on January 21, 2000
The Age of Reason is one of those rare classics in literture that combine an interesting and readable account with a deep quest for understanding.Sartre has taken the disruptive world of Paris, on the brink of invasion by Germany in 1939, and used this backdrop to debate the meaning of freedom. Obviously the idea of freedom is subjective and Sartre certainly does not presume to have found the answer in absolute terms. He uses the protagonist, Mathieu, as well as the peripheral characters, to examine different view points; albeit, with mixed results. The Age of Reason can certainly be read as an independent novel, but if one is to truly understand Sartre's vision, it will be necessary to read the other works in the trilogy, The Reprieve and The Troubled Sleep. Both are excellent and follow up on the secondary characters that are first introduced in the Age of Reason. The three novels, known collectively as The Roads to Freedom, represent, to me, the most significant analysis of what freedom means to a given individual. It will force the reader to reexamine long cherished views and address their own concept of freedom. If you haven't been introduced to the writings of Sartre, The Age of Reason is an excellent starting point.
on November 24, 2004
the age of reason is the 1st book in a trilogy, roads to freedom. i have not yet read the next two books, but after this one, i plan to. this is an excellent novel.
it is a thinking man's book not an action thriller. it's concepts are existential in nature and deal specifically with the concept of freedom.
the story, which covers only a few days in the the life of character mathieu in 1938 france, deals with mathieu's obsession with his personal freedom. he has just been informed of the unwanted pregnancy of his girlfriend. i personally did not see the pending war as a significant element in the story. it is there, but does not drive the quest for freedom. this is most likely picked up in the later novels. as mathieu searches for funds to abort the child, we meet his friends. all of them have hidden personal problems of their own. the results of this quest and the resolution of his problem make up the storyline.
the interesting issue is the understanding of freedom. what does mathieu think about it in the beginning and how does that change as he reaches the age of reason.
the story is best summed up in mathieu's comment near the end:
"i don't know what i would give to do something irrevocable."
this is a book that raises amazing questions and has the potential of changing your life.
Mathieu Delarue, a 34-year old philosophy professor, has led his life so that he has maintained complete freedom, which he defines as closing off no possibilities in his future. This makes philosophical sense to Mathieu, who wants his freedom in place, if and when he is required to perform a great act of conscience or begin a mission of self-fulfillment. It's 1938 and going to Spain to fight the Fascists has been tempting but not quite right. Meanwhile, Mathieu remains interested in the life of Gauguin, who, in his forties, left a Sunday-painter's life in France to become a great painter in Tahiti.
While Mathieu has lofty philosophical ideas, the effect of his freedom, he admits, has been to "dexterously construct an undistinguished but solid happiness upon the basis of inertia and to justify himself from time to time on the highest moral grounds." He is, in the words of other characters, a small-time government official, a solid member of the bourgeoisie, and a person whose relationship with Marcelle, his long-time girlfriend, is indistinguishable from a marriage.
Then, Marcelle becomes pregnant and Mathieu, who wastes his money drinking with students in bars, has to choose. Will there be an abortion, enabling Mathieu to preserve his so-called freedom? Or, will Mathieu marry Marcelle and basically recognize the nature of the prosaic life he has made?
Then, add to this dynamic an evil and manipulative friend who resents Mathieu's bogus sense of freedom, a childish female student who has come to represent freedom in Mathieu's mind, and a lack of money to pay for a safe abortion. The effect of this literary concoction is an absolutely great and riveting tale, where Mathieu comes to terms with his illusions and responsibilities. And, it has a surprise ending!
But say you don't like novels in which a protagonist confronts the nature and limits of his or her life? Then, read THE AGE OF REASON anyway, simply to enjoy Sartre's amazing writing. In this case, read with a ready eye for his numerous descriptions of light in Paris or for his amazing facility with similes and metaphors. You're only in Chapter 1, for example, when you read:
"Her mouth snapped out the last words: a varnished mauve-tinted mouth, like a crimson insect intent upon devouring that ashen visage."
"She collapsed on to his shoulder, sobbed a little, but she did not cry. It was all the she could allow herself: a rainless storm."
