An Absence in my Library

Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, so prominent (and frequently ridiculed) in France that he is simply referred to as BHL, is credited with encouraging Sarkozy’s support for anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya. His website’s subtitle is ‘The Art of Philosophy is Only Worthwhile if it is an Art of War.’ Who better then to write Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century?

This is not a dry academic study, nor an exhaustive immersion into the seven ages of Sartre. In truth, I am unsure exactly what sort of book it is, but I am enjoying it mightily. So far it is gossipy, a little bawdy, intensely personal, fiercely intellectual and bracingly frank, all of which sums up Sartre and his Café de Flore clique adequately.

There is so much in the book. What I want to share here is Lévy’s writing of ‘Sartre the traveller’, and the hole in my library now left by the never completed Queen Albermarle (though fragments are published).

I like Sartre the traveller. He was sometimes wrong, of course. But he had an extraordinary eye. He could describe like no one else the ‘real life’ of Venice, the ‘enormous carnivorous existence’ of Naples, the ‘watery sun’ of Rome, the ‘moving’ aspects of Peking, that city ‘too strange for one just to like it’, or again, in Hurricane across the Sugar Fields (believe it or not) the ‘night’ which, in Cuba, ‘rustles until daybreak’, its ‘strange and continual buzz’ of ‘insects’ and ‘transparent wings’, the ‘croaking of a buffalo-toad’ that ‘rises from the marshes’. And I am convinced, be it said in passing, that the day when the ideology of tourism is finally brought to a discourse and a practice which, on the pretext of the right to exoticism and difference, offer a paltry folklore which diminishes at one and the same time the traveller and his or her host, and offers, in place of those original situations which were the passion of real travellers, landscapes whose picture-postcard aspect has a novelty value of zero – I am convinced that Sartre, the homing pigeon, will on that day be recognised as a master. People will speculate about his Queen Albermarle which Simone de Beauvoir said was to be, if he ever finished it, the Nausea of his maturity, and which he himself thought would draw a line under the modern literature of travel . . .

2 thoughts on “An Absence in my Library

  1. >This is once again why I love your blog. You just bought flooding back to me my reading of "Modern Times: Selected Non-Fiction" of Jean-Paul Sartre. Which includes writings about New York, Naples, Rome, Venice, Havana and China. And reminded me that I have a Sartre biography by Annie Cohen-Solal that I never finished reading! Thanks again.


  2. >Bingo! Thank you, Fiona. The power of telepathy: I was unsuccessfully looking for a collection of Sartre essays that included his travel writing. I have ordered Modern Times. Now if I could find a set of Situations in translation I would be delighted.


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