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Introduction: Don't Mention the War

Colin Davis
Affiliation:
Royal Holloway, University of London
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Summary

Between September 1939 and March 1941, the friends, lovers, fellow writers and intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir saw little of each other. Sartre was mobilized at the beginning of the Second World War, and then held for ten months as a prisoner of war. During this period of painful separation they wrote to each other prolifically, sometimes more than once a day, as Sartre's Lettres au Castor and Beauvoir's Lettres à Sartre testify. Their posthumously published correspondence during the long, anguished months of their separation covers more than 500 pages of printed text. This is striking in part for its sheer length. It is not as if they had nothing else to do, and their correspondence was by no means their only written output for the period. Sartre assiduously wrote in what would be published as his Carnets de la drôle de guerre whilst working on his novel Le Sursis and his philosophical magnum opus L'Etre et le néant; and Beauvoir also kept a substantial journal, published as her Journal de guerre, and she worked on her first novel L'Invitée. If nothing else, war was very good for their productivity as writers, even if not everything they wrote at the time was initially intended for publication.

Another striking feature of the correspondence between Sartre and Beauvoir is how little it has to say about the war. It is not that they had forgotten about it. Of course they hadn't. It was the cause of their separation, and it affected every aspect of their lives. But it was as if it was too big to be seen, so totally present that it did not need to be mentioned. It is (relatively) unspoken and (absolutely) ubiquitous, ubiquitous because unspoken. The war was, according to Sartre at one point in his Carnets de la drôle de guerre, ‘insaisissable’. It is both there and not there. As their contemporary and sometime friend Albert Camus put it in his Carnets from the same period, ‘La guerre a éclaté. Où est la guerre?’ (OEuvres complètes II, p. 884).

A central concern for the writers discussed in this book is how to perceive, experience and recount the war, how to integrate it into an intellectual and aesthetic project, when it is simultaneously elusive, intangible and all-pervasive.

Type
Chapter
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Traces of War
Interpreting Ethics and Trauma in Twentieth-Century French Writing
, pp. 1 - 8
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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