my word.’
This goes against what’s displayed in a film such as Saving Private Ryan. In the almightily intense and brutal final standoff, the soldiers all unite and do what needs to be done. It’s not entirely the same parallel, as the French believe the war to be over, but the differing attitudes were worthy of a note. It’s almost as if parts of the closing battle from Saving Private Ryan are taken from this section in Iron in the Soul, but I’d consider it more coincidence than a subtle nod from director Steven Spielberg.
Chasseriau informs the new arrivals they’re Chasseurs (trained for rapid action), which is what they use to defend their decision to take on the Germans. ‘Haven’t you got it into your thick head that you’re risking your skin?” Chasseriau asks Pinette. Mathieu attempts to defend his friend – “We were forced to, all right, don’t make any mistake about that. We were fed up, and we didn’t know what to do.” This impresses Dandieu and the rest of the Chasseurs finally begin to accept them.
They seemed less hostile now. Clapot looked at Pinette with an air of surprise, then turned away and went over the the parapet. The expression of feverish hardness had gone: his face showed a certain vague gentleness. He stared out into the mild darkness, at the childlike and legendary countryside. Mathieu was hard put to it to determine whether the mildness of the night was reflected in his face, or whether the loneliness of his face was reflected in the night.
Now, there’s another parallel (yes, another one!) which can be drawn here with Sartre’s short story the Wall. In it, several characters are set to be executed and overnight, in a holding cell, await their demise. The gamut of emotions they go through is documented in great detail, which is analogous to this section of Iron in the Soul. Gallows humour enters the fray and the soldierly camaraderie returns as the men await their fate.
For the first time, Pinette notices the wound on Delarue’s hand, caused by the incident years earlier at the nightclub with Ivich. “That must have been the tin-opener,” Pinette observes.
Mathieu looked at his thumb. The fact that he had a body filled him with surprise. He was conscious of nothing – not of the taste of food, not of the sting of alcohol, not of the pain in his hand. It’s as though I were made of ice. He laughed. ‘Once at a night-club, I had a knife…’ He broke off. Pinette was looking at him with an expression of surprise. ‘Go on’ – ‘Oh, nothing. I’m unlucky with sharp instruments.’
Clapot offers to patch up Delarue’s hand: “Give me your hand”.
He had taken a roll of gauze and a blue bottle from his pack. He poured some of the burning liquid in Mathieu’s thumb and bound it up. It looked like a doll. Mathieu smiled at it. All this trouble to prevent blood from flowing too soon!
As the defenders of the Mairie head off to bed for the night, Mathieu is left to muse over the inevitability of what awaits them.
It occurred to him that he was going to die, and the idea of such a thing appealed to him as being highly comic.
With Dandieu on watch, Delarue has a brief conversation noting how he, from his stance, is clearly a footballer: “With a bit of luck I might have been a pro”, man confirms.
They exchanged a wave of greeting, and Mathieu went back to his post. He thought: ‘I am going to die for nothing’, and he was filled with self-pity. For a brief moment memories rustled about him like leaves in the breeze: all his memories: I was in love with life. An uneasy question stirred at the back of his mind. Had I any right to abandon my pals? Have I any right to die for nothing? He stood up and rested his hands on the parapet. He shook his head angrily. I’m fed up: the chaps down there can think what they like, the world can think what it likes. I’m through with remorse, with hesitations, with mental reservations. No one has the right to judge me; no one is thinking about me; no one will remember me; no one can make up my mind for me. He had reached a decision without remorse, with full knowledge of the facts. He had made up his mind, and, on the instant, his scrupulous, his sensitive heart went tumbling down through the branches. No more sentiment for him! That was over now. Here and now I have decided that death has all along been the secret of my life, that I have lived for the sole purpose of dying. I die in order to demonstrate the impossibility of living.
Tuesday, 18th June. 5.45 a.m.
Boris and Lola return for the final time in the trilogy, with the latter suffering a final anxiety attack about her age compared to his youth. She thinks: “I am alone.” Boris’ previous plans for her and Ivich to live together as an extended family unit do not suit Lola – she is also displeased he would jump ahead with his plans and presume she would be fine with them. Bloody men, eh?
‘You’re just a little roughneck, and rather too certain of your power to charm.’
The two have their usual issues, with Lola ultimately agreeing to look after Ivich (despite disliking her) whilst Boris is set to head to England for relative safety. At this stage in the relationship, it’s clear Lola is happy to move on with her life and the reader is left to assume the couple would part ways soon after.
