the rest of sartre’s the age of reason, chapter one

"I’ve only got to look at you to see that you’re born unlucky—you’re the sort that upsets glasses, and smashes mirrors. And women trust you. Well, they get what they deserve."

the_age_of_reason_jean_paul_sartre_.jpg image by romanowt13

‘Marcelle,’ said he.

She did not answer: there was a hard look in her eyes: and then she sat up abruptly. He sat down once more on the edge of the bed, irked by his own nakedness.

‘You must now tell me what’s the matter.’

‘There’s nothing the matter,’ she said, in a toneless voice.

‘Yes, there is,’ he said affectionately. ‘There’s something on your mind. Marcelle, didn’t we agree to be quite frank with each other?’

‘You can’t do anything about it, and it will only upset you.’

He stroked her hair lightly. ‘Never mind, tell me all the same.’

‘Well, it’s happened.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘It has happened.’

Mathieu made a wry face.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Quite sure. You know I never get the wind up: I’m two months late.’

‘Hell!’ said Mathieu.

And he thought: ‘She ought to have told me at least three weeks ago.’ He felt he must do something with his hands—fill his pipe, for instance: but his pipe was in the cupboard with his jacket. He took a cigarette from the night-table and put it down again.

‘There, now you know what’s the matter,’ said Marcelle. ‘And what’s to be done?’

‘Well—I suppose one gets rid of it, eh?’

‘Right. I’ve got an address,’ said Marcelle.

‘Who gave it to you?’

‘Andrée. She’s been there.’

‘That’s the old woman who messed her up last year, isn’t it? Why, it was six months before she was well again. I won’t allow that.’

‘So you want to be a father?’

She drew back, and sat down a little way off Mathieu. There was a hard look in her eyes, but it wasn’t a masculine look. She had laid her hands flat on her thighs, her arms looked like the twin handles of an earthenware jar. Mathieu noticed that her face had grown grey. The air was pink and sickly – it smelt and tasted pink: her face was grey and set, and she looked as though she were trying to stifle a cough.

‘Wait,’ said Mathieu, ‘you’ve rather sprung this on me: we must think.’

Marcelle’s hands began to quiver: and shesaid with sudden vehemence: ‘I don’t want you to think—it’s not for you to think.’

She had turned her head towards him and was looking at him. She looked at Mathieu’s neck, shoulders, and hips, and then lower down, with an air of astonishment. Mathieu blushed violently and set his legs together.

‘You can’t do anything,’ repeated Marcelle. And she added with painful irony: ‘It’s a woman’s business now.’

Her mouth snapped out the last words: a varnished mauve-tinted mouth, like a crimson insect intent upon devouring that ashen visage. ‘She’s feeling humiliated,’ thought Mathieu, ‘she hates me.’ He felt sick. The room seemed suddenly cleared of its pink haze: there were great blank spaces between the objects it contained. And Mathieu thought: ‘It is I who have done this to her!’ The lamp, the mirror with its leaden reflections, the clock on the mantelpiece, the armchair, the half-opened wardrobe, suddenly appeared to him like pitiless mechanisms, adrift and pursuing their tenuous existences in the void, rigidly insistent, like the underside of a gramophone record obstinately grinding out its tune. Mathieu shook himself, but could not detach himself from that sinister, raucous world. Marcelle had not moved, she was still looking at Mathieu’s naked body, and the guilty flower that lay so delicately on his thighs with a bland air of innocence. He knew she wanted to scream and sob but she would not, for fear of waking Mme Duffet. He gripped Marcelle round the waist and drew her towards him. She collapsed on to his shoulder, sobbed a little, but she did not cry. It was all that she could allow herself: a rainless storm.

When she raised her head, she was calmer. And she said, in an emphatic tone: ‘Forgive me, darling, I needed to explode. I’ve been holding myself in all day. I’m not blaming you, of course.’

‘Quite natural,’ said Mathieu. ‘I feel bad about this. It’s the first time… O Lord, what a mess. I’ve done this deed, and it’s you that have to pay. Well, it’s happened, and that’s that. Look here, who is this old woman, and where does she live?’