A great book and highly recommended.
on April 2, 2009
Having already read *The Reprieve,* I have now finished two-thirds of Sartre's "Roads to Freedom" trilogy--that's over 800 pages--and I cannot wait to begin the third volume...that's how compelling I find these novels. It's difficult to explain their appeal. In *The Age of Reason,* a philosophy professor discovers his lover is pregnant and spends the next two days frantically trying to raise enough money for an abortion. His life zigzags haphazardly through a rich cast of characters whose stories and intertwined fates--complex, tragic, absurd--continue in the next volume.
What Sartre does is immerse us in the struggles of these characters as they each attempt to define and make sense of their lives...this struggle informed, of course, by the existential principles of Sartre's own philosophy. What Sartre does so well in *The Age of Reason* is to portray the psychological torment of men and women under even fairly ordinary circumstances. Here is the quiet drama of consciousness, the sufferings of daily life...at least as it is experienced by those who give it any thought.
What does it mean to be free--to have a life that means something? These are the questions that obsess Mathieu as he runs into one dead-end after another in his search for the abortion fee and at the same time wallows in a hopeless erotic obsession with a self-destructive young female student. All the distinctive trappings of a French existential novel are here--the drinking, the brooding, the café's, the jazz bars, the intellectual dissection of every act and motive, the relentless self-analysis...it's a riveting read if you don't require a lot of explosions, kidnappings, and sordid murders to entertain you.
Unlike his stylistic experimentation in *The Reprieve,* Sartre narrates *The Age of Reason* in a traditional, straightforward style, but it's no less briskly-paced; if anything, there is a higher pitch of emotional intensity in this novel and less ennui than in *The Reprieve.* Its not absolutely necessary to read *The Age of Reason* first, I didn't, but I would definitely recommend doing so, as it enriches vastly your understanding of the characters in the second book.
As I mentioned in my review of *The Reprieve,* I can hardly believe that the Sartre of *Being and Nothingness* fame was capable of writing in such a lively and entertaining manner, *Nausea* aside. So this series has so far come as one of the most pleasant literary surprises I've had in years. If the French, their philosophy, or existentialism appeal to you at all--or just a good novel about interesting characters facing the void within life--then I'd unreservedly recommend you take a look at *The Age of Reason.*
on October 12, 2008
I feel out of my league reading the thoughtful and well-informed reviews provided for this novel, but still desire to add my own thoughts. I read this first when I was 18, and I do not purport to have any great knowledge of the philosophy of Sartre. It is several years later and over the course of my college career I have picked it up time and again to read a chapter or two.
I am unsure of whether or not this book is a mere front for Sartre's philosophy--I do know it is a sort of fictional application of Being and Nothingness--but what continues to drive me back to this book is the sheer power of the narrative. Only in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man have I found such an encyclopedic representation of human struggle and motivation in twentieth century literature.
While I am no true student of philosophy, I have no use for a thinker who cannot provide an accurate depiction of the real world. If they are not presenting reality properly, they are not observing it properly. Sartre seems to be a man with an immense mind and a remarkable pen. Although his conclusion grates with my own feelings about life, I respect his standpoint because the journey towards the conclusion portrayed a world with such real pain and such familiar people that I cannot help but be moved.
This is the first volume of the trilogy entitled "Roads to Freedom." The other two volumes, in English, are entitled The Reprieve: A Novel and Troubled Sleep: A Novel. The trilogy concerns the lives of a variety of French people over a period of two years, 1938-40, which covered the lead up to, and France's disastrous defeat at the hands of Germany in the Second World War. I first read the trilogy some 40 years ago, and was exceedingly impressed with Sartre's power as a novelist, and a chronicler of the human condition. I was most impressed with the middle volume, started with it on this re-read, and was not disappointed. I'd advise the first time reader to tackle them in order. Although they can be read independently, there will be a much deeper understanding of the characters if one "begins at the beginning."
