The fuss the French are making about the centenary of Sartre’s birth is a sad commentary on the present state of French letters. It is not for want of money. They spend more state cash per capita on culture than any other country. There are over 3,000 literary prizes to be had every year – and no literature. Sartre was their last world figure of any importance, a monstre sacré in the tradition of Rabelais, Molière, Voltaire and Victor Hugo. So they make the most of his still-recent reverberations. But he has had no successor (any more than Bertrand Russell, a comparable figure, has had in England). Nor is there anyone on the horizon.
The way in which Sartre became world-famous is itself interesting and shows how useful it is for a writer to operate simultaneously in different fields. A schoolteacher, he had made a study of the phenomenalists, and in 1938 published a novel, La Nausée (a good title, thought up by his