Jean Paul Sartre on the beach

“Hell is other people,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre. His rival on the stage of occupied and post-war Paris was Albert Camus (“I am the world”). The two fell out but remained entangled. A book by Cambridge academic Andy Martin – The Boxer and the Goalkeeper – is an excursion into the worlds of the Frenchmen synonymous with existentialism and absurdism.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are the patron saints of losers and outsiders. Their writings teach us how to get over the notion of success.

Dr Andy Martin

There are no goals in boxing and no red corner in football. Andy Martin’s The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre Vs Camus (Simon & Schuster, 6 June 2012) is a story about two philosophers and their intellectual tussling in the Paris of the 1940s and 1950s. They are an odd pair, mismatched. Sartre was famously ugly, Camus was in comparison an Adonis; Sartre was a Parisian insider while Camus, ‘The Outsider’, came from a poor family in Algeria. But they had much in common: both highly competitive, both richly creative, both prone to angst or ‘Nausea’.

Spiked with seminal moments in author Andy Martin’s own life, the book opens with a small but delicious act of felony committed by the writer as a teenager in suburban Essex, and the creeping guilt that ensued: to give any more away would spoil the narrative. Suffice it to say that Martin, today a languages lecturer at the University of Cambridge and a poet-cum-screenwriter, was a boy with big questions and a vivid imagination.

Do other people exist, could they simply disappear leaving just their shoes and socks behind, does the boy Andy himself exist?  These are the musings that lead Martin – and lead readers of The Boxer and the Goalkeeper – to discover the works of Sartre and Camus. Along the way, he realises – and we too come to realise - that the clever, coffee-drinking, café-frequenting thinkers and their friends were locked in petty squabbles that subsumed their intellectual arguments in a contest of sheer bitchiness – and yet which remain resonant for us now.

The guts of the book is a study of two heavyweights of 20th century philosophy and literature – both winners of the Nobel prize, although Sartre famously rejected his. Whether or not we have read The Outsider or delved into Being and Nothingness, we quickly get to grips with the contrasting backgrounds and characters of the two protagonists and the mind-blowing ideas about the meaning of life and love that they kicked about as they sought to out-general one another intellectually.

Martin unravels the tricky concepts of the savage and the symbolic, in the process taking creative leaps of the imagination that he says may annoy his fellow academics. He talks about visiting the barber in Cambridge to tame his mad professor hairstyle. This leads him into a description of the cutting of Sartre’s own blond curls which severed him from a condition of angelic childishness into a state of being Sartre, a transformation that sees his mother rush upstairs in floods of tears. This neatly introduces us to ideas about beauty and ugliness, and the possibility of self-transcendence.

Philosophers are supposed to be gentle, cerebral beings: Martin’s double act is anything but. Sartre was a natural pugilist who wondered: “Can I take him or can he take me?” “I fought constantly,” he wrote of his schooldays in La Rochelle. He learnt to box and, as a teacher of philosophy, he sparred with his students and got into a fist-fight with another teacher over a sarcastic remark.  He wanted to win – a boxing bout, he argued, was the “the incarnation of pre-existing violence”. Camus also got into fights but he was a footballer in love with the game. Growing up in Algeria, he played in goal but, despite the urban myth, he was never goalkeeper for Algeria. The goalkeeper is not quite part of the team – though vital to it.

Sartre and Camus met in Paris in 1943 where they were both friends of Simone de Beauvoir. They sat in cafes and wrote. Their friendship turned sour and their rivalry travelled far beyond the world of ideas.  Late one night in Paris, they are spotted racing on all fours across the boulevard St Germain between two of their favourite bars.  Though they disliked each other, they are locked together. After Camus’s death in a car crash in 1960, Sartre wrote: “We had a falling-out, he and I: but a falling-out means nothing – even if we were doomed never to see each other again – but another way of living together and without ever losing sight on what the other is up to in the small world that has been given to us.”

In weaving together anecdote and incident The Boxer and the Goalkeeper introduces some of the basic concepts of philosophy, encouraging the reader to think about what makes us human – and especially what makes us behave badly. This is not a book that requires any specialist knowledge. The only real puzzler of a phrase is the dedication at the start: the book is dedicated not to mum or dad but to “a binary praxis of non-antagonistic reciprocity”. This line modifies Sartre’s original, with the emphasis more on the antagonistic – all of which is unfolded in the book.

What does all this mean today? Martin thinks that in the present context of a kind of nationalistic hysteria about winning (the Euros, the Olympics, standing on the podium) we need to think long and deep about failure. After all, most of us fail most of the time. “The two great philosophers of failure were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They are the patron saints of losers and outsiders. Their writings teach us how to get over the notion of success and resign ourselves to failure and discontent. I think everyone would be a lot happier that way, by becoming truly philosophical.”

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