[In the following excerpt, Romano praises Cohen-Solal for shedding light on the question of why Sartre—with all his intellectual inconsistencies and personal flaws—managed to achieve such influence and renown.]
What becomes of the broken-Sartred? Seven years after the death of the man who gave nausea and nothingness a good name, French intellectuals still aren't sure. They live with Sartre's legacy daily. They know he accomplished modern philosophy's greatest PR triumph by fastening a beret to existentialism—a notion previously owned and operated by Kierkegaard and Heidegger—and making it fit. They recognize that when they slip off with nonsignificant others for some liaisons dangereuses, the ghosts of Jean-Paul and Simone rebuke them, imploring them to confess, and maybe even brag a bit. Every fresh excavation of recent French history—collaboration, the Resistance, the Algerian war, May 1968—evokes memories of the novelist, playwright, and philosopher who typed his way right up to center stage. Every issue of the Parisian newspaper Libération, the leftist daily cofounded by Sartre (now the safe second read of Socialist government bureaucrats), reminds them of his activism. (p. 14)
[The] barrage of recent secondary works on Sartre signals more than the usual desire of reverential professors to fatten the card catalogue of a deceased eminence—they indicate a recognition that Sartre not only belongs to history, but that a certain kind of intellectual life, currently in limbo, belongs to Sartre and can only be reassessed in his company.
The first two major Sartre biographies, Annie Cohen-Solal's hard-digging Sartre: A Life and Ronald Hayman's bookish yet more interpretive [Sartre: A Life], deliver day-to-day details that partly answer Sartre 's 1970s challenge to do to him what he did to Flaubert in his last great biographical project, The Family Idiot—absorb and comprehend the writer whole.... These books invite us to ponder how Sartre achieved a Voltairean prominence and influence unmatched by his successors.
Was it the technical superiority of his philosophical work? The brilliance of his literary style? The impact of his personality and ambition? Or does the credit go as much to the play as to the player—a philosophical and social scene waiting for him to happen?
For those who retain some romanticism about intellectual history, the happiest explanation of Sartre's celebrity would be the merit of his philosophical work. Yet, from the beginning, Sartre's existentialism skirted classic philosophical problems, even if it served as a spirited rallying cry. At the start of his first novel, Nausea (1938), in which Sartre started to flesh the system out, Roquentin, the independent scholar free of ordinary obligations—job, family, spouse—still doesn't feel free. He senses the viscous, oozing world of material objects imposing itself on him and oppressing him. After an epiphany in the park helps him to appreciate the world's contingency, he realizes the “horrible ecstasy” of his freedom—he is responsible for his own life.
Roquentin's earlier self-deception in regard to his freedom is what Sartre calls “bad faith.” But Roquentin's enlightenment does not give him the freedom to make things happen as...