The book club had finished the Italian novel by mr Ammaniti, which most of us had read in translation (“I’m not scared”, Niccolo Ammanti). Some had even watched the DVD film version. One member remarked this author might visit the country as he was touring Europe to promote his latest work. The 2001 novel had not impressed me that much. It reminded me a bit of “The Witness” and Grisham’s “The Client”.
More important: as December’s full of holidays and feast days, the next read had to be short and good. Proposals like “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (anything but brief) and “Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn” were shelved for 2016. Instead, we settled on Jean-Paul Sartre. On his film scenario “Les Jeux sont Faits”, to be precise.
Like other members, I was still slightly traumatized by secondary school compulsory reading lists. Being forced to read between 40 to 50 literary works in my native language at the ripe old age of 14 – 18 , put me off reading anything with the faintest claim on being part of my native language ”classic” or pulp literature.
On the other hand, being forced to read between 30 to 40 literary works in German, French and English at the same age, had not managed to quench my thirst for reading in these languages. In fact, I am still happily reading in these languages, while slowly adding more foreign languages and more literature to my world. Human beings are irrational.
Nevertheless, all this did not mean I carried a flame in my heart or had an unquenched thirst for more works by Jean-Paul Sartre. The secondary school French list had included “Huis Close”(“No Exit” is its English title) including an enforced attendance of the play and I had managed to steer clear of Sartre for decades.
Sartre’s hell as described in “Huit Clos” must have impressed my class, for I can’t remember the matinée performance being stopped and us finally being kicked out of the theatre, because of disruptive behaviour. Which happened during a theatre performance of some native play – which was never to be performed again. Who claims kids and adolescents can’t be excellent literary critics?
As for “Huis Clos”, all I remember is, that it takes place in hell. As does Sartre’s scenario “Les Jeux sont Faits” (English title “The Chips are Down”). The story describes a few days in the life and death of Pierre and Eve. A very Sartre’s interpretation of life, death, hell and predestination.
After being murdered in a France which is run by a dictator, activist and labourer Pierre joins a queue waiting in front of a shop. Inside, a kind of witch registers all who have died . She tells Pierre to pass through a specific door. Once outside, Pierre has to come to terms with being dead and is helped by a kind old man from the 17th century.
Eve goes through much the same experience. She has more problems accepting her situation for she tries to prevent evil taking place in the lives of the living. In Sartre’s hell, the dead are not only forced to live forever, but to witness the living and life unfold, without being able to communicate or make their presence known.
When Pierre and Eve meet, they fall in love. It turns out, this was predestined but events prevented this taking place: a mistake. They are offered the chance to return to life for twenty-four hours. Provided they still love and choose each other beyond all other things and people, they will actually be granted a full human life with all its experience, once the 24 hours have passed. They jump at the offer, convinced their love will survive this test.
This being Sartre’s interpretation of things, Eve and Pierre meet each other 24 hours later back in hell. Does this mean that Sartre paints a totally bleak picture of life, death, life after death?
No, for during their twenty-four hours, Eve and Pierre managed to realise the wish of a fellow dead person. They save his child from maltreatment by an indifferent mother and abusive new partner. At least this girl seems to have a chance for a better life. So Sartre’s message seems to be, that you can meddle in other people’s lives to prevent evil, but only when you are alive.
What impressed me especially in “Les Jeux sont Faits” was, that Sartre’s concept and ideas about life, death, hell still has some positive interpretation – though his overall perception of society seems pretty dark. It is also interesting to read that management in hell (and Heaven) occasionally rectify mistakes – as in the deaths of Eve and Pierre.
That you are reading a scenario becomes clear from the very short chapters, which are like film scenes. Some “chapters” contain one or two sentences, though some are longer. Page 24 in the copy I read for instance looks like this:
“La Route de Banlieue”:
Deux coups de revolver claquent. Sur la route, Pierrre roule encore pendant quelques mêtres en vacillant et tombe sur la chaussée.
« La chambre d’Eve » : Lucette se précipite dans la chambre, en coup de vent, rejoint André. Elle aperçoit le corps d’Eve sur le sol et jette un cri.
Page 25 starts with “La Route de Banlieue”. So quick takes with incidents and specific instructions of what characters do, what emotions they show, or what takes place, intersperced with some dialogue. The roughly two or three days in the lives and deaths of Pierre and Eve are full of betrayals, disappointments and shocks though – for the characters as well as the reader. Jean Delannoy’s film adaptation must have been impressive.
In this short scenario, Sartre also plays with the concept of time. Events seem to take place in occupied Paris and France. But this is a Paris and a France controlled by an army-like militia and a dictator called “Regent”. This reminds one of the regency period between the death of Louis XIV and coming of age of Louis XV. Yet Pierre cycles and is shot at.
Sartre’s reason for this alienation and play with titles and time, may have to do with the concept of people dying and coming alive again. Or it may have been a safety measure. For the first idea and script of “Les Jeux sont Faits” – as well as “Huis Clos”- may date from the time France was still occupied by the Nazis.
« Les Jeux sont Faits” (The Chips are Down ) by Jean-Paul Sartre, 195 pp, Editions Nagel Paris, 1947. Adapted and turned into a film by Jean Delannoy (film scénario original de J.-P. Sartre, Dialogue de J.-P. Sartre & J.-L. Bost, Micheline Presle and Marcel Pagliero)
« Huits Clos » (No Exit) is a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, published in 1944