Unfortunately, this is it for Boris. I’ve made clear I connected with him immediately when I read the Age of Reason for the first time in 2005 as a 19 year old. His charm, personable nature, and sense of humour make him the most endearing character in the trilogy – it’s always a joy when he reappears throughout the novels. Now a bit older, I can see Boris is naive, fatalistic, and overly privileged, but when someone has natural charm and is consistently amiable, most intelligent people do their best to connect with such a person.
This is adieu to Boris Serguine!
This is the chapter with the final showdown – it’s Mathieu Delarue’s official last appearance in literary form. I’ll discuss further below what Sartre intended with his abandoned tetralogy, after one of the most powerful moments in the trilogy. For Sartre, it’s quite unusual in how it involves explosions and fighting – the writer was typically one for detailed psychological studies minus heart thumping action, but Iron in the Soul essentially completes the story arc and brings his central character, the literary manifestation of himself, face to face with death.
“Fine day” Delarue notes as he gets up. Everyone else ignores him – “he heard a distant, rhythmic rumbling”. The Nazis are here. The battalion is hidden in the Mairie, providing a chance to see the Germans in full dress (even now, based only on archive footage and pictures, in their uniforms the Nazis do make an imposing sight).
Mathieu held his breath. Two motor-cyclists, dressed in black and wearing helmets, were dashing along the road; two super-natural messengers. He tried, in vain, to make out their faces: they had none. Two slim figures, four long, parallel legs, a pair of round, smooth heads with neither eyes nor mouths. They came on to an accompaniment of mechnical poppings. They had the stiff nobility of the figures that move forward on old-fashioned clocks when the hour strikes. The hour was just about to strike.
A frightened Delarue hesitates again.
They’ve done nothing to us, they’re not thinking of us, they wish us no harm. Suddenly he shut his eyes: hatred would spout into the sky. They’ll see my dead body: they’ll kick it. He was not afraid of death, but he was afraid of hatred.
The men on bikes are quickly gunned down by an overly eager section of Chasseurs. This erupts everything into a full-scale battle; as the mayhem of battle commences, Delarue notes “the whole thing was a dream” – he shoots a German soldier for the first time and watches the man give a “funny little jerk” before falling over.
He lay quite still, inoffensive, grotesque, smashed. ‘I’ve put paid to him,’ said Mathieu in a low voice: ‘I’ve cooked his goose.’ He looked at the dead man, and thought: ‘They’re just like everone else.’ He felt himself to be a fine fellow.
Events escalate rapidly as the men defend the Mairie, with Nazis swarming everywhere. For the French troops, with loss inevitable, it becomes an issue of pride – how long can they hold out against their conquerors? 10 minutes into the battle, the Mairie is blazing following continued grenade assaults. It’s noted Pinette is as pale as a sheet and almost mute, but continues fighting to remain alongside Delarue.
At 12 minutes, a missile strikes the Mairie.
The air about them screamed, hurtled, and struck Mathieu full in the face. It felt hot and heavy like the flick of a damp rag. Mathieu collapsed in a sitting position. He was blinded by blood. His hands were red to the wrists. He rubbed his eyes, mingling the blood on his hands with the blood on his face. Chasseriau was sitting on the south side of the parapet, headless. Blood was spurting and bubbling from his neck. ‘I can’t stand it!’ said Pinette: ‘I can’t stand it!’ He jumped up, ran to Chasseriau, and struck him full on the chest with the butt of his rifle. Chasseriau swayed and tumbled over the parapet. Mathieu, seeing him fall, felt no emotion. This was no more than the beginning of his own death.
Dandieu falls next after shouting “It’s just a massacre!” followed by “Good lad! Good lad!” – Delarue shouts out to Pinette, but there is no response. Delarue makes his final stand, aware he’s alone – “This was revenge on a big scale.” With the Mairie blazing away, he makes it his mission to complete 15 minutes of defence.
Beauty dived downwards like some obscene bird. But Mathieu went on firing. He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free.
This is how it ends – ambiguous, uncertain who is alive or dead. It’s not mentioned if Pinette is unconscious or gone, but all of the evidence for the French troops is grave.
As an addendum to Part One, however, it’s later revealed in Sartre’s abandoned fourth book Delarue survived the incident. Being a capricious sort, Delarue’s mood on the matter would likely change, but for one destructive moment he was very much liberated and able to overcome the stunted emotions which had marred him for decades. His actions are a release of anger, as opposed to a desire to win the war but, for the reader, it does display the man had inner bravery, which saw him willing to take on death with little concern of coming out on the other side.
