Letters to Sartre 
by Simone de Beauvoir and Quintin Hoare.
Radius, 531 pp., £20, December 1991, 0 09 174774 0
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Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvior, 1926-1939 
edited by Simone de Beauvior, translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee.
Hamish Hamilton, 448 pp., £20, November 1992, 9780241133361
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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.

If, in these deadly solemn times, it’s necessary to affirm proper abhorrence for sexual exploitation, it’s also necessary to insist that the author’s works, once afloat, are ours, not hers or his. The rush to discredit Woody Allen (mostly by reducing the stunning cinematic oeuvre to a feature story notion of his life) reminds me irresistibly of the way Beauvoir’s enemies, in several camps, seized on Lettres à Sartre when they emerged from Gallimard in 1990. So the great feminist, with the famous union libre, was actually passionate, vulnerable, anxious, competitive, not immune from jealousy – to wit a female human being? It was amazing, that anxiety to pounce – particularly since the letters transmit so much more good humour than bad, with the swapping of quotidian stories like a constant exchange of gifts, and the manifestly irrepressible pleasure of each in the other’s existence. Toril Moi has incisively analysed these and other attacks in her Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir, and she is right to discern real ad feminam viciousness in the assaults from both sectarian feminist and misogynist positions; often, sad to relate, it’s hard to tell the difference. Surveying the field in these pages. Elaine Showalter (14 June 1990) argued that no biographical revelations could undermine Beauvoir’s standing as a feminist: her ‘feminist credentials come from her writing, and from her years of staunch, courageous and generous support of ... the cause of women’s liberation around the world.’ All that’s true: The Second Sex remains the great monumental, irreplaceable essay on the subject – whatever its theoretical flaws, and with all those weirdly acrobatic goings-on between existentialism and humanist polemic. If the dubious transcendence/immanence binary was a blunt instrument, she managed to weld it onto liberal-empirical enquiry securely enough to do lasting damage to the most troublesome binary of all, male/female. Her long analyses remain valid, perhaps increasingly resonant, in a world where for millions of girls and women, and for men more equivocally, the 19th century is very far from over. The view that Beauvoir’s work could be disposed of in terms of her mother’s life in the pre-World War One Paris bourgeoisie is like reducing Freud to 1880s Jewish Vienna: it doesn’t account for what matters. Millett and Friedan – to name only two – could never have written what they did without The Second Sex as groundwork. Its feminist opponents are as much in Beauvoir’s debt as her many intellectual daughters: she gave them work (and tenured jobs) for life. Other debts are so large that we forget them, though we may owe our sanity and working lives to childcare centres, equal-opportunity provisions, the means of controlling fertility – and underlying all that, the massive shift of consciousness to which Beauvoir contributed inestimably.

Now, at least, those who assault her work in bad faith have to deal with formidable contemporary minds like Moi’s and Michèle le Doeuff’s (‘Operative Philosophy: Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism’). There’s an argument that her use of the Hegelian-Sartrean framework can be seen as something much more than the often alleged discipleship: she took it up vigorously and inventively, for her own polemic, her own agenda.

But – to take issue with Elaine Showalter – when all the works are taken in, essays, memoirs, fiction and that relentlessly reformist work on old age, she concerns us also as a figure in the landscape, larger and even less avoidable since her death; because, not in spite, of the life lived as it was; and the way you look at her relations with Sartre, with his own child prodigy’s life, and at their milieu is unavoidably a political matter. Some authorities insist on regarding her as a great philosopher’s rather tiresome consort: Arthur C. Danto, who wrote the lively Modern Masters essay on Sartre, is at pains to endorse Beauvoir’s own view that she wasn’t her partner’s intellectual equal. Sartre, he writes, ‘appears to have been spectacularly unfaithful’, and Beauvoir was ‘a willing victim’ in the sexual games; but after all ‘it did not seem to have embittered her own life. If anything her life was enhanced by it.’

