I’ve been watching the 1970 BBC adaptation of Sartre’s Roads To Freedom novels. This is now being repeated on a digital channel but I was given the 13 episodes as video files a few months ago, and my ones include the little clapperboard moments at the start, where a fruity, bored English voice counts down from ten usually after some weirdy electronic sounds go off by accident.
There are 13 episodes, usually 45 minutes long although the final one is a little under 40 minutes. Each has a title sequence in which we see a bronze sculpture in a black backdrop whilst we get the main series title and then the subtitle of the specific novel we are working through. This is repeated in the end credits. The title music is “La Route Est Dure” by Iago Jones, sung by Georgia Brown, who plays the night club singer Lola.
Episodes 1-6 cover the first novel The Age Of Reason, set in Paris in June 1938. This is the story of Mathieu Delarue, university philosophy lecturer, who gets his girlfriend Marcelle pregnant.
Mathieu’s old university chums include gay stockbroker Daniel, who also happens to know Marcelle. He’s quite pleased at the news as it’s a distraction from his self-loathing at his own nature and inability to carry out even minor acts of decisive cruelty such as drowning his pet cats.
Mathieu is also admired by some of his students, Ivich and Boris, the spoiled rich kids of Russian emigres. Ivich is rather useless at her studies and expects to get “plowed” in the exams soon, whilst Boris is currently going out with Lola the night club singer. Lola doesn’t get on too well with the intellectual prof and his idealised notions of freedom as self-affirmation.
The saga of the first novel is of Mathieu’s fruitless quest for the money to pay a top-quality abortionist, rather than trusting a cheap back alley amateur. There is a high-class medical man known to be available, but he’s due to leave for America soon and doesn’t have much sympathy for gentiles after his experience of anti-semitism. An artist that Mathieu knows is away in Spain fighting for the Republic; another of his old university chums is the communist Brunet, who urges him to join the Party as the final struggle for power will start in a few months when Hitler threatens Czechoslovakia.
But world affairs do not impinge on the central self-absorbed lives very much. They constantly drift into interior monologues questioning themselves and their goals and desires. The plot has a resolution with Marcelle keeping her child whilst getting married. Mathieu retains his freedom but is left to consider that it is time to attain “the age of reason”, the maturity of using it for the flourishing of one’s own and other lives.
Episodes 7-9 take us through the second novel, The Reprieve. This is the week of the Czech crisis of September 1938, when Britain and France seem on the brink of war with Germany. Now the Great Men of the great world outside make appearances. Still photos and soundtracks of crowds, aircraft and military manoeuvres convey the steel in motion, whilst Hitler, Chamberlain and Daladier speak urgently to each other.
Episodes 10-13 are the final novel, which here is given the title The Defeated, but the original French was La mort dans l’âme, which Google Translate thinks is The Death In The Soul but according to Wikipedia the preferred version is Troubled Sleep. The 1950 English translation was Iron In The Soul, which may have been inserting a non-Sartrean allusion to Psalms 105:17-19. In the King James Version, the prophet describes the captive Joseph “laid in irons”. That was the title used by Penguin Modern Classics from the 1950s up till at least 2008. This final story relates the national collapse in the strange defeat of June 1940.
Mathieu, like his creator, spent the first part of the war in a second-rank low-quality unit that was overtaken by the general rout, and never capable of putting up much resistance to the invasion.
Back in Paris, mostly empty and awaiting the new occupiers, Daniel is taking up his old habits and pursuing a new young friend. But the focus is on the collapsing Army. The stragglers get caught up in the retreat of the more professional chasseurs, led by a very posh-voiced officer played by Michael Elphick. Mathieu is one of the slobs who volunteer to take part in a final, futile attempt to hurt the Wehrmacht before the French Republic expires altogether. Whilst they blaze away their last stocks of ammo from the church tower, Brunet the Marxist is ready to give himself up and start organising new communist groups amongst the POWs.
The story is mostly filmed in studio interiors, with very little in the way of location shots. The soldiers get a sequence running about naked in the fields and washing in a country stream; empty Paris awaiting the Occupation was presumably filmed very early in the morning, like 28 Days Later later was. The cast speak English without any accent, but switch to French whenever singing; signage and newsprint are also written in French. The few times Germans appear they talk their own language with no subtitles, but we can get the gist. The use of stock historical photos to fill in the big political backdrop was standard in TV drama of this time; a few years later it was used again in Fall Of Eagles to fill in the big regime changes of 1918 in as little screen time as possible.
The working class characters talk in a rougher style to all the fancy Parisians. There is no attempt to indicate different regional accents and there is a rather uncertain and occasional use of British lower class slang to substitute for the foreign version. The actors don’t seem too happy with those particular lines. This has been a problem for translators ever since the working class started getting bigger speaking roles in modern literature. I remember seeing a reprint copy of a British newspaper from the 1940s in which a theatre reviewer complained that a new production of something by Cocteau had the lower orders using archaic slang such as “Garn!”, which seemed quaint and dated even then. Not too much progress had been made in 30 years, it seems.
