In an uncharacteristic moment of playfulness during her affair with Nelson Algren, Simone de Beauvoir called herself his ‘frog wife’. Although it echoed his tough-guy slang about their Paris-Chicago romance, the phrase has the ring of feminist fable. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid, whose story Beauvoir wept over as a child, the frog wife is a changeling, unlike other women; pebbly and awkward, she cannot wed the prince. She is only his night-time consort in what Sartre and Beauvoir grandly termed their ‘morganatic’ marriage, waiting to be loved and released into her true kingdom of the body and mind.
Deirdre Bair’s massive and enthralling biography, the product of almost a decade’s writing and research, shows the steps by which Beauvoir lived out this ‘myth of femininity’, breaking away from the prudery and narrowness of a Catholic girlhood in which she was a brilliant, unhappy misfit, first to become La Grande Sartreuse, the high priestess of Existentialism, and then to win fame as the author of The Second Sex, the most influential feminist treatise of the 20th century. This was a life on the grand scale, which demands the expansive treatment Bair has given it. Beauvoir lived at the centre of post-war French intellectual ferment; in addition to her feminist and philosophical writings, she wrote six novels, four volumes of memoirs, and books on America, China, old age, sickness and death. As ‘Sainte Simone’, she became the mother of the modern women’s movement, a revered figure whose funeral was a great public event.
Yet Beauvoir has also been the subject of political, critical and feminist controversy. There were innuendoes at the very outset of her career suggesting that she had profited during the German Occupation, working every day in cafés frequented by Nazi propaganda officers and writing for German-controlled media. Certainly she was a political innocent at the beginning of the war, and Bair shows that while she and Sartre did not fraternise with the Occupation, ‘neither did they take heroic or extraordinary means to resist it.’ Criticism of Beauvoir’s writing, too, has always had a strong undercurrent of hostility and condescension. As Elaine Marks notes in her introduction to Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir, many who have written about her work present her as ‘a slightly ridiculous figure, naive in her passions, sloppy in her scholarship, inaccurate in her documentation, generally out of her depth and inferior as a writer’. While in an earlier generation many women regarded her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre as a brave and inspiring model of liberated sexuality, many feminists today see her lifelong insistence that his superior intellect entitled him to her unqualified service as a form of self-abasement that perpetuated the most conventional elements of male domination, and embraced women’s secondary status. And with the rise of Post-Structuralist feminist theory, Beauvoir has been criticised as an old-fashioned thinker and self-mythologiser, or even as a misogynist, whose work about women was a product of her distance from them.
Bair’s biography, and the recent publication of Beauvoir’s wartime journals and letters to Sartre, will fuel these controversies. In writing what was to be a definitive study, Bair, the author of a celebrated biography of Samuel Beckett, flew from Philadelphia to Paris every month from January 1981 to March 1986 for taped interviews with Beauvoir that lasted two to three hours. They form the most vivid and significant passages of the book, as Beauvoir, fortified by her customary shot of Johnny Walker, unflinchingly, if often irritably, responded to Bair’s questions about every aspect of her life from philosophy to menstruation and menopause. But when Bair complained about the lack of documentation, and questioned Beauvoir about the whereabouts of her journals and letters to Sartre, Beauvoir gave a variety of slippery replies. One response was the familiar self-deprecation: ‘Look,’ she told Bair in 1983, ‘my letters just are not interesting! Sartre was the one who wrote the interesting letters.’ Furthermore, she insisted, the letters had been lost or destroyed. But when ‘she was determined to persuade me to write her view of a subject or event,’ Bair writes, the letters magically reappeared, and were coyly displayed at a distance while Beauvoir read out selected bits. A few months after Beauvoir’s death in April 1986, her adopted daughter and executor Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir found the letters and began to transcribe their cramped handwriting (‘like Linear B’) for publication. While Beauvoir had heavily edited Sartre’s Letters to Castor (1983) – Castor, or Beaver, was the nickname bestowed by friends at the Ecole Normale Supérieure that Beauvoir used all her adult life – Le Bon wished to publish Castor’s letters to Sartre uncut: ‘Is it not desirable to tell everything in order to tell the truth?’ she writes in her introduction.
The letters are exhaustive accounts of what Beauvoir called ‘the daily dust of life’ during 1939-41, taking her from morning to night with every conversation, movie, book, meal and drink noted, and framed by lengthy endearments to Sartre. They give a detailed and cheerful account of her seduction of Sartre’s pupil, Pierre Bost. Repeated almost verbatim as the romance of Françoise and Gerbert in her first novel L’Invitée (She came to stay), the story clearly demonstrates the autobiographical sources of her early fiction.