And the beginning in this case is the summer of 1938. The novel's motive force is a wanted/unwanted pregnancy, which precipitates a "mid-life crisis," in both principal characters: Professor of Philosophy, Mathieu Delarue and his long-term "partner," Marcelle Duffet. There are several other major characters, including two young Russian émigrés, the brother and sister, Boris and Ivich. Boris has a significant relationship with a woman roughly twice his age, a nightclub singer, Lola. Ivich fears that she has just failed her exams, which will necessitate a return to her home in the detested provincial town of Laon, and seeks solace from Mathieu, with results that are not necessarily predictable. There is also Jacques, Mathieu's bourgeois lawyer brother, and Sarah, who is married to the artist Gomez, who left the Parisian life to fight in the Spanish Civil War. And there is the homosexual, Daniel, who feels that the "mark of Cain" is upon him. Another character, Bruet, asks Mathieu to join the Communist Party, when it seemed like such a sensible choice, save for the necessity of following "the party line."
Mathieu and Marcelle had previously agreed that if there was an "accident" she would get an abortion. Ah, the theory, but there is much "right to life" queasiness when the "accident" is no longer theoretical. And then, alas, as the seemingly unlimited choices of youth become more circumscribed, was it really an "accident"? For so many of us who have been through the realization of middle age, Mathieu's summation of Marcelle's position resonates: "Her last chance"..."Between thirty and forty, people staked on their last chance."
Even though in his 30's, and a Professor, Mathieu does not have the money to pay for an abortion that would be properly performed, and thus the spectra of a "back-alley butcher" hangs in the background if he cannot borrow the money. He makes the rounds, from Daniel, who has the money but claims he does not, to his brother, Jacques. Sartre deftly sums up Jacques, as being in the "older but wiser" category, and if he was an American, would have become a Republican: "Jacques was very proud of his youth... for five years he has assiduously aped all the fashionable dissipations, he had dallied with surrealism, conducted a few agreeable love-affairs, and occasionally, before making love, he had inhaled ethyl chloride from a handkerchief." But now, ah: "...what is bohemianism, after all? It was amusing enough a hundred years ago, but today it is simply a name for a handful of eccentrics who are no danger to anybody and have missed the train." Mathieu retorts that "your age of reason is the age of resignation." Later he debates with himself: "Marry her, you shoddy bohemian, marry her, you have reached the age of reason, you must marry her."
And does the "resignation" come for Mathieu, as it does for all of us? "...he had finished the day, and he had also finished with his youth...disillusioned epicureanism, smiling tolerance, resignation, flat seriousness, stoicism-- all the aids whereby a man may savor, minute by minute, like a connoisseur, the failure of a life."
The reader knows, unlike the characters, that all these concerns of bohemianism and the bourgeois would soon be swept away, first placed in abeyance by the "reprieve" of the week of the Munich agreement in the fall of '38, and then finally by the fall of France in 1940. This volume lacks the stylistic brilliance of "The Reprieve" and has a few nightclub scenes that "drag," so I'd only rate it as 4.5-stars, rounded up.
on March 31, 2008
I just finished the book. My understanding is that someone who "attains the age of reason" is someone who is willing to act decisively and to take responsibility for his actions even if it might result in a loss of personal freedom. Well, Matheiu appears to be more free at the end of the novel than he does at the beginning even though he did act decisively at the end of the novel with regards to Ivich and Marcelle. Is Sartre trying to suggest that acting decisively and assuming responsibility actually increases one's freedom? In that case, what is freedom? Does one exercise one's freedom by asserting responsibility? In Mathieu's case, I guess he got lucky because his actions at the end of the novel, which he might have ordinarily expected to have reduced his freedom, actually ended up increasing it. The fate of Daniel, with the loss of his personal freedom, was his just rewards for being such a villain throughout. Does anyone know whether Marcelle in this book and Paula in Beauvoir's "The Mandarins" is actually the same character? An unsatisfying element of Age of Reason is the question of Boris - what happened to him? Also, Lola left the book angry, and that anger went unresolved. The character Bobby made a brief but unforgettable appearance. Why did Sartre choose not to develop him better? Maybe I should read the next two books in the trilogy! Anyway, good book....not heavy reading as commonly assumed...but does give brief pause for thought. I think Sartre's existential ideas are out-dated now, but at the time of writing they were probably very intriguing. To me, Sartre comes off as self-obsessed and a bit immature. The recent biography of Sartre and Beavouir by Hazel Rowley reinforces that notion. I would not trust Sartre to keep an appointment, for example. That's the problem with these folk who are obsessed with their own personal freedom. They make bad buddies.
on May 31, 2007
This work discerns Sartre in his element. Reason characterizes the modern age: through reason, we abstract our realities, turn away from experience and into the "cognitive", "mental" field, and consequently loose our grounding.