‘Twenty-four Rue Morère. I’m told she’s an odd old party.’

‘I believe you. Are you going to say that Andrée sent you?’

‘Yes. She only charges four hundred francs. I’m told that’s absurdly cheap,’ said Marcelle, in a suddenly even tone.

‘Yes, I realize that,’ said Mathieu bitterly. ‘In short it’s a bargain.’

He felt as awkward as a newly accepted suitor. A tall awkward fellow, completely naked, who had done something he should not, and was smiling amiably, in the hope he might be overlooked. But it wasn’t possible; she saw his white, sinewy, stocky thighs, his complacent and uncompromising nudity. It was a grotesque nightmare. ‘If I were her, I should want to get my nails into all that meat.’ And he said: ‘That’s just exactly what worries me: she doesn’t charge enough.’

‘My dear,’ said Marcelle, ‘it’s lucky she asks so little: as it happens, I’ve got the four hundred francs. They were earmarked for my dressmaker, but she’ll wait. And,’ she went on emphatically, ‘I’m perfectly certain I shall be looked after just as well as in one of those discreet clinics where they charge you four thousand francs as soon as look at you. Anyhow, we can’t help ourselves.’

‘No, we can’t help ourselves,’ repeated Mathieu. ‘When will you go?’

‘Tomorrow, about midnight. I gather she only sees people at night. Rather a scream, isn’t it? I think she’s a bit cracked myself, but it suits me all right, on Mother’s account. She keeps a draper’s shop in the daytime: and she hardly ever sleeps. You go in by a yard, and you see a light under a door—that’s where it is.’

‘Right,’ said Mathieu. ‘I’ll go.’

Marcelle eyed him in amazement.

‘Are you crazy? She’ll shut the door in your face, she’ll take you for a policeman.’

‘I shall go,’ repeated Mathieu.

‘But why? What will you say to her?’

‘I want to get a notion of what sort of place it is. If I don’t like it, you shan’t go. I won’t have you messed up by some old harridan. I’ll say that I’ve come from Andrée, that I’ve got a girl friend who’s in trouble, but down with influenza at the moment—something of that kind.’

‘But where shall I go if it won’t do?’

‘We’ve got a few days to turn round in, haven’t we? I’ll go and see Sarah tomorrow, she’s sure to know somebody. They didn’t want any children at first, you remember.’

Marcelle’s excitement subsided a little, and she stroked his neck.

‘You’re being very nice to me, darling. I’m not quite sure what you’re up to, but I understand that you want to do something: perhaps you’d like her to operate on you instead of me?’ She clasped her lovely arms round his neck, and added in a tone of comic resignation: ‘Anyone recommended by Sarah is sure to be a Yid.’

Mathieu kissed her, and she dimpled all over.

‘Darling,’ she said. ‘O darling!’

‘Take off your vest’

She obeyed, he tipped her backwards on to the bed, and began to caress her breasts. He loved their taut, leathery nipples, each in its ring of raised, red flesh. Marcelle sighed, with eyes closed, passionate and eager. But her eyelids were contracted. The dread thing lingered, laid like a damp hand on Mathieu. Then, suddenly, the thought came into Mathieu’s mind: ‘She’s pregnant.’ He sat up, his head still buzzing with a shrill refrain.

‘Look here, Marcelle, it’s no good today. We’re both of us too nervy. I’m sorry.’

Marcelle uttered a sleepy little grunt, then got up abruptly and began to rumple her hair with both hands.

‘Just as you like,’ she said coldly. Then she added, more amiably: ‘As a matter of fact you’re right, we’re too nervy. I wanted you to love me, but I was a bit frightened.’

‘Alas,’ said Mathieu, ‘the deed is done, we have nothing more to fear.’

‘I know, but I wasn’t thinking sensibly. I don’t know how to tell you: but I’m rather afraid of you, darling.’

Mathieu got up.

‘Good. Well then, I’ll go and see this old woman.’

