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In 1961 he wrote, out of his anger at French brutality in Algeria, “Il faut tuer . . . to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, supprimer en meme temps un opprimeur et un opprimé.” Such utterances link him to extremists, but are completely at odds with the reader’s relationship with the novelist of the 1940s. Yet he had been drawn to actes gratuits when young, and eventually sacrificed much of his literary talent to his urge to outrage authority. Actes gratuits by definition make little sense; and the more one reads of or about Sartre, the less he coheres as a writer, or seems truly admirable as a man. Probably he never really wanted to attain the “age of reason”, or to become wise. If he had finished a good novel on occupied France, and followed it up, he would have been a greater writer. In other words, it is a pity that he didn’t abandon his incoherent “utopian ideals” for more realistic artistic ones.

A telling moment in his career happened in Moscow in 1966, when a writer whose greatness lies partly in his bravely unflinching honesty, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, refused to meet the lesser French writer who had gradually become content to manipulate the truth for his own ends. The Russian said that he did so because Sartre had said that Mikhail Sholokhov — Stalin’s favourite novelist and “the hangman” to Solzhenitsyn — deserved the 1965 Nobel Prize.

For all that, Sartre’s creative achievement still impresses. Last December, when the French — not in mere thousands but in hundreds of thousands — turned out for the funeral of the singer Johnny Halliday, whom Macron declared “a national hero”, we were given a surreal image of contemporary French culture. Would any writer’s funeral fill a boulevard with mourners now in the way that Sartre’s did?
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