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The Words: The Autobiography of Jean-Paul Sartre Mass Market Paperback – April 12, 1981

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Language Notes

Text: English, French (translation)

From the Inside Flap

Jean-Paul Sartre's famous autobiography of his first ten years has been widely compared to Rousseau's Confessions. Written when he was fifty-nine years old, The Words is a masterpiece of self-analysis. Sartre the philosopher, novelist and playwright brings to his own childhood the same rigor of honesty and insight he applied so brilliantly to other authors. Born into a gentle, book-loving family and raised by a widowed mother and doting grandparents, he had a childhood which might be described as one long love affair with the printed word. Ultimately, this book explores and evaluates the whole use of books and language in human experience.

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Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; 1st Vintage Books ed edition (April 12, 1981)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394747097
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394747095
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 0.6 x 6.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #486,751 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Novelist, playwright, and biographer Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) is widely considered one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. His major works include "No Exit," "Nausea," "The Wall," "The Age of Reason," "Critique of Dialectical Reason," "Being and Nothingness," and "Roads to Freedom," an allegory of man's search for commitment, and not, as the man at the off-licence says, an everyday story of French country folk.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 29, 2000
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Sartre writes about his very early life. He writes about things that as an adult you aren't even conscious of anymore. How reading a book about horses and armies can bring those things to life. Sartre talks about his grandfather, his mother, his absent father. He is pretty dispassionate about them. The main thing about the book is Sartres' keen observation and reckless honesty. In the usual autobiography you get alot of bluster, the secret to my success type stuff. Someone, I think it was Martin Amis, said, all autobiographies are success stories. You see that all the time. How I rose from my humble background to be a rich and famous such and such. Well you don't get that here. This is Jean Paul's life before he ever did anything noteworthy. Astonishing level of honesty. I look at memoirs differently after this.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By C. Ebeling on August 4, 2008
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Nearing age 60 and one of the most widely recognized writers and intellectuals of the 20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre decided in the early 1960's to sort out his early influences in the memoir THE WORDS. For anyone familiar only with the adult, his work and philosophy, this should be something of a surprise. Someone once told him that he seemed to be a person who never had parents. They might have well have said that he seemed like a person who was never a child. But he was, and a not unhappy one at that.

When Sartre's French naval officer father died very young, his mother, Anne Marie Schweitzer (cousin of Albert), took her baby home to her parents. In her parents' home, Anne Marie functioned more like Sartre's sister or playmate. Her father, Charles, was a stern academician who loved the child. For the first ten years of his life, Sartre did not know other children; the trio of adults was his world. The book, an extended essay really, is divided into two sections, "Reading" and "Writing." He taught himself to read early and at a young age began writing what he enjoyed reading: adventure books. Charles tried to turn off the adventure spigot and turn the child to writing about serious literature, which did not go over well. For the most part, Sartre portrays the life of a precocious boy who, by age 10, was beginning to get a sense of the tension between the past, present and future and the question of existence. Sartre concludes the book as his young self enters preadolescence, with a foot out in the world, in the society of other boys at school.

The voice of this book is surprisingly spritely, honest, 20th century modern and European. It comes out of a time when autobiography and memoir could be exercises in authentic learning, not mere navel-gazing.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A. Bachman on November 8, 2006
Format: Mass Market Paperback
It is very understandable that Sartre's "The Words" is often compared to Rousseau's "Confessions". Both autobiographies seem to be brutally honest, striving to take away any romantic notions of the writers. Sartre's work however, focuses on the first ten years of his life. Sartre offers an extremely thorough psychoanalytical view of himself as a child and doesn't hesitate to apply Freud's notions of the Superego and the Oedipus complex onto himself. Sartre concludes that, lacking a father, he doesn't have a Superego or Oedipus complex, and this has made him into an extraordinary child who is able to actively create the image of himself and his identity, by using spoken, and later also written, words.

My impression of Sartre as a child is that of a clever, manipulative actor. As someone who was always trying to please the adults, and be admired by them, Sartre as a child came across to me as an annoying and spoiled kid, created by his circumstances and reading, but also a self-creating identity that writes. An example of this characterization in writing is a sentence in which Sartre proves how his virtuosity and views of equality are merely an act, befitting his view of human life as a ceremony: "I treat inferiors as equals: this is a pious lie which I tell them in order to make them happy and by which it is right and proper that they be taken in, up to a certain point" (p.33).

Like the case with Rousseau however, I did appreciate the author's honesty, but I also wonder whether this self-portrait in writing is another manipulative trick in order to create an image through words.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Steiner VINE VOICE on June 29, 2005
Format: Mass Market Paperback
This is Jean-Paul Sartre's brief autobiography about the impact the printed word had on his life. The book is divided into two sections, the first is titled "Reading," and the second "Writing," and I think that's an excellent summary of his life. Sartre recounts his early childhood, being born into a family without a father, and ultimately living a secluded a childhood submerged in his grandfather's library. Sartre then discusses life at the Ecole Superior, when he began to develop as a writer of prodigious genius. Sartre doesn't discuss his work particularly; this text is not a critical examination of his literary and philosophical work. Rather, it is a deeply introspective reflection and inquiry into the powerful and lasting effects words can have in life. I recommend it to all fans of reading.
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