That puts her back properly, in her woman’s place; and it sits oddly in an exposition of an oeuvre centrally concerned with freedom. As Sartre and Beauvoir shared that concept – however naively – from the outset, fidelity was a non-issue. It was Beauvoir who refused marriage, and who went off mountain-walking on her own in time they could have had together; thus empowered, she could write repeatedly: ‘We are one ...’ and ‘You’re my strength, my ethics, you’re all I have that’s good.’ It was Sartre who wrote thousands of things like: ‘I grabbed young Bost by a jacket button a little while ago and sang your praises, for the pure pleasure of talking about you. I love you, my darling Beaver’ and ‘For me you are solider than Paris, which can be destroyed, solider than anything; you are my whole life, which I will find again on my return ... Our lives have no meaning outside of our love ... nothing changes that, neither separation, nor passions, nor the war’ and he thanked her then – it was November 1939 – for ‘ten years of happiness’.

In the same period others, like Olga and Bianca, were favoured now and then with long, affectionate and sometimes passionate letters. Even then, as later, Beauvoir tolerated the polygamous needs and wants of the incorrigible philosopher-playboy; she also shared with him the financial responsibility for Olga, Wanda and numerous others over time – the Family (as they actually called it). Letters from military camp meticulously rehearse their finances: it turns out that he is entitled to his civilian salary after all, so he authorises Beauvoir to receive it, anxious about her side of it:

If you give them [the Kosakiewicz sisters] two thousand francs a month they can get by. My love, you don’t know how that relieves and pleases me. I’ll know that all my little family has enough money and security, and I won’t have the feeling – which was really beginning to gnaw at me – that it is you who are supporting the burden of the whole community.

These books give us the core of the fifty-year alliance – a decade of full, passionate sharing of themselves, transmuted into lasting habits of practical support, lasting mutual dependence. Probably the most uncomfortable fact about the letters is that they are love letters, from first to last; and that it was love conducted on terms not only uncongenial to the bourgeois family, but equally to crass post-Sixties notions of sexual liberation. As the stories go, by the time war experience had battered and hardened their notions of freedom, the sex had gone out of it; but the deeper commitment held good – with more dependence, it should be said, on his side than hers. For intellectual sharing no one replaced her, and scholarship will never disentangle her unstinting editorial work from the best of Sartre (whatever you think that is: I, however ungratefully, would trade all of Being and Nothingness and the now unreadable Roads to Freedom for Saint Genet and What is Literature?).

Dealings within the Family were perennially intricate, fraught, balletic. Maybe Beauvoir’s relations with Olga and others were actively lesbian, maybe they weren’t. Later on she vigorously denied it, but reading what she wrote to Sartre of Nathalie Sorokine – ‘I really love those wild, tender ways of hers’ – and of other competitors for her attention, you could have fooled us. And there was sauce for the goose, lots of it, with Jacques-Laurent Bost, Nelson Algren, Claude Lanzmann and others. When it comes to the Algren story especially, you’ve got to say: it depends what you mean by contingent.

What was more, Beauvoir, healthy creature that she was, never wanted to be completely responsible for the child Jean-Paul, whose life was really a bit like Picasso’s: the beginning, as a small male prince among doting women, giving rise to lifelong confidence in his right to play indefinitely across the range of literary forms, and otherwise to rush off, and be rushed off, wherever desire wafted. (Though as prodigies go, Sartre was decidedly nicer than Picasso.) Some dealers in meta-commentary get dreadfully stuck on content analysis: they count up the references to Beauvoir in the works on Sartre, then vice versa, and somehow conclude that the predictable imbalance proves her victimhood. That, too, depends on your reading position: I’d have thought it only demonstrated the misogyny of certain writers. If Beauvoir didn’t regard herself as a victim – and that’s the way it looks – we shouldn’t make her one; nor does it serve feminist interests, in general, to paint Sartre as any more mischievous than he was. In sober prose, the time-sharing tales from both sides sound ridiculous, but from this vigorous, dancing, performative correspondence you can see the salutary workings of comedy high as Congreve’s – or of Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters and Husbands and Wives.