This novel is a phenomenological journey into the absurdities of life; through it, we delve into the mood of the times: one in which anxiety towers over our very Being, one in which anxiety is the primordial mood in which we dwell. Anxiety, a consequence of Being turning (into) "pure abstract" Thought, reminds us that without a full acknowledgment of our "being-in-the-world", we remain homeless, uprooted, fearful of that which is. We value the "supersensuous" over the sensuous, "mind" over "body", and as such, loose sight of our concrete existence and meaning-making possibilities.
Through strikingly insightful "experiential" writing (i.e., descriptive, not explanatory), Sartre, dare we understand him, engenders in us a despair at our current state (and many who do not "like" Sartre use this as a defense of their position: he is too dreary, too "depressing"). Yet if we choose to listen carefully we observe that nothing he says is out of the ordinary, out of touch with our own experiences: rather, his descriptions sound at least vaguely familiar, attentive as they are to the nature of commonplace Being itself.
This is not only a masterful philosophical work (though certainly not by some philosophers' definitions of philosophy), but a beautifully written art work as well. The two belong together in Sartre's case; this becomes clear when one considers that to obtain a truly powerful description of that which is, language must be attended to deeply and fully.
on November 5, 2004
Jean-Paul seems like such a likeable character. Especially towards his later years, when he became quite politically active in anti-colonial issues. But a lot of his early work is inconsistent. This novel, the first of a trilogy, was written leading up to and during the second world war, and is a compelling portrait of a parisian bourgeois as the shadows of fascism grew longer. This bourgeois professor, mathieu, fancies himself a prime actor in his own life, a man free to act as he chooses because he doesn't have any illusions. But that is his worst illusion. He is 35 years old and acts like a modern spoiled american university student. He can't commit to anything, whether it be to head to spain to fight against franco, marry his pregnant mistress or demand that she have an abortion, or act decisively enough to win the heart of his OTHER girlfriend, a spoiled early 20's russian emigre.
SO the whole novel passes with us watching these spoiled bourgeois lunk-heads wander around and do nothing with all their vaunted freedom.
But That's the point. As you get into the trilogy more, you see that mathieu's problem is that his life is unbearably light, to steal from Kundera here. And it is Kundera's "unbearable lightness of being" that provides a great insight into what Sartre is getting at here. Our freedom as human beings comes into play when we make choices, not avoid them.
So, I recommend this book, but stick it out because this first volume is tough at times. The characters herein are all fools. But they are all learning to act, and as Hitler draws closer, you can see they now know that they will HAVE to make a choice in the near future.
And after you read these three volumes, read Kundera's book, which is about a lot of the same issues but is a lot more humane and sexy too. Say what you want about Sartre but he wasn't really a sexy writer. In fact he kind of reminds me of wallace shawn in "manhattan." But that's another story.
on October 10, 1999
It's always puzzled me that this book gets so little attention when Nausea is so acclaimed -- and even Nausea gets trashed by many of the more academic critics. I read a series of interviews with Sartre at one point, after all of his major books were a ways behind him, and he himself did not seem to consider the Roads to Freedom trilogy of particular significance or importance. I find this puzzling because the Age of Reason is one of the best novels I have ever read. It is more of a story than Nausea (and more of a story than its sequels, from what I've read of them), and, well -- it's just incredible. The psychological accuracy and moral neutrality with which Sartre places himself, and the reader, in each character's shoes, is remarkable; the existential "adventure" of the book is intoxicating, and there are some simply incredible moments. As with anything Sartre writes, it is a bit self-indulged, and the characters will not appeal to everyone, but personally, I found this an incredibly rewarding book; it left me feeling giddy.