Elaine Showalter

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.

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