The closing 100+ pages are essentially a different novel – it could have been released as a novella, but the communist Brunet flits in and out of the trilogy and is finally given centre stage right at the end. Taken a prisoner of war (POW), the implications for his fate aren’t tremendous, but Brunet remains upbeat and prepared to continue as he always has done.
For Sartre, the discussion of communism (or Marxism, socialism – whatever you want to call it) is targeted through Brunet, who gets into long talks with a fellow POW called Schneider. Some of this concerns the Nazi-Soviet Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). This was, in April 1939, when Joseph Stalin stunned the Allies by joining forces with Germany – for Schneider, this was Stalin calling it a day on democracy.
Brunet is left furious, arguing the French Communist Party has solidarity with Russia – he believes it is an intrinsic ideology rooted in history. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, of course, and Stalin relied on Allied support and the American’s Lend-Lease policy (which provided Russia with war materials and food) to stop the Nazis – helped along by a bitterly cold winter.
It’s unlikely Sartre planned for Brunet to survive several years down the line to see such advances in the war. As a POW, and a fervent communist, it seems inevitable he’ll end up in a Nazi concentration camp.
At the start of Part Two, we find Brunet herded with 20,000 other POWs into an abandoned industrial estate, where they lounge about slowly starving and discussing their fate. Brunet remains optimistic and is looking for fellow communists to rally support in the estate where they’re being kept, but all he can initially find in most of the men is a sense of defeat and loss.
Defeat is the main theme of the novel – how do you cope with losing when it is something as important as a war? As with Mathieu Delarue during his decisive battle, Brunet can’t quite comprehend this is reality: “it’s just like a film, nothing looks real.” Gradually, the days tick by and starvation becomes a real issue. The Germans remain largely distant, simply taunting their prisoners with jibes.
‘Where are the English? Poor old Frenchies, where you think the English are?’
The men are subservient in defeat – a former army ready to die in battle for its cause, the assorted survivors are now left to fight for scraps of food from triumphant Germans. The conquerors. As we know from history, the Nazis made incredible strides in the early years of the war – the Battle of France was over astonishingly quickly, with the French left demoralised and defeated after the disastrously anachronistic Maginot Line, constructed in the 1930s, failed to do its job. This was built to stop a German invasion and was based on the nation’s unhappy experiences during World War I.
Although providing impressive facilities which would have been difficult to defeat, a stoned German army (they were all on drugs when they invaded) simply traversed to the North and bypassed the Maginot Line entirely. In other words, the fortifications offered a false sense of security which proved to be an unmitigated disaster – the Maginot Line saw a country as big as France fall to Nazi rule.
Brunet continues to assert himself and manages to put together a small group of communists, who run errands around the POWs to keep themselves busy, boost morale, and put together some semblance of purpose. Schneider plays a major part in all this and appears to know his Marxist doctrine – he is a worker, too, although he insists he has nothing to do with the communist party. Despite his obvious intelligence and education (self-taught or otherwise), he never kowtows to Brunet’s expectations, which only further undermines Brunet’s ideologies. After one discussion which irritates Brunet enormously, he struggles to maintain his composure.
Schneider was looking towards the gate. He said no more. Brunet looked at him without antipathy: what sort of a chap is he? An intellectual? An anarchist? What was his job in civil life? Too much fat; looks as though he’d let himself go a bit: but he holds himself well.
Schneider is unreservedly difficult and remains an intellectual nuisance for Brunet, who is usually able to assert himself over others through his intelligence. He’s met his match in the aloof Schneider.
‘Don’t you worry,’ said Brunet in spite of himself: ‘we’ll have jobs all right.’ – ‘Oh, I know all about that, but as slaves have jobs. That’s not the kind of work that emancipates: we shall never be anything but make-weights. What common action can you ask of us? A strike gives the strikers a sense of their power. But even if every French prisoner folded his arms and did nothing, it wouldn’t make a ha’porth of difference to the German economy.’ They looked at one another coldly.
Later, Brunet presses him further and finds out Schneider was a clerk in a solicitor’s office, but they disagree on the notion of defeat: Schneider says “I know defeat when I see it”, but Brunet refuses to acknowledge the Fall of France as a loss.
‘It’s just chauvinism that makes the French think they’ve lost the war! They always believe they’re the only people in the world, and then, when their invincible army gets it in the neck, all the stuffing goes out of ’em.’