What has scandalised the French are the revelations of Beauvoir’s affairs with Olga Kosakievicz (who later married Bost) and two of her other women students, all three also Sartre’s mistresses; and the coldness, even brutality, with which she discusses their physical and intellectual shortcomings. Summarising the reaction in the Guardian, Paul Webster sees Beauvoir as cynically ready to ‘exploit the weaknesses of disorientated girls, barely out of childhood, who sexually attached themselves to their teacher.’ The machinations, plots and secrets of Sartre and Beauvoir in managing their triangles and quadrangles of seduction remind him of Merteuil and Valmont. Commenting on Beauvoir’s hectic nightly rush around the cafés and boîtes of St Germain-des-Prés, and her rapid rotation of adoring lovers, Libération’s reviewer wrote: ‘it resembles the race of a hamster inside her wheel’. Another French journalist called the publication of the letters Sylvie Le Bon’s betrayal of Beauvoir’s memory.
Despite her bad luck in the matter of these letters, which can now be seen to contain information that Beauvoir concealed from her and that skew interest in the life towards the wartime years, Bair’s biography succeeds magnificently in its intentions. She anticipates the issues raised by the letters, and supplies the full context within which they can be understood and evaluated. Here is Beauvoir in all her contradictions, humourless, girlish, secretive, daring, dogmatic, adventurous, rigid and curious. It is a ‘feminist biography’, influenced by the theoretical work on women’s lives that has come out of women’s studies and feminist criticism; but it also respects Beauvoir’s wish for a biographer ‘who will write about all my work, not just my feminism’.
The major phases in Beauvoir’s personal development can be seen as the paradigmatic experiences of the woman intellectual: the father’s library; adolescent apostasy; rejection of the mother; vocational commitment; meeting with the male muse/ father/ double; sustaining female friendships. Beauvoir’s father supervised her reading and introduced her to French and English fiction. For him, she remembered, she was not a little girl, but ‘simply a mind’. When the family fell into financial difficulties after the war, Simone found a secret hiding-place under her father’s desk, where his letter opener, pens, blotter, scissors and inkpot became icons of patriarchal magic. Her fantasies of adult fulfilment, maintained until her death, were always of herself and another shadowy person sitting at their desks writing in a sun-filled room. When as a teenager Beauvoir read an illustrated article about a woman philosopher, ‘seated at her desk surrounded by books and papers, while her “niece”, whom she adopted and of whom she was very fond, hovered nearby’, it seemed like a perfect life. This was a scene of purposeful tranquillity which she tried to re-create, first with Sartre and then, more successfully, with a younger lover, Claude Lanzmann. They started living together in 1950. ‘On the first morning,’ Lanzmann recalls,
I thought to lie in bed, but she got up, dressed, and went to her work table. ‘You work there,’ she said, pointing at the bed. So I got up and sat on the edge of the bed and smoked and pretended that I was working. I don’t think she said a word to me until it was time for lunch.
In her relationship with Sylvie Le Bon, Beauvoir finally achieved the balance of literary productivity and loving companionship that had been her dream.
While she worshipped her father’s intelligence, theirs was strictly ‘a love affair of the mind’. He never embraced his daughters, and indeed, Beauvoir later said, ‘there was no human rapport with him.’ Affection, touch, physical attention came from her mother, but she also represented all the Catholic, bourgeois, expressive and feminine values that Simone despised. At the same time, the intellectual bonds with her father began to fray. When Simone was 12, he told her that she was ugly; sixty years later this was still a painful memory. At school she dragged behind her ‘the crippling shadow of the first-class pupil’. Clumsy, shy, disgusted by her own changing body, and repelled by her parents’ sexuality (‘42 then, and they were still fucking,’ she told Bair), she turned to fiction for role models. Her dreams were fed by books, especially Little Women and The Mill on the Floss; in Jo March and Maggie Tulliver, she found rebellious heroines who gave her hope: ‘It did not matter much if society was cruel, because I too would be superior and find my place.’ This book-nurtured faith sustained her through her first romance with her cousin Jacques and gave her the confidence to avoid marrying him. In an early journal entry she was already sure of her own desires: ‘I want my life to be an all-consuming passion. I need to act, to give freely of myself, to bring plans to fruition: I need an object in life, I want to overcome difficulties and succeed in writing a book. ... I could never be satisfied with the things that satisfy him.’
At 20, Beauvoir made the first major break with her family when she took the entrance exams to the Sorbonne to study philosophy. There she saw Sartre, already a legend at 22. He was famous for failing his exams (in his efforts to achieve dazzling and unprecedented originality he had neglected to answer the questions), for cutting classes, for throwing water-bombs out of the window and yelling ‘Thus pissed Zarusthustra!’ and for his powers with women. Unlike the insecure Simone, Sartre was confident that he was a genius. On their first date he invited her to his squalid rooms to discuss Leibniz; although he was tiny, walleyed, pock-marked, dirty and badly-dressed, she was thrilled to be singled out.
