- Reviewed by
Published as part of Cambridge's Major European Authors series, this book conforms to the requirement of the series that it be a "general," hence also comprehensive, critical study. This requirement is particularly formidable in Sartre's case, both because his writings were so extremely extensive and particularly because all of his more purely literary work was profoundly informed by his evolving systematic philosophical point of view.
Christina Howells has shown herself equal to this forbidding task. In only 200 pages of text (the remaining 100 consist of English translations of citations from the French and of endnotes, bibliography, index, and so on), she has succeeded admirably in summarizing most of the main Sartrean works of all genres as well as a number of the most serious criticisms that have been raised concerning them and her own responses to those criticisms. Her approach to her subject is on the whole highly, although not unalloyedly, sympathetic. It is well encapsulated in her brief concluding chapter, "A contemporary perspective: Qui perd gagne"; here, she cleverly uses the familiar Sartrean paradox of "loser wins," which has also been employed by Jacques Derrida to help explain the difference between his "différance" and the Hegelian dialectic as a way of suggesting that the "parricidal" attitude taken toward Sartre by Derrida and other recent French thinkers may be a necessary prelude to a renascent recognition of his singular importance and influence.
Within the eight previous chapters, Howells manages to depict many of the main themes of Sartre's earlier (existentialist) and later (Marx-influenced) philosophies, including the considerable continuities between them, in such a way as to satisfy both the professional philosopher (for example, the present reviewer) and, I think, her intended general audience. (By contrast, the recent massive commissioned biography of Sartre by Annie Cohen-Solal reduces the theme of Sartre's chef d'oeuvre, Being and Nothingness, to unintelligibility in the mercifully short space of three pages.) Howells shows the interplay between these themes and Sartre's literary theory, biographical and autobiographical writings, novels, and drama, particularly in terms of his lifelong preoccupation with the phenomenon of imagination, [End Page 358] without thereby neglecting issues that are specific to his approaches to each of these genres. She also devotes most of one chapter (Chapter Two) to her author's important, posthumously published early ethics (Cahiers pour une morale) and another to his very late, lengdiy, and still somewhat neglected work on Flaubert, L' Idiot de la famille, and to questions that it poses concerning Freudian psychoanalytic theory and literature.
Given the phenomenon of continuing posthumous Sartrean publications, no one currently writing about him can hope to be comprehensive for very long. Howells' book, for instance, does not take account of either Volume II of the Critique of Dialectical Reason or The Freud Scenario that was commissioned, but never used, by John Huston, although both appear in her bibliography. The recent revised French edition of the third volume of L' Idiot de la famille, which, with its greater emphasis on the sociopolitical aspects of Flaubert's life, is in any case somewhat neglected by Howells in favor of the first two volumes, includes as a new appendix Sartre's notes for the projected but unwritten fourth volume on Madame Bovary. Still to come are a long manuscript on ethics from the 1960s and much more. Notwithstanding this circumstance, Howells' Sartre is a model of its kind. It will indeed appeal, as the "General Preface to the series" realistically but rather poignantly puts it, to both "those pursuing formal courses in literature and educated general readers—a class which still exists, though it is smaller than it ought to be."