‘Yes. And you might telephone me tomorrow and tell me what you thought of her.’

‘Can’t I see you tomorrow evening? That would be simpler.’

‘No, not tomorrow evening. The day after, if you like.’

Mathieu had put on his shirt and trousers. He kissed Marcelle on the eyes.

‘You aren’t angry with me?’

‘It isn’t your fault. It’s the first time in seven years, you needn’t blame yourself. And you aren’t sick of me, I hope?’

‘Don’t be silly.’

‘Well, I’m getting rather sick of myself, to tell the truth; I feel like a great heap of dough.’

‘My darling,’ said Mathieu, ‘my poor darling. It will all be put right in a week, I promise you.’

He opened the door noiselessly, and glided out, holding his shoes in his hand. On the landing he turned. Marcelle was still sitting on the bed. She smiled at him, but Mathieu had the feeling that she bore him a grudge.

The tension in his set eyes was now released, and they revolved with normal ease and freedom in their orbits: she was no longer looking at him, and he owed her no account of his expression. Concealed by his dark garments and the night, his guilty flesh had found its needed shelter, it was gradually recovering its native warmth and innocence, and began to expand beneath its covering fabrics;  the oilcan, how on earth was he going to remember to bring the oilcan the day after tomorrow? He was alone.

He stopped, transfixed: it wasn’t true, he wasn’t alone. Marcelle had not let him go: she was thinking of him, and this was what she thought: ‘The dirty dog, he’s let me down.’ It was no use striding along the dark, deserted street, anonymous, enveloped in his garments—he could not escape her. Marcelle’s consciousness remained, full of woe and lamentation, and Mathieu had not left her: he was there, in the pink room, naked and defenceless against that crass transparency, so much more baffling than a look. ‘Only once,’ he said savagely to himself, and he repeated in an undertone, to convince Marcelle: ‘once in seven years.’ Marcelle refused to be convinced; she remained in the room, and was thinkingof Mathieu. It was intolerable to be judged, and hated, away back in that room, and in silence. Without power to defend himself, or even to hide his belly with his hands. If only, in the same second, he had been able to exist for others with the same intensity… But Jacques and Odette were asleep. Daniel was drunk or in a stupor. Ivich never remembered people when they were not there. Boris perhaps… But Boris’s consciousness was no more than a dim flicker, it could not contend against that savage, stark lucidity that fascinated Mathieu from a distance. Night had engulfed most human consciousnesses: Mathieu was alone with Marcelle in the night, just the two of them.

There was a light at Camus’s place. The landlord was stacking the chairs: the waitress was fixing a wooden shutter against one side of the double door. Mathieu pushed open the other side and went in. He felt the need of being seen. Just to be seen. He planted his elbows on the counter.

‘Good evening, everybody.’

The landlord saw him. There was also a bus-conductor, drinking an absinthe, his cap pulled down over his eyes. Two kindly, casual consciousnesses. The conductor jerked his cap back, and looked at Mathieu. Marcelle’s consciousness released him, and dissolved into the night.

‘Give me a beer.’

‘You’re quite a stranger,’ said the landlord.

‘It isn’t for want of being thirsty.’

‘Yes, it’s thirsty weather,’ said the bus-conductor. ‘It might be mid-summer.’

They fell silent. The landlord went on rinsing glasses, the conductor whistled to himself. Mathieu felt at ease because they looked at him from time to time. He saw his head in the glass, a ghastly globe emerging from a sea of silver: at Camus’s, one always had the feeling that it was four in the morning, which was an effect of the light, a silvered haze that strained the eyes, and bleached the drinkers’ faces, hands, and thoughts. He drank: and he thought: ‘She’s pregnant. It’s fantastic. I can’t feel it’s true.’ It seemed to him shocking and grotesque, like the sight of an old man kissing an old woman on the lips: after seven years that sort of thing shouldn’t happen; ‘She’s pregnant’—there was a little, vitreous tide within her, slowly swelling into the semblance of an eye. ‘It’s opening out among all the muck inside her belly, it’s alive.’ He saw a long pin moving hesitantly forward in the half-darkness: there was a muffled sound, the eye cracked and burst: nothing was left but an opaque, dry membrane. ‘She’ll go to that old woman: she’ll get herself messed up.’ He felt venomous. ‘All right, let her go.’ He shook himself: these were bleak thoughts, the thoughts of four o’clock in the morning.

