Novels, says Sartre, are not life, but they owe our power upon us, as upon himself as an infant, to the fact that they are somehow like life. In life, he once remarked, 'all ways are barred and nevertheless we must act. So we try to change the world; that is, to live as if the relations between things and their potentialities were governed not by deterministic processes but by magic.' The as if of the novel consists in a similar negation of determinism, the establishment of an accepted freedom by magic. We make up aventures, invent and ascribe the significance of temporal concords to those 'privileged moments' to which we alone award their prestige, make our own human clocks tick in a clockless world. And we take a man who is by definition de trop, and create a context in which he isn't. The novel is a lie only as our quotidian inventions are lies. The power which goes to its making-the imagination -is a function of man's inescapable freedom. This freedom, in Mary Warnock's words, 'expresses itself in his ability to see things which are not.' It is by his fiction that we know he is free. It is not surprising that Sartre as ontologist, having to describe many kinds of fictive behaviour, invents stories to do so, thus moving into a middle ground between life and novel...
We are all poor; but there is a difference between what Mrs. Spark intends by speaking of 'slender means', and what Stevens called our poverty or Sartre our need, besoin. The poet finds his brief, fortuitous concords, it is true: not merely 'what will suffice, ' but 'the freshness of transformation, ' the 'reality of decreation, ' the 'gaiety of language.' The novelist accepts need, the difficulty of relating one's fictions to what one knows about the nature of reality, as his donnee. It is because no one has said more about this situation, or given such an idea of its complexity, that I want to devote most of this talk to Sartre and the most relevant of his novels, La Nausee. As things go now it isn't of course very modern; Robbe-Grillet treats it with amused reverence as a valuable antique. But it will still serve for my purposes. This book is doubtless very well known to you; I can't undertake to tell you much about it, especially as it has often been regarded as standing in an unusually close relation to a body of philosophy which I am incompetent to expound. Perhaps you will be charitable if I explain that I shall be using it and other works of Sartre merely as examples. What I have to do is simply to show that La Nausee represents, in the work of one extremely important and representative figure, a kind of crisis in the relation between fiction and reality, the tension or dissonance between paradigmatic form and contingent reality. That the mood of Sartre has sometimes been appropriate to the modern demythologized apocalypse is something I shall take for granted; his is a philosophy of crisis, but his world has no beginning and no end. The absurd dishonesty of all prefabricated patterns is cardinal to his beliefs; to cover reality over with eidetic images-illusions persisting from past acts of perception, as some abnormal children 'see' the page or object that is no longer before them -to do this is to sink into mauvaise foi. This expression covers all comfortable denials of the undeniable-freedom -by myths of necessity, nature, or things as they are. Are all the paradigms of fiction eidetic? Is the unavoidable, insidious, comfortable enemy of all novelists mauvaise foi? Sartre has recently, in his first instalment of autobiography, talked with extraordinary vivacity about the roleplaying of his youth, of the falsities imposed upon him by the fictive power of words. At the beginning of the Great War he began a novel about a French private who captured the Kaiser, defeated him in single combat, and so ended the war and recovered Alsace. But everything went wrong. The Kaiser, hissed by the poilus, no match for the superbly fit Private Perrin, spat upon and insulted, became 'somehow heroic.' Worse still, the peace, which should instantly have followed in the real world if this fiction had a genuine correspondence with reality, failed to occur. 'I very nearly renounced literature, ' says Sartre. Roquentin, in a subtler but basically similar situation, has the same reaction. Later Sartre would find again that the hero, however assiduously you use the pitchfork, will recur, and that gaps, less gross perhaps, between fiction and reality will open in the most close-knit pattern of words. Again, the young Sartre would sometimes, when most identified with his friends at the lycee, feel himself to be 'freed at last from the sin of existing'-this is also an expression of Roquentin's, but Roquentin says it feels like being a character in a novel. How can novels, by telling lies, convert existence into being? We see Roquentin waver between the horror of contingency and the fiction of aventures. In Les Mots Sartre very engagingly tells us that he was Roquentin, certainly, but that he was Sartre also, 'the elect, the chronicler of hells' to whom the whole novel of which he now speaks so derisively was a sort of aventure, though what was represented within it was 'the unjustified, brackish existence of my fellow-creatures.