With all its roughness and frequent lapses into the banalities of America's "tough" writers, Sartre's new novel is a rare and welcome plant in a period that almost completely lacks a balanced combination of emotional intensity and maturity in its writers. The author's obvious power in understanding character, together with a sort of revolted fascination for sordidness and degradation, make the book provocative and at the same time a little loathe-some. The moral twist at the end, which shows the most warped character to be the most responsible, is convincing, yet takes away nothing from the horror of contemplating these people, who presumably reflect the society of 1938 Paris.
Naturally enough for a novel of these times, the theme is the problem of freedom. Mathieu, a poor professor, has spent his whole life shaking off human responsibilities in a desire to be free, but he has only succeeded in making his life meaningless. Through the three-day span of the story, he sees many people, all of whom try to establish contact with him, and draw him into their society, to give his life a purpose. But though Mathieu would like to take the plunge, he is not convinced of the rightness of being a bourgeois or a communist; in a pathetic scene, he tries to be really incensed over the Spanish War, but his past life of coolness and indecision won't let him, and he remains a lone man, faced with an empty future.
Whether because of Sartre or the translator, the style is undistinguished, but every major scene is full of suspense and excitement, even over trifles which can be attributed to virtuosity in drawing character and planning situation, rather than skill in surface texture. Scenes, like the one in a night club where Mathieu and the narcissistic Russian girl whom he loves each slice open their left hand as a mutual sign of defiance of respectability, are convincing and indicative in themselves, and at the same time advance the story. But through it all, there is something unhealthy, embodied perhaps in Sartre's preoccupation with, and caressing descriptions of, the physical act of vomiting.
If the book does not rise to the stature of a great, or even a very good, novel, it at least does not try to show a great panorama of society, and fail. Everything investigated is seen thoroughly, in perfect focus, but there are definite limitations. Only half a dozen characters are seen, representing very little of society, though a good range of neuroticism. But the chief merit of the book lies in the fact that Sartre has put his story ahead of his theme, and whatever abstract ideas of Existentialism he has expressed, he has converted them into the concrete form of dramatic situation. Perhaps a lot can be learned about the new French philosophy from the novel, but what is more important, the book will stand on its own artistic legs.