‘Good night.’

He paid and went.

‘What did I do?’ He walked slowly, trying to remember. ‘Two months ago… ‘ He couldn’t remember anything. ‘Yes, it must have been the day after the Easter holidays. He had taken Marcelle in his arms, as usual, in affection no doubt, rather than with any feeling of desire; and now… he’d got stung. A baby. I meant to give her pleasure, and I’ve given her a baby. I didn’t understand what I was doing. Neither in destroying nor in creating life did I know what I was doing.’ He laughed a short, dry laugh. ‘And what about the others? Those who have solemnly decided to become fathers, and feel progenitively inclined when they look at their wives’ bodies—do they understand any more than I do? They go blindly on—three flicks of a duck’s tail. What follows is a gelatinous job done in a dark room, like photography. They have no part in it.’ He entered a yard and saw a light under a door. ‘It’s here.’ He felt ashamed.

Mathieu knocked.

‘What is it?’ said a voice.

‘I want to speak to you.’

‘This isn’t a time to visit people.’

‘I have a message from Andrée Besnier.’

The door opened slightly. Mathieu saw a wisp of yellow hair and a large nose.

‘What do you want? Don’t try to pull any police stuff on me, it’s no good, everything’s in order here. I can have the light on all night if I like. If you’re an inspector, show me your card.’

‘I’m not from the police,’ said Mathieu. ‘I’m in a fix. And I was given your name.’

‘Come in.’

Mathieu went in. The old woman was wearing trousers, and a blouse with a zip fastener. She was very thin, and her eyes were set and hard.

‘You know Andrée Besnier?’

She eyed him grimly.

‘Yes,’ said Mathieu. ‘She came to see you last year about Christmas-time because she was in trouble: she was rather ill, and you came four times to give her treatment.’


Mathieu looked at the old woman’s hands. They were a man’s hands, a strangler’s hands: furrowed, cracked, with broken nails, and black with scars and gashes. On the first joint of the left thumb, there were some purple warts, and a large black scab. Mathieu shuddered as he thought of Marcelle’s soft brown flesh.

‘I’ve not come on her account,’ he said. ‘I’ve come for one of her friends.’

The old woman laughed drily: ‘It’s the first time that a man has had the cheek to turn up on my doorstep. I won’t have any dealings with men, let me tell you that.’

The room was dirty and in disorder. There were boxes everywhere, and straw on the tiled floor. On a table Mathieu noticed a bottle of rum and a half-filled glass.

‘I’ve come because my friend sent me. She can’t come today, and she asked me to fix up a date.’

At the other end of the room a door stood half open. Mathieu could have sworn there was someone behind that door.

‘Poor kids,’ said the old woman. ‘They’re too silly. I’ve only got to look at you to see that you’re born unlucky—you’re the sort that upsets glasses, and smashes mirrors. And women trust you. Well, they get what they deserve.’

Mathieu remained polite.

‘I should have liked to see where you operate.’

The old woman flung him a baleful and suspicious look.

‘Look here! Who told you that I operate? What are you talking about? Mind your own business. If your friend wants to see me, let her come herself. I won’t deal with anyone else. Youwant to make inquiries, do you? Did she make any inquiries before she got into your grip? You’ve had an accident. All right. Then let us hope I shall be better at my job than you were at yours—and that’s all I have to say. Good night.’

‘Good night, Madame,’ said Mathieu.

He went out with a sense of deliverance. He turned and walked slowly towards the Avenue d’Orléans: for the first time since he had left her, he could think of Marcelle without pain, without horror, and with a sort of tender melancholy: ‘I’ll go and see Sarah tomorrow,’ he said to himself.


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