I find that all the books which really stick with me are the ones I have no sense of ‘getting’ at the time of reading. Instead of being able to define them easily, I think round them, never really pinning them down to my satisfaction. The age of reason is one of these: a book I found absolutely enthralling, but which, after reading, left me unable to pinpoint quite why – while still feeling that my absorption in it was completely justified.
(Photo from the Hungarian Quarterly)
The book follows Mathieu, a philosophy teacher, in the couple of days of his life after he learns that his mistress, Marcelle, is pregnant. He must find the money for an abortion or marry her, and this problem has consequences for everyone in the novel. Mathieu can try to borrow the money from his bourgeois brother, but the brother refuses to pay for an abortion and instead offers Mathieu money to marry his girlfriend. He can try and borrow money from his friend Daniel – but Daniel, despite being a homosexual, is involved in a secret liaison with Marcelle, and suspects that she would prefer to keep the baby. He asks his friend Boris for a loan, but Boris’s only way of raising money is to ask his much older mistress Lola, who despises Mathieu. So Mathieu is pushed towards doing the ‘right’ thing for Marcelle and marrying her, but at the same time imagines himself to be falling in love with Boris’s sister Ivich.
The only character not embroiled in this tangle is Brunet, the communist. For him life and its purpose is clear; he encourages Mathieu to follow the same route:
‘You are the son of a bourgeois, you couldn’t come to us straight away, you had to free yourself first. And now it’s done, you are free. But what’s the use of that same freedom, if not to join us? [...] You live in a void, you have cut your bourgeois connexions, you have no tie with the proletariat, you’re adrift, you’re an abstraction, a man who is not there. It can’t be an amusing sort of life.’
But it is this nothingness that makes Mathieu free, and this that ties him to Boris and Ivich, who are not much more than children, but share Mathieu’s drifting existence.
Beautifully evocative, the background to this drifting state is the city: Paris in the sweltering summer, but also Paris in the run-up to war. The sense of oppressive heat reflects the ominous international tensions of August 1938: the book opens with Mathieu meeting a man who talks longingly of Madrid, where the Spanish Civil War is reaching its climax. Brunet, too, is clear-eyed about the future:
‘You know where they will send me? To the Maginot line. That’s a sure and certain knockout.’
Mathieu’s idea of freedom as nothingness is not disconnected from the real world, from the political reality which is present but just off-stage. Nor is it a moral nihilism: there is a clear distinction between acting in the right way, doing the right thing, and acting in the ways that society expects. At one point Mathieu is offered the possibility of stealing the money for the abortion, and this is contrasted with Boris’s penchant for stealing things not because he needs them, but to add excitement and danger to his own life. But freedom is a rejection of the expectations of society, of Mathieu’s brother’s bourgeois morals which would force him to marry Marcelle. And Sartre’s psychological honesty is brilliant here: it’s clear that despite society’s expectations and despite Marcelle’s desire to bear her child, marriage would be a terrible idea for her as well as him. The psychological honesty of the novel is wonderful: like Doris Lessing’s best books, there is an almost uncomfortably clarity about the motivations and desires of the characters. There is no such thing as a trivial mood: everyone’s feelings for other people, however fleeting or ephemeral, mean something; and life is lived through that meaning, not despite it. The important thing is to live, and to live freely:
‘I’ve only got one life,’ [Ivich] said passionately. ‘From the way you talk, you sound as though you believed yourself immortal. According to you, a year lost can be replaced.’
The book ends in a minor key: the various relationships dissolve, the characters drift apart. Boris and Ivich will be sent back to the provinces; Marcelle splits from Mathieu, but her decision to marry Daniel instead cannot be seen as a happy ending. The threat of war is still present; only Brunet the communist retains his clarity of vision and purpose. But Mathieu’s conclusion is that he has made a series of decisions which have brought him, finally, to the ‘age of reason':
He yawned: he had finished the day, and he had also finished with his youth.