Schneider makes a “little nasal sound” of contempt at this. Brunet is incensed and continues.
‘This war’s only just begun. In six months’ time we’ll be fighting from the Cape to the Behring Straits.’ Schneider laughed: ‘We?‘ – ‘Yes, we Frenchmen,’ said Brunet: ‘we shall continue the war in other fields. The Germans’ll try to militarise our industry: that’s something the proletariat can and must stop.’
Schneider doesn’t respond and Brunet is again left irritated – “heavy, disconcerting silences were his speciality.” Schneider turns his attention to a nearby POW, who is barking in his sleep like a dog. The situation is rather hopeless – Schneider knows it, Brunet refuses to, and as we all know 70+ years later the outlook is not at all good for these men. But this is the beauty of the book – it places us readers in a position amongst characters who didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. This realisation, as Part Two unfolds, does begin to become apparent to Brunet, though. Bit by bit, his confidence is sapped and he dwells on the matter.
No man can be brave unless he’s got something to. Without that he just dreams. We’ve got nothing to do. We haven’t even got our livings to earn. We don’t count any longer, we live in a dream.
Described as a powerful man with broad shoulders in the Age of Reason, starvation begins to takes its toll and he suffers dizzy spells. He even collapses and is left to drag himself back to his makeshift bed on all fours.
All of this, including an in-depth discussion with Schneider, undermines his confidence furthermore.
‘What are you getting at?’ said Brunet, his voice rising: ‘what are you trying to prove? That the Communist Party has turned fascist?’ – ‘No, but that the Nazi victory and the German-Soviet pact are two realities with which the Communist Party has got to come to terms, however little they may like them. The point is that you’ve no sort of an idea how it’ll come to terms with them.’ – ‘Are you suggesting that I should sit still and twiddle my thumbs?’ – ‘I’m not suggesting anything of the kind,’ said Schneider … ‘The Communist Party is no more in sympathy with the Western democracies than the Nazis are, though for other reasons. So long as it was possible to imagine an alliance between the USSR and the West, you took as your platform the defence of political liberties against fascist dictatorship. You know even better than I do that those political liberties are illusory. Today the democracies are on their knees, the USSR has drawn closer to Germany, Pertain has seized power. It is now within the framework of a Fascist Society, or of a Society of Facist sympathies, that the party has to carry on its work. And here are you, without leaders, without a politcal slogan, without news, reverting, on your own initiative, to that old and outworn platform. We were talking just now of the spirit of the Popular Front. But the Popular Front is dead: dead and buried. In ’38, given the historical context, it had a meaning: today it has done. Look out, Brunet, or you’ll find yourself working in the dark.’
Schneider concludes his viewpoint as follows.
‘If you really want to know, my opinion is that nothing we can do will be of the slightest importance – politcally. The situation is abstract, and we are without responsibility. Those of us who are lucky enough to get home eventually will find society organised anew, with its own hierarchies and its own myths. There’s nothing we can do to influence the future one way or the other. Still, if we can succeed in keeping up the lad’s morale, if we can save them from despair, if we can give them something to live for here – no matter how illusory that something may be – the necessary effort is well worth the making.’
Brunet is humble enough to acknowledge Schneider’s superior intellect: “[He] was very intelligent; more intelligent than Brunet – not that intelligence is so very important, but it does make for pleasant personal contact.”
They even discuss what Brunet’s plans are should he make a getaway – “join up with the comrades in Paris.” The two finally have an argument, however, as Schneider jeers at him:
‘All right, old man, go on being a militant to your heart’s content, only don’t get wild when I say that your behaviour bears a marked resemblance to the talky-talky of the Cafe du Commerce. With infinite trouble, we have got together a handful of unhappy idealists, and all we give them to bite on is a lot of talk about the future of Europe!’
To Brunet’s anger, he states:
‘The padres and the Germans won’t wait, and their propoganda, oddly enough, is a good deal more effective than ours.’ Brunet looked him straight in the eyes: ‘What exactly are you getting at?’ – ‘I?’ said Schneider with an air of surprise: ‘nothing at all. We were saying, a while back, how difficult it is to find recruits.’ – ‘Am I to blame,’ said Brunet with sudden violence, ‘if the French are a lot of no-goods without either courage or initiative? Am I to blame if…’ Schneider sat up and broke in sharply on his words. His face had gone hard, and he spoke now so quickly, so disjointedly, that it was as though someone else had stolen his voice in order to heap insults on Brunet: ‘You’re… you’re always… it’s you who are the no-good,’ he shouted: ‘You! It’s easy to be superior when you’ve got a party behind you, when you’ve been trained up in a politcal dogma and got used to taking hard knocks: it’s easy to despise a lot of poor devils who don’t know whether they’re going or coming!’
