The Words: The Autobiography of Jean-Paul Sartre

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The Crimes of Paris had a lovely section of remembrances from Sartre of his early cinema experience, taken from this autobiography of his life up to age 10. It’s a simple book, split into two sections, Reading, and Writing. At an early age he precociously pretended to read, devouring the encyclopedia and scurrying to grab high brow works and hide the adventure stories when he heard someone coming. “In any case, I worked over the words; I had to try them out, to decide what they meant. The playing at culture cultivated me in the long run.”

His father dies when he’s only a few months old, his mother takes him to go and live again with her parents, so he grows up in the house of Karl Schweitzer and Louise. His grandfather had a huge impact on him, not overbearing him like he supposed his father would have, but cajoling and spoiling the little Sartre. Grandfather Karl was also a published author and he cautioned Jean-Paul about the hunger he’d be sure to face if he attempted to write for a living.

“I defy my contemporaries to tell me the date of the first movie they saw. We blindly entered a century without traditions, a century that was to contrast strongly with the others by its bad manners, and the new art, the art of the common man, foreshadowed our barbarism.”

That scene of early cinema that prompted me to read this book:

The show had begun. We would stumblingly follow the usherette. I would feel I was doing something clandestine. Above our heads, a shaft of light crossed the hall; one could see dust and vapor dancing in it. A piano whinnied away. Violet pears shone on the walls. The varnish-like smell of a disinfectant would bring a lump to my throat. The smell and the fruit of that living darkness blended within me: I ate the lamps of the emergency exit, I filled up on their acid taste. I would scrape my back against knees and take my place on a creaky seat. My mother would slide a folded blanket under my behind to raise me. Finally, I would look at the screen. I would see a florescent chalk and blinking landscapes streaked with showers; it always rained, even when the sun shone brightly, even in apartments. At times, an asteroid in flames would shoot across the drawing-room of a baroness without her seeming to be surprised. I liked that rain, that restless anxiety which played on the wall. The pianist would attack the overture to Fingal’s Cave and everyone understood that the criminal was about to appear the baroness would be frightened out of her wits. But her beautiful, sooty face would make way for a purple show-card: “End of Part I.” The lights would go on, it was a sudden awakening. Where was I? In a school? In an official building?