Of the original material, I think all of the first novel is filmed. The second novel is pruned back quite a bit from the panoramic vision of the original. Many of the peripheral lives and locations are omitted: the events in Sudetenland itself, some of the top-level politics, and the evacuation of a rest home for invalided old soldiers. Philippe the pacifist also loses some of his ambitions, and the scene where he tries to connect with the working-class communists in the flat next door is lost. The third novel is cut even further, ending with battle around the church tower and losing the final hundred pages of Brunet trying to recruit for the Party amongst captured soldiers, arguing about what Stalin was up to. The mass civilian flight from Paris is also cut for obvious reasons that it would hard to film; in any case at least one set of civilians get a chance to shout at the soldiers that they lost the war.
One detail that may have been added are the passing references to the idea of a federal, united Europe emerging from the Nazi conquest. I don’t remember if that was in the original text; Sartre would of course have heard of the early Monnet, Schuman and Pleven plans that were produced in the late 1940s when he was finishing the 3rd book. I’m not sure that he would have put those ideas in the mouths of characters back in 1940. It is true that the US Ambassador to France, William Bullitt, messaged Washington that the 2 western Allies were now doomed to become “vassal states” of Germany, and I have a suspicion that that’s the source of that expression amongst modern Brexiters, who read it in books about Churchill as war leader. It would be quite mischievous, but not impossible, for a BBC writer in 1970 to slip in a few anti-EEC lines at a time when that was the great cause of the Conservative Party and the British Left were largely against.
The Roads To Freedom novels are not a fictionalised treatise or theory of ethics. Sartre was not attempting a full exposition of his ideas. The situations of these characters may be thought experiments drawn with a deeper background, like the “trolley problem” puzzles of British ethicists but telling us more about the people involved – but not too much, as we get very little about their lives before the start. How did Mathieu’s ideas evolve? He tells us one story from his childhood, but one incident can’t be the whole of a life, and it certainly can’t be if we are radically free. He must have done his basic military training as a young man, how did he feel about that? What I remember of L‘Existentialisme Est Un Humanisme is Sartre’s regular insistence that “existence precedes essence”, and also the Q&A at the end, where a communist says that modern science shows that humans simply aren’t free in the way that he seems to think. But neither Sartre nor any other theorist of free will has to posit that humans can choose the physically impossible (though they can always choose to pursue goals that are in fact impossible, knowingly or not).
I read these books in 2008, when I was in hospital for my bone marrow transplant, and the uncertain weeks afterwards. In the first half of 2008 my life fell apart when I was diagnosed with leukaemia; I say “fell apart” as that is a conventional way to cover the sudden changes, though at the time it was just a process of simplification. I was in isolation during the chemotherapy, when I became neutropenic and at risk from the bacteria that pervade the normal world around humans. I had visitors, and I constructed stories for them about how it could all be over and back to normal in 6 or 9 months, based on a selection of comments the doctors made during their regular visits. I was not lying, I did not not believe it though I know what I was saying was stretching the truth to the limit, I think I knew it then as well. Being a cancer patient requires playing a role for the sympathisers and healthy on-lookers of the “battle”, which is more like having a lousy job you have to go to 7 days a week. If it is a war then the unit you’re called up in is more like the second-rate one Mathieu was assigned to, not on any important front line.
In the second half of 2008 I got my transplant and was sent home to recover. I had to come back in again to be cleaned up from the viral infections I started picking up immediately. But now the world was changing as well, there was the great financial crisis. Sitting in my hospital bed I could watch the news, with all the important men with their serious faces talking about the hard decisions they had to make. This was the perfect backdrop for going from The Age Of Reason on to The Reprieve. What I most associate with that time is a scene not included in the 1970 adaptation: the evacuation of the war veterans, and the raging against the “uprights”, who have their health and their freedom and just chose to throw the world away into chaos. If I live to 2009, what’s going to be left for us anyway, after the age of illusion finally went bust?
The world carried on, but that mood seems to keep coming back – the slow crisis, the sense of imminent collapse endlessly deferred, the important men flittering about and seemingly as hopeless and powerless as anyone else, at least that’s what they tell us. So these novels will always be topical even though they deal with another crisis, one which has many other representations. 2020 was 2008 again and we’re still waiting to find out what the new 2009 will be like. One thing the old one had, which I missed at the time: the final publication of what could be constructed of the 4th and final novel that Sartre worked on. The TV adaptation brings everything to a decisive end and so it wouldn’t need that material even if it were known at the time.
The picture at the top is Leo Marjane. She was a singer who continued to work during the Occupation. She was an early victim of Cancel Culture, the easy moralism attacking symbolic victims and misdirecting from the systematic evils. Did the people who condemned her have spotless records, or did they manage to collaborate anonymously in offices and factories, changing sides when the tide of the war changed? Who knows. The men at the top were got out of the way very quickly.