All in the Family

Sylvia Lawson

On these two sacred monsters, the tally of evidence is still incomplete: there’s another volume of the translation of Lettres au Castor et à quelques autres to come, and Quintin Hoare has translated only two-thirds of the Lettres à Sartre. But you could already tabulate the chronologies into a glorious, full-colour-coded spreadsheet jigsaw, mapping the stories from the Sartre biographies (Annie Cohen-Solal, John Gerassi, Ronald Hayman) over those from the Beauvoir biographies (Deirdre Bair – very much the best; Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, Margaret Crosland). Check those against the crucial four volumes of Beauvoir’s memoirs, those translated as The Prime of Life, Force of Circumstance, All Said and Done and Adieux: A farewell to Sartre. Crosscheck against the documentary scripts, the recorded conversations and these letters, not forgetting to decode the pseudonyms in Lettres au Castor – here the surname Kosakiewicz becomes ‘Zazoulich’, ‘Tania’ means Wanda, ‘Louise Vedrine’ the turbulent Bianca Bienenfeld. Some foundation or other will undoubtedly fund further research into the files of Les Temps modernes and the Ohio State Nelson Algren archive.

You might get your PhD out of it, and maybe make another big fat book. The fact-gathering and fact-sifting will continue to serve careers; the publishing trade in big-name gossip and Great Love Affairs of the Century will go churning on. The yield of truth is something else; not only work for readers, especially on the primary texts, but engagement in a battleground. These gleaming tomes can each be rescued from the rigor mortis of the prestige commodity: how, and to what end, will depend which side you’re on.

As I write, they dominate my desk. Beside them, on a heap of stuff waiting to be filed or junked, a troubled image frowns up from a two-month-old Time cover, the chronically worried face of the most significant Western film-storyteller since Hitchcock. In a weekend colour supplement, he and female friend gaze behind the title ‘Woody’s Miasma’: around the local release of Husbands and Wives the promoters are cashing in heavily. On the radio, another reviewer drones away about how he couldn’t watch the movie without thinking about it ... (It was his problem; I had no trouble whatever.) However, it was nice to see the Allen/Farrow scandal upstaging Traditional Family Values at the time of the Republican Convention; it’s even nicer now to imagine these great Parisian shades cavorting in derision at the spectacle.

Is it possible (they would surely ask) that bourgeois liberal society still expects propriety from artists who are paid millions to be self-consciously eccentric? How could it be that M. Allen and Mme Farrow did not observe the distinction between essential and contingent loves? Had they no operative concepts of freedom and commitment; did their commitment not entail mutual honesty, and how was it that he did not tell her all about Soon-Yi? In these brave days of electronic mail why did they not fax their stories to each other at length? As for the army of sniffing commentators: can no one remember how it is for the young woman confronting the older man, so seductively marked by experience, so essentially powerful, always knowing you better than you know yourself?

The entire affair would, I imagine, have reminded them of their relations with Olga Kosakiewicz, who began as Beauvoir’s pupil and went on as Sartre’s lover, bringing her sister Wanda in on the deal as well. They were joined by Michelle Vian, by Evelyne Ray, by Dolores in New York, others from Greece, from the Soviet Union, from Algeria, from Brazil: Sartre collected young female acolytes at home and abroad much as Mia collects children, and for most of them Beauvoir was irrefutably a mother-figure. They were open-eyed about incest, that lot.

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