When he took first place in the agrégation, and she took second, the myth of his superiority was established for ever, although the members of the examination committee later agreed that the results were a fluke: Sartre came first because he was the normalien and had failed before. As one professor recalled, ‘of the two, she was the real philosopher.’ Yet Beauvoir would always insist that while he was a philosopher, she was only someone who liked philosophy. It was Sartre who quickly set the terms for their relationship; the love between them was ‘essential,’ but both would also be free to experience other love affairs that were ‘contingent’. They made a pact: ‘Not only would we never lie to one another, but neither of us would conceal anything from the other.’ What this came to mean is that Sartre was essential for Beauvoir, while she was contingent for him.
Bair calls Sartre the ‘secret sharer’ in Beauvoir’s biography, and ruefully points out that while Sartre’s biographer Annie Cohen-Solal ‘speaks briefly and succinctly of Beauvoir’, Sartre figures on virtually every page of Beauvoir’s life history. Without ever stating a judgment, Bair provides a subtle and unsentimental analysis of the Beauvoir-Sartre pact, its advantages and its enormous costs to Beauvoir over the years, and its gradual changes and rifts. The list of Sartre’s ‘romances and liaisons’ is one of the longest entries in the index, and both Beauvoir’s autobiographies and the depressing memoirs of Liliane Siegel, one of his clandestine mistresses at the end of his life, indicate that it is very far from complete. He wrote or told Beauvoir about these conquests ‘in disgusting physical detail’. Deceptions were frequent despite their pact. According to Olivier Todd, Sartre readily admitted that he coped with his many women by lying to them. ‘ “You lie to them all?” inquired Todd. “To them all,” replied Sartre with a smile. “Even to Castor?” “Especially to Castor.” ’
In his amorous relations with women, Sartre comes off very badly, less monstrous than comic, an affectionate little guru who preferred his girlfriends to be short (Beauvoir wore low heels and stooped), young and willing to fit into his life, and who bolted or called Beauvoir to play the heavy whenever a woman was so obtuse as to make serious demands on him. In the most extreme of these episodes, his American mistress Dolores left her husband and moved to Paris mistakenly expecting that he would at the least live with her rather than with his mother; a long trip they took together was a disaster, since in Bair’s hilariously understated account, ‘Sartre was not a good tourist ... Monuments and museums bored him, nature disgusted him, and he was suspicious of most native foods. He always came down with a strange indigenous malady in almost every country he ever visited.’ Sartre’s serene self-centredness sometimes boggles the mind: when he was threatened by letter bombs during the Algerian War, he had his girlfriends and his mother open his mail.
The endless devotion of these women to Sartre makes demoralising reading. They competed for space in his calendar: ‘We’ll see each other on Tuesdays from half past four to eight o’clock,’ he told Liliane Siegel. ‘That’s the only time I have.’ They queued for the privilege of sleeping with him, taking him to the doctor, decorating his apartment, and visiting his mother; by the end of his life there was a cadre of young women ‘baby-sitting Sartre’. If her students resisted his advances, Beauvoir was as shocked and affronted as she would have been had they rejected her; when Nelson Algren said she had pimped for Sartre, he was not far off the mark. Sartre had to have women around to attend him because men lacked sacrificial flair. When Sartre learned that he was going blind, he decided that his young male disciple, the Maoist Benny Lévy, should read to him six hours a week. Siegel was dispatched to bear the message, but to her amazement, Benny not only did not weep with joy at this great honour, but actually announced that he had other things to do. Siegel herself was often unhappy, but believed that she had no choice: ‘One does not break with Sartre.’
With regard to Beauvoir, there were affirmations of love and support, but also humiliating betrayals, as when, having left her to manage all the practical business of Les Temps Modernes, he dedicated the first issue to Dolores; or when he adopted Arlette Elkaïm and made her his heir. Love-making between them quickly subsided, leaving her with awakened sexual feelings which seemed like a ‘shameful disease’. But she always let his interests, work and needs take precedence over her own. ‘His work was more important than mine,’ she told Bair. ‘I discovered that he was far more creative than I. Naturally I bowed to this and put it before my own. I would have been very silly not to.’ When he needed a diary during the war, she bought him expensive leather-bound notebooks, while she herself wrote in cheap children’s exercise books. Initially because ‘he was too busy,’ and later when he was dazed by alcohol and drugs, she sometimes wrote articles that appeared under his byline. If she felt anger and regret, she never expressed it to anyone, although she suffered psychosomatic illnesses, drank heavily, and often broke into uncontrollable sobbing in cafés. As in childhood she had turned to reading for solace, so as an adult she channelled the emotions that could not be spoken into her writing; her stories and novels frequently deal with women’s corrosive jealousy.
