Book Review: The Age of Reason

Of all the French existentialist novels that share a title with a hit John Farnham song, this is probably my favourite. It holds extra significance for me as my reading of this book coincided with my fifth attempt at learning French. Although I read an English translation of The Age of Reason, the names of places and streets in the book were good practice for my pronunciation of the French R. Très difficile!

Philosophy teacher, Matthieu, values his freedom above all else. Between his job, friends, girlfriend and mistress, he has life running smoothly: maximum convenience, minimum responsibility. Then, a spanner in the works: his mistress, Marcelle, is pregnant. Over the next two days, as Matthieu scrambles around trying to obtain the money for an abortion, he discovers his life is not as sweet as he believed. His brother deals him some harsh truth, he realises his friends are outgrowing him, his girlfriend is losing interest, and Marcelle may want the baby after all. Matthieu has an opportunity to settle down like others his age, but years of devout hedonism may have numbed him to any genuine care for others. He is left to examine his ways as life and those around him move on.

Making a philosophy sound good is one thing (my Uncle Les was a convincing preacher of stoicism), but putting it into practice is something else (Les was also a drunk). Here, Jean-Paul Sartre does not merely spout a theory, but takes it, rolls it down the slope and sees how it snowballs. Matthieu’s life takes an unplanned trajectory, and we watch him deal with the consequences of his choices. It turns out the “freedom” he guarded at any cost may have just been irresponsibility, and now his pursuit of independence has played out to its conclusion: he is alone. And like the child Matthieu wanted dead, consequences are not always as simple to exterminate as we’d like. In our self-obsessed era, The Age of Reason holds much worthy of consideration.

If you like Dostoevsky, I recommend this book. It uses the kind of moral dilemmas into which he liked to plunge his characters, yet is a much quicker read than most of his novels. Then there’s the setting: Bohemian Paris is more pleasant than bleak Russia. One drawback though is the character names. I found the French names easier to pronounce, but not half as enjoyable as Dostoevsky’s Russian. Alyosha. Smerdyakov. Myshkin. Say them aloud. It’s fun, right?

The Age of Reason is an engrossing read with true to life characters, entertaining and thought-provoking. 8/10



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