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Reality and myth - inside and outside
the Sartre-Beauvoir world

Review by Maria Antonietta Perna

The celebration in 2005 of the centenary of Jean-Paul Sartre’s birth brought with it a rich output of studies, articles and various intellectual events all over the world dedicated to the great French thinker. These renewed and heightened interest in Sartre and his life-long companion Simone de Beauvoir, their unconventional life-style, their varied and massive literary production and political stances.

Hazel Rowley has a long-standing familiarity with the Sartre-Beauvoir world: already in 1976 she was writing a doctorate thesis on Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialist Autobiography. On that occasion, she interviewed Beauvoir in her apartment in the Rue Schoelcher, opposite the Montparnasse cemetery. Among Rowley’s previous works is a biography of the American writer Richard Wright, who in his novels dealt with Sartrean themes of freedom and constraints in the context of Afro-Americans, and  figures among Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s close acquaintances.

Sartre & BeauvoirRowley’s new work* is not a biography of Beauvoir and Sartre. Rather, as she explains, it is “the story of a relationship” But, is it?  Although the main title is “tête à tête”, which points in the direction of the story being about a couple, the subtitle –  “the lives and loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre” - suggests a different theme. It would appear to refer to distinct lives and more than one love. This reading does most certainly reflect more truthfully the story told in the book, and most aptly so: the two writers’ lives were intertwined in a complex manner without ever forming either, de jure or de facto, a conjugal union, and their loves were lived on a “tête à tête”, although not exclusive, basis. Lovers were passed on from one to the other (usually from Beauvoir to Sartre when a young girl was involved), talked about, backbitten, pitied or, perhaps less frequently, praised for some personal quality or other.   

This is, in the author’s words, “… certainly a great story. Exactly what Sartre and Beauvoir always wanted their lives to be”.  The pivot of Rowley’s narrative is the “biographical illusion” to which both Beauvoir and Sartre were prey. This is the illusion that one’s life coincides with one’s idea or image of it, in other words, a mythologised life. It ought to be said, however, that Sartre was explicitly aware of the bad faith of this attitude, and he relentlessly attempted to rid himself of it. Rowley fully succeeds in placing herself both inside and outside of the Sartre-Beauvoir world, thus delivering to us not only a lively and engaging picture of it, but also a sense of the mismatch between reality and myth, their life as told from the outside by those who had dealings with the two writers and the stories Sartre and Beauvoir told themselves and others about their life.

The thirteen chapters are divided out on the basis of a chronological sequence: from 1929, the year when Sartre and Beauvoir first met as members of the same study group preparing for the agrégation in philosophy, the national teacher’s examination, until 1986, the year of Beauvoir’s death. Through Rowley’s narrative we are made to feel the refreshing hopefulness which filled the young Sartre and Beauvoir as they dreamed of their adventurous life as future famous writers, of the many places they would see and the people they would meet. We become privileged spectators of Sartre’s relentless pursuit of young women and the disquieting streak of sado-masochism of his seductive tactics.

Lucidly aware of his decidedly ugly appearance, Sartre had recourse to other talents for his conquests: stubborn persistence, especially in the face of resistance, and a wonderful mastery of the French language got him the girl in the end. The outbreak of World War II shattered the absolute freedom and the open future with which these individualist thinkers experienced the world as newly appointed young lycée philosophy teachers. Rowley follows Sartre and Beauvoir as they say good-bye at the Gare de l’Est and Beauvoir “watched him walk down the platform with a rapid, determined step. He looked small and vulnerable, and she could tell from his back that he was tense”.

The experience of the war was a watershed in Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s lives: they acutely realised how their situation and actions were heavily dependent on and shaped by socio-political forces outside their control. The Other broke into their world as a brute, inescapable given to be reckoned with. During his days as prisoner of war, Sartre savoured communal life and as soon as he was allowed to go back to Paris he got himself very busy with the organisation of Socialism and Liberty, a clandestine resistance group mainly made up of writers. This was a radically new Sartre, as Beauvoir notes in her memoirs: “That evening, and the next day, and for several days thereafter, Sartre completely baffled me, … We both felt that the other one was speaking in a completely different language.”

