A review of Bernard Henri-Levy's Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century (unfortunately featured at Arts & Letters Daily) that couldn't be more wrong about Sartre.
The reviewer, Brian C. Anderson, offers up this thesis: "What Sartre actually offers us is a paradigmatic example of the leftist mind, in all its dodgy enthusiasms." Putting aside for the moment that Anderson's own account of Sartre's career belies this statement, Sartre was not "paradigmatic" of anything except his own thinking and writing. He's become a handy tool to use in bashing left-of-center thinkers, writers, and ideas (even just poor tepid liberalism), and this to a significant extent through his own mistakes: his later Marxist and Maoist phase was indeed "dodgy," his actions and statements frequently obnoxious and just plain stupid.
But his fiction up to the 1950s, as well as at least Being and Nothingness among his philosophical works, remain essential reading. Even Anderson admits to the value of this work, although his praise is grudging enough. (He is wrong to say that the fiction and drama of this earlier period should be read as "a description not of a permanent truth of man’s fate but of the predicament of a certain kind of modern man." These works precisely describe a "permanent truth of man's fate.") No one who reads Nausea shorn of the preexisting animus expressed by Anderson could say it does not remain a readable and affecting novel.
Moreover, the idea that Sartre's misguided politics were somehow an intrinsic feature of his philosophy is simply incorrect. There's nothing inherently leftist, much less Marxist, about existentialism. If there was, such concerted efforts to hold up Camus as a cold-warrior alternative to Sartre as have been made would not be possible. Nausea and Being and Nothingness were not the products of the "leftist mind." The review's biographical sketch of Sartre itself shows that his leftism was something Sartre came to embrace, not something latent in the earlier books. One could argue that Sartre willfully distorted these early ideas in order to justify his politics, but this was a weakness in the man, not in the ideas.
Anderson doesn't really bother to seriously critique Sartre's work, anyway. He contents himself with ad hominem attacks against both Sartre and Henri-Levy, along with a heavy barrage of adjectival bombast--"nihilistic,""nasty,""relativistic," "atheist." I'd be willing to bet that, despite the attempt by those like this reviewer to bury Sartre, his work will still be read well into the future and he will be considered an original thinker and important writer--both in philosophy and in literature. Perhaps Henri-Levy's biography will help to hasten this process, although one suspects that the possibility it might do so is one reason this review has appeared.
One of the things the review also points up is the inadequacy of using biographies of writers as a way of assessing that writer's body of work. Inevitably the focus of such reviews returns to the limitations and foibles of the man or woman in question, and the work becomes a way of exemplifying these "character" traits. Sartre may have been, at various times, maybe even most of the time, an unpleasant man, but this says nothing about the abiding merits of his best books.