All in the Family: as Edward Said has noticed, ‘childless couples, orphaned children, aborted childbirths, and unregenerately celibate men and women populate the world of high modernism with remarkable insistence.’ If, in privileging affiliation over kinship, the Beauvoir-Sartre crowd reproduced familial dynamics; if the whole scene became legendary and thus conventional, that doesn’t negate the value it had then as renewal, reinvigoration for life and writing. Beauvoir got so much out of it, developing those arguments for differences-within-equality, not the other way round; for releasing all human relations from the old categorical grids: ‘New relations of flesh and sentiment of which we have no conception will arise between the sexes ... already there have appeared between men and women friendships, rivalries, complicities, comradeships, chaste or sensual, which past centuries could not have comprehended.’ If she was waving towards the future in which we can (and do) live and breathe more freely than most of our grandparents dreamed possible, she was also working the materials of her own life, her present.

From 1939, she wrote, ‘history took hold of me, never to let go.’ And, as Sartre said later, history required the intellectual to be something more than ‘the petit-bourgeois with the bad conscience’. So they were together contre de Gaulle, for Algerian independence, in the streets for May ’68, around the editorial table at Les Temps modernes and through the travels chronicled – somewhat tediously, I grant you – in All Said and Done: the famous couple interminably meeting other famous people for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then life and politics, feminist political action, Sartre’s last groupies, all widened the distance between them: but the bond was fundamental. It required her presence as he cracked up, and they stayed best friends – to say the least – until death did them part. In the face of Adieux – the unsparing story of a writer’s disintegration, the amazing transcribed dialogues offered as a memorial – commentary falls silent: we are looking at another kind of fidelity.

There’s no call to idealise: granted they weren’t exactly heroes of the Resistance; granted they blundered, messed about, hurt themselves and others as you’d expect. But the past few years’ debunking has been sour, mean-minded, and in its own way, political: pull them back into line. As Toril Moi has argued, commentary has been especially tough on Beauvoir: the intellectual woman, stepping outside what’s become a comfortable feminist shopping-list of issues, is an irritant and a troublemaker still.

In a depressed, conservative, plague-ridden epoch it’s difficult, but all the more necessary, to take up their usable legacies. In their day, in other parts of the West, modernity meant building earthly heavens with dream kitchens and double garages; and selling, to acquire them, such intellectual and moral freedoms as might have been attainable. These Modernists lived for decades in cheap hotels, writing in rented rooms and the cafés where they ate, rejecting any domesticity they didn’t need, having good times, and never giving a moment’s thought to matching sets of anything. This wasn’t, of course, their special originality; it was the way a whole population lived; later, post-’68, other urban tribes took over what used to be called bohemianism, and got into some worthwhile social invention. Now, when non-affluent intellectuals once again haven’t much choice, it’s not a bad time to remember Beauvoir’s work table near her bed, and those hours of writing and editing in the Dôme and La Coupole.

As for the dazzling discovery that sexual/marital relations can remain highly-charged and creative, it holds good for other places, other people, other decades. You can argue, if it serves your turn, that the Sartre-Beauvoir compact failed to fulfil its radical aspiration, but at least – with not a franc spent on psychotherapy – it cut out any question of divorce. Beauvoir’s orbit barely crossed with Woody Allen’s. When, as Deirdre Bair records, they met briefly in Elaine’s in 1985, there was almost no conversation. Maybe it had all been said, in print, on film; maybe the comedian also knew, with proper melancholy, that Beauvoir’s city, many years before, had been a better place than his.

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Vol. 15 No. 1 · 7 January 1993

On Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, I wrote (LRB, 3 December 1992): ‘There’s an argument that her use of the Hegelian-Sartrean framework can be seen as something much more than the often-alleged discipleship; she took it up vigorously and inventively for her own polemic.’ ‘Argument’ was printed as ‘agreement’. There’s no agreement on the point at all. Some feminists think Beauvoir would have done more for the cause without the Sartrean baggage; others can see that she made it surprisingly useful, and eventually left it behind.

Sylvia Lawson

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