Although Sartre and Beauvoir maintained their bond until his death, in their later years there were ideological and intellectual differences that separated them. As she began to work on The Second Sex, applying Existentialism to the question of sexual identity, Beauvoir was shocked to discover that women had only a marginal place in the system. The more she tried to emphasise the similarities between herself and Sartre, the more stunned she was by their differences. She was baffled by and hostile to many of Sartre’s political obsessions. Bair has argued in an essay about Beauvoir’s letters (Guardian, 15 March) that they were ‘competitive in a very real but probably unconscious sense. ... from their acolytes and lovers, to their social life, writing, and travel’. The shrine to Sartre in Beauvoir’s apartment was a plaster cast of his hands, surrounded by dead plants and wilted bouquets. Was this peculiar floral tribute a manifestation of her unconscious resentment or only a sign of her terrible housekeeping? Was Adieux, her catalogue of his physical decline and death, a castration or a catharsis? In Bair’s view, the intimacy between Beauvoir and Sartre became the very groundwork of her identity, and by sheer force of will Beauvoir made it a great and liberating friendship, if not a passionate and enduring romance.
The question of lesbianism is even more complex. Beauvoir always vehemently denied that she had had sexual relationships with women. She said in an interview with Alice Schwartzer in 1984, ‘Every woman is a bit ... a bit homosexual,’ while claiming that she herself had never felt ‘erotic passion’ for a woman. In her correspondence and conversation she frequently referred to homosexuals as pansies or dykes. Nevertheless, intense, romantic and intimate relationships with women are spread out throughout her life, beginning with ZaZa, the beloved girlhood friend whose tragically premature death coincided with her own moves to independence. During the war, as the letters make clear, Beauvoir had rapports sexuels with her lycée students Olga Kosakievicz, Natasha Sorokine, and Bianca Bienenfeld. These were risky adventures; in 1943 Natasha’s mother complained to the Lycée Molière in Paris that Beauvoir had corrupted a minor. Although by this time the affair was over, and Natasha was living with a young Jewish man from Algeria, Beauvoir was dismissed from her job. The pattern was repeated twenty years later when the parents of Sylvie Le Bon read her diary, and ‘forcibly removed’ their daughter from Paris and Beauvoir’s ‘intense friendship’ until she reached the age of 21.
When questioned about lesbianism, both women reacted with anger, largely, Bair explains, because Beauvoir ‘feared personal embarrassment and possible professional reprisal for Sylvie’, who was following in her footsteps as a teacher in a lycée. As Sylvie described their relationship, it was ‘love between Castor and myself. What made it complicated is that neither one of us was prepared, especially me, to love someone who was a woman.’ Despite the 30-year difference in their ages, both rejected the mother-daughter analogy. ‘I am fortunate,’ Beauvoir modestly commented, ‘to enjoy a perfect relationship with both a man and a woman.’ After Sartre’s death in 1980, she adopted Sylvie, who became her legal executor and heir. ‘After all, it’s like marriage,’ she told the reluctant Sylvie, ‘because you share my name.’ Their life together seems indeed to have been the marriage of loving but independent equals she could not achieve as the frog-wife of Sartre or Algren; and it was during these last decades of her life that Beauvoir found in the women’s movement a cause of her own that gave her an identity completely independent from Sartre.
Summarising the French response to Beauvoir’s letters, Paul Webster has declared that ‘the correspondence will damage her reputation for anyone who considers her as an objective, intellectual, caring and dedicated feminist.’ This is nonsense. Beauvoir’s feminist credentials come from her writing, and from her years of staunch, courageous and generous support of abortion legislation, battered women’s shelters, women’s publishing, and the cause of women’s liberation around the world. That as a young woman she was sexually and emotionally involved with some of her women students, even that she wrote harshly about them, hardly makes her an outcast. To have had a less-than-perfect personal life weighs no more against her intellectual achievements than it would against those of a man – against Sartre, for example, whose philosophical and literary works have not been discredited despite the fact that he happily took everything young women had to give him up to the day he died. The pious abuse heaped on the letters is only the most recent manifestation of the resentment that has always greeted Beauvoir’s powerful and uncompromising work. As Toril Moi has argued in an important essay on Beauvoir’s critical reputation, the sexist critics’ ‘favourite strategy is to personalise the issues, to reduce the book to the woman: their aim is clearly to discredit Beauvoir as a speaker, not to enter into debate with her.’ History will have to establish Beauvoir’s place in feminist thought. In the mean time, Bair’s biography, a scholarly triumph that is also a moving and exciting story, will ensure that critics debate Beauvoir rather than patronising her.
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