ALTHOUGH he was obviously a very clever man, Jean Paul Sartre did not always get it right. In the autumn of 1939, as he waited at the Gare de l'Est in Paris for the train that was to take him to Maginot Line, he made a prediction to Simone de Beauvoir, the lady whom we nowadays would call his partner, and who was there to see him off: "This will be a modern war without slaughter," he declared, "just as modern painting has no subject, modern music no melody, and modern physics no solid matter."
Yet in a personal sense his prediction turned out to be more or less correct. Sartre, in fact, had a very easy war; he described his duties in a letter to a friend as "extremely peaceful work; indeed I cannot think of any branch of the services that has a quieter, more poetic job - apart, that is, from the pigeon breeders, always supposing that nowadays there are any of them left". Sartre was working as a meteorologist.
His destiny in this respect - somewhat embarrassingly, perhaps, for an existentialist - had been decided for him some years earlier when he had been called to do his military service. On that occasion, Sartre's poor eyesight, which at times allegedly gave him "troubles de l'equilibre", resulted in his being excused from full military duties and assigned instead as a clerk to the army meteorological office at Tours.
Thus, when he was mobilised with the outbreak of the second World War, this valuable experience was duly noted and he was sent as a meteorologist to Brumath, a small town near the German border some miles north of Strasbourg. As de Beauvoir comments a little caustically in a diary entry for December, 1939: "As for Sartre, he continues to make weather observations and hang about the Brumath bars."
Sartre remained in Brumath until he was taken prisoner during the victorious German advance of the summer of 1940, and elsewhere in the letter already quoted, he describes his meteorological duties in some detail:
"My work here consists of sending up balloons and then watching them through a pair of field glasses; this is called `making a meteorological observation'. Afterwards I phone the battery artillery officers and tell them of the wind direction.
"What they do with this information is entirely their affair. The young ones make some intelligence reports based on it; the old school simply shove it in the wastepaper basket. In any event, since there is no shooting here at present, either course is equally effective. As for me, I am left with a huge amount of spare time on my hands, which I am using to complete my novel."