After his father's early death Jean-Paul Sartre was brought up at his grandfather's home in a world even then eighty years out of date. In Words Sartrerecalls growing up within the confines of French provincialism in the period before the First World War, an illusion-ridden childhood made bearable by his lively imagination and passion for reading and writing. A brilliant work of self-analysis, Words provides an essential background to the philosophy of one of the profoundest thinkers of the twentieth century.
Sartre's father died when he was an infant; as a result he and his mother Anne-Marie moved back into her parents' house on the edge of Paris. As an only child, the young Jean-Paul was nurtured and sheltered by his mother and his grandparents, and his greatest influence as a child was his grandfather Charles Schweitzer, a professor of German literature and nephew of the Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer. Sartre's initial years were spent in near complete isolation from other children, and he began to read voraciously at an early age, with his greatest influences being the adventure stories that his mother and grandmother gave to him, to the chagrin of his grandfather. He began to play act stories that he created based on his reading, and soon he began to write stories about these adventures. In his later childhood his grandfather's teaching and reading became more influential, and he supported his wife and daughter in encouraging Sartre to pursue a career as a writer.
The autobiography is divided into two long chapters, Reading and Writing. The first chapter is by far the most interesting, as Sartre introduces us to his family and the joys of his young childhood. However, the last half of the book was far too long, with an overemphasis and overanalysis of his early writing and its influences, with only minimal attention given to his outside life, his family and the few friends that he made.
Despite a promising beginning I found [The Words] to be a disappointing and somewhat unenjoyable read, due to its lack of balance and Sartre's choppy and disjointed narrative.
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 Sartre's ability for clear observation and honesty. Sartre describes his fatherless childhood, a period during which playmates and rambles were happily exchanged for his grandfather’s library, where “I found my religion”:
I disported myself in a tiny sanctuary, surrounded by ancient, heavy-set monuments which had seen me into the world, which would see me out of it, and whose permanence guaranteed me a future as calm as the past. …I was a daily witness of ceremonies whose meaning escaped me: my grandfather—who was usually so clumsy that my grandmother buttoned his gloves for him—handled those cultural objects with the dexterity of an officiant…. At times, I would draw near to observe those boxes which slit open like oysters, and I would see the nudity of their inner organs, pale, fusty leaves, slightly bloated, covered with black veinlets, which drank ink and smelled of mushrooms.
Sartre’s reading and writing nurtured “the idealism which it took me thirty years to shake off.” Inside the sixth-floor library, “I would take real birds from their nests, would chase real butterflies that alighted on real flowers”; compared to the bookish archetypes, “the monkeys in the zoo were less monkey, the men in the Luxembourg Gardens were less man.” In the last pages of The Words, Sartre begins to describe the exchange of the idealism for the brand of Existentialism which made him famous. “I’ve given up the office but not the frock,” writes the sixty-year-old: “I still write. What else can I do?”
There is considerable audacity in a project of this nature. The famed philosopher/playwright/novelist creates a memoir fifty plus years into the past, a poking about in a small child's mind. I hazard to say there's a some fancy in these pages. Much as Sartre notes throughout most of his childhood he was acting, I assume the great thinker feels compelled to craft something of stature to merit his adult achievement. I will be honest: I don't remember much of my early life. One or two images of leaving Michigan ages 3-4. There are a few flutters after that. My adoptive mother telling everyone I was reading at age two. Was I? I have always had books and much like Sartre I feel indebted. Also, just like the author I had flowing curly locks, a surprise I guess after being bald for 14 months. The stories bifurcate there as Sartre benefited from his grandfather's library and I read comics and books from the local public library. Both of us constructed constant narratives where we were the heroes. He was encouraged to write. I was given a typewriter and I filled notebooks in junior high when I should have been learning geometry.
The second section Writing isn't as magical as the first Reading. He broaches his burgeoning narrative structures, slowly evolving in a stumbling gait --and how everything was ultimately enriched by attending school. That period of his life so deserved a further extensive treatment, if only his adolescent friendship with Paul Nizan. Outside of his widowed mother and tacit grandmother, women do not feature large in this vision. His partial blindness, his diminutive stature, his less than ideal looks all reflect upon this but without explicit comment.