From then on, Sartre was always to be found actively participating as writer and intellectual in the historico-political events of his time, tirelessly championing the cause of the oppressed, more often than not taking up positions which went outrageously against the main current, if he thought this was a necessary move in his battles against exploitation and imperialism. His fellow-travelling with the Communist Party is a case in point: “At the very time when most Western intellectuals were distancing themselves from Stalinism, Sartre was writing The Communists and Peace, a passionate defence of the Communist Party. The support for communism started to show visible cracks when the Soviet Union sent tanks to Budapest killing hundreds of Hungarians in 1956 and came to a definite close with the Spring of Prague, when in August 1968 Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia. On this occasion, Sartre gave an interview calling the Soviets “war criminals”.

In light of the contemporary political situation, it is of extreme interest to go back to Sartre’s writings regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rowley aptly highlights the acute dilemma Sartre and Beauvoir faced when asked to voice their view on the thorny issue. They had friends on both sides. Further, experiencing anti-Semitism in occupied Paris during the Second World War, led them to a pro-Israel stance. On the other hand, and Beauvoir did not completely share Sartre’s view on this specific point, Sartre was “dismayed by the policies of the Israeli government, who seemed determined to make negotiation with the Palestinians impossible”.

Rowley’s insights into the manner Beauvoir and Sartre chose to live their sexuality are presented with both accuracy and delicacy. Sartre, being a male member of the bourgeoisie, had it easier than his female companion. It was certainly much less severely chastised, or at least he escaped the harsher consequences which were in store for women, for not complying with the sexual morality of Catholic France. Beauvoir’s Sapphic relationships with some of her young students, about which she was never publicly candid for obvious reasons, gave rise to rumours and, eventually in March 1942, to an official complaint lodged by the mother of Nathalie Sorokine, one of Beauvoir’s girl students.

Although all the members of the Sartrean “family”, as those belonging to the close circle surrounding Sartre and Beauvoir called themselves, lied about the nature of the relationship between the young Sorokine and Beauvoir, and nothing could be proved with regard to the alleged misconduct on Beauvoir’s part,  the Rector of the University of Paris, a supporter of Marshal Pétain, decreed that it was inadmissible to keep Beauvoir in the teaching corps. In the end, Beauvoir was dismissed, although her position would be restored by 1945 after the war, on the grounds that “she was unmarried and had lived… in a relationship of concubinage with Sartre. She did not have a permanent home, she lived in hotels, corrected her students’ work in cafés, and at a time when France was urgently trying to restore moral values, she taught the homosexual writers Proust and Gide.

It was Sartre who initially set the rules of their relationship. What he proposed was a “two-year lease”. While he was doing his military service, they would see as much of each other as possible. At the end of those two years, when Sartre’s military service was finished, he envisaged a period apart.  Beauvoir, Rowley writes, “dreaded the idea of long separations. But for the time being, two years seemed a long way off, and she did her best to suppress her fears. She knew Sartre would regard them as a weakness”. Despite all the difficulties, Beauvoir kept to the unconventional path she had chosen and came out a winner. She had an intense and passionate love life and an exceptionally successful career as an intellectual and novelist of the first order. Furthermore, as later she became the “official memoirist” of the Sartre-Beauvoir couple, hence the one who constructed the “public image” of the couple, it might be concluded that this position considerably empowered her in shaping the terms and tone of her relationship with Sartre.  

Certainly the famous “pact” between Beauvoir and Sartre at the beginning of their relationship is the most blatant example of the “biographical illusion”, especially as far as Beauvoir was concerned. Sartre’s idea was that they were “two of a kind” and that their love for each other was “essential”; however, they should not deprive themselves of “contingent affairs”, that is, temporary affairs with other people. It seems that Beauvoir went along with Sartre’s view of their relationship, although 20 years later in The Second Sex, she came to the realisation that a woman, far from being one of the same kind with man, that is, the equal of man, takes second place. On the other hand, little contingency is to be found in some of the relationships the two writers had with other people. Beauvoir’s love affairs with the young Jacques-Laurent Bost, Nelson Algren, Claude Lanzmann and Sylvie Le Bon, her adopted daughter, were long-lasting and highly significant.