Brunet tries to wave this off, suggesting he doesn’t “despise anyone”. Schneider is having none of it.
It was something more than anger that was finding vent in his words, it was something closer to long-standing hatred, like one of those suppressed enmities which one finds in families, a grievance that has been damped down for years, and at last bursts out with a kind of wild joy … ‘You’re all in cahoots, Petain with Hitler, Hitler with Stalin: the whole of you are busy explaining that these poor devils are doubly guilty, guilty of having made war, guilting of having lost it.’
The debate rages on with general civility, interspersed with more aggressive outbursts.
‘No,’ said Brunet very firmly: ‘the Pact was our one chance of preventing [the war].’ Schneider brust into a laugh. Brunet smiled but said nothing. Suddenly, Schneider stopped laughing. ‘Look at me! I always have a feeling that you’re conducting some sort of post-mortem. More than once I’ve caught you studying us all with a kind of cold concentration: it’s as though you were drawing conclusions from what you saw. Well, what are those conclusions – that I’m just a waste-product of the historic process: all right, that’s O.K. by me: I’m a waste product sure enough, but I’m not dead, oh no, I’m certainly not dead! Unfortunately! I’ve got to go on living my degradation, with the taste of it in my mouth – though that’s something you could never understand. You deal in the abstract, and it’s you, and others like you, who have made of us the scraps and waste-products that we are.’
Schneider tells him:
The Communist Party will be re-established, but without you, and on principles of which you will know nothing. You could quite easily escape, but you don’t dare, because you’re afraid of what you’ll find outside. The iron has entered into your soul, too!’
“They wouldn’t get a rise out of him like that” is Brunet’s feeling on the matter. He looks at Schneider and sees:
A down-at-heel, perplexed soldier, who had nothing left to defend, nothing more to lose, a man who just stood there rubbing his nose with an absent-minded stare in his eyes.
He challenges Schneider as to why he hangs around with them – “so as not to be alone” is his understandable response.
It must be presumed, from the closing pages of Iron in the Soul, Brunet will not be returning to a post-war society. The POWs are rounded up into train carriages – compacted in like wild animals. In Brunet’s carriage all there is for a toilet between them is an empty tin can, which is handed around whenever anyone needs to go.
They attempt to keep their spirits up with word games and random chatter, until they reach a stop in the tracks. One young man attempts to make a break for it, running away in a futile effort which inevitably leads to him being shot by Nazi guards. Brunet observes:
‘They must have seen perfectly well that he was trying to climb back: they shot him down just for the fun of the thing!’ The body was lying some twenty yards away, already free. I’d have dug a little hole for myself.
Of the dead body, he notes “tomorrow the black birds will come” – an ominous sign he is likely to meet with an unpleasant fate. For Brunet, communism may be a way of life, but it will be the passion which leads him to his end.
Three books – each distinctly different from one another, but all with a powerful message. Iron in the Soul is, arguably, the finest of the lot, although Age of Reason remains my favourite due to its detailed character studies and depiction of melodrama in 1930s Paris.
Iron in the Soul is, technically, the better novel, though. It’s a profound and ravaging look at war, human relationships, the human condition, politics, and everything in between. With Part One and Part Two joined together, they lay forth in sweeping fashion Sartre’s notions on personal freedom and how the political landscape could develop.
The writer isn’t lost in pretentious whimsy or grandiose gestures – this is perfectly accessible for any reader, whether you want a detailed consideration on the putative failure of 1940s politics or not. It’s not an overtly political novel – it doesn’t profess to have solutions, but in the aftermath of far right totalitarian mayhem (and the Nazis were right wing – I’m seeing an increasing amount of online propaganda and misinformation claiming Hitler was liberal) with Brunet in Part Two, it makes a passionate plea for the future of humanity. Failing all of this, Iron in the Soul is simply a devastating and brilliant account of life in the face of extreme adversity.
To wrap up my review of this trilogy, I find it odd there hasn’t been films to accompany it, but then this could always happen in future. In the meantime, in the Age of Reason, the Reprieve, and Iron in the Soul, Sartre produced three mesmerising works to stand as an essential account of what happened during one of humankind’s most inexplicable moments. The events are preserved for posterity – future generations will be able to mull over them and hope similar events never occur again.