Sartre went even further. He supported a number of people, friends and acquaintances, and generously worked towards meeting both the financial needs and the professional aspirations of many among the women with whom he had intimate relationships. The two Russian sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakievicz, Michelle Vian, Evelyn Rey (Lanzmann), and his adopted daughter Arlette Elkaim, to name a few, were never forsaken by Sartre, who was always ready to write plays for those who exhibited acting aspirations, offer financial assistance, buy apartments to one or the other.

Perhaps, Beauvoir was under the impression that the commitment to telling each other everything, especially in regard with their love life, which was part of the “pact”, singled her relationship with Sartre out in respect of other relationships which both she and Sartre were entertaining with other people. If this was the case, then she could not have been more mistaken. It seems that Sartre, for better or for worse, did not refrain from discussing Beauvoir with some of his other lovers. Also, Olivier Todd’s book Un fils rebelle dealt a further blow to the myth of the “pact”. Rowley reports that in his book Todd relates a conversation he once had with Sartre. To Todd’s question as to how Sartre could possibly cope with all his women, especially given that some of them were extremely jealous, Sartre answered: “I lie to them.” Todd pressed on:  “To all of them?”. “To all of them”. “Even to the Beaver?”, which was Beauvoir’s nickname, asked Todd. :  “Surtout au Castor” (particularly to the Beaver), Sartre replied. That Beauvoir was hurt by this conversation as she read it in Todd’s book, might be taken to indicate that she still firmly and in good faith believed in a “pact” which looks more and more mythical as the lives of these two extraordinary writers unfolds and, even more, as new accounts, letters, and various documents are being published or being made known to the wider public since their death. Eventually, Beauvoir got her “revenge” by claiming in Adieux that Sartre had only a very superficial relationship with Todd, whom he did not like very much at all, and, as far as I am aware, Todd still delightfully recounts the above “damning” conversation with Sartre to this day.

In my view, where the “necessity” of the Sartre-Beauvoir relationship might lie is not so much, or simply, between them as individuals, but between each of them and the dedication to writing and living according to what they saw the life of a committed writer should be like. This is a hypothesis that I would like to put forward which is not explicitly stated by Rowley, but could nevertheless be gathered from the pages of her book. In fact, it seems to me, as Sartre’s intellectual concerns shifted towards dialectics and Marxism first, and towards the view of the engaged intellectual involved in street action with the masses later in 1968, so he became more and more independent from Beauvoir.  Benny Lévy, alias Pierre Victor, the Maoist leader who first approached Sartre for help with his political group and newspaper La cause du people, became more and more involved with Sartre’s later work in the way that Beauvoir had been for so many years in the past.

In a similar way, Beauvoir’s life took a more independent path by becoming more and more involved in the feminist movement. This is not to say, however, that the two writers altogether stopped co-operating on intellectual projects or that their affection towards each other was in any way diminished: Beauvoir still read to Sartre and interviewed him after he became blind during the last years of his life and looked after him, taking turns with “his other women”, throughout the period of Sartre’s ill health until his death in 1980. Perhaps, Sartre’s last gestures towards Beauvoir as death was approaching might throw some light on what the two writers meant when they labelled their relationship “necessary”. The day before he died, on April 13, Sartre took Beauvoir’s wrist, his eyes closed, “I love you very much, my dear Beaver” he said, and the last kiss before his death was for Beauvoir. “These were not words Sartre usually said,” Rowley points out. “‘This was not a gesture he usually made. [Beauvoir] understood.”

Beauvoir and Sartre have never appeared so “true to life” as in this book. Similar to the characters in a well-written novel, they are revealed in all the depth of their qualities and weaknesses, their anxieties and failings as well as in their exceptional talent, achievements and generosity. Rowley’s fresh narrative is copiously interspersed with the two writers’ literary production, including their novels, which in fact are deeply steeped in autobiographical events. In view of the author’s ability to contextualise the biographical material within the appropriate historical co-ordinates, as well as relating the biographical elements to the intellectual ideas expressed in Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s major works in a way that is both accessible and to the point, this volume is highly recommended as a serious introduction to the two French writers’ work. In addition it is an extraordinarily absorbing story of the loves and unconventional life-style of two of the most renowned writers of the 20th century.

Tête à Tête: The Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre,  Hazel Rowley.
London: Chatto & Windus, 2006, ISBN 07011 7508 7, pp.429 £20.00

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