The Inseparables, Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) were themselves pretty well inseparable but Sartre at least is not who this short work of autofiction is about, but rather de Beauvoir and her childhood friend, Elisabeth ‘Zaza’ Lacoin, given here the names Sylvie and Andrée. I mention Sartre because I became a Sartre fan at university and it is only through him that I have had any interest in de Beauvoir, who was of course a feminist icon and the author of The Second Sex (1949).

The Inseperables was unpublished in de Beauvoir’s lifetime, presumably because she did not wish it to be, but was found later amongst her papers. It is a slight work, 123pp without all the accompanying material – Introduction, translator’s note, Afterword (by de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter and executor of her will), and ‘Archive Material’, threatening to overwhelm the text and which consequently I have not read.

The story begins with Sylvie aged 9 and Paris under threat from the Germans. I think Hitler, Sylvie’s grandfather thinks Bismark (1870-71), but it is of course WWI. She is a good Roman Catholic child, at a Roman Catholic girls school.

The students sat around an oval table covered in black moleskin, which would be presided over by our teacher; our mothers sat behind us and kept watch while knitting balaclavas. I went over to my stool and saw the one next to it was occupied by a hollow-cheeked little girl with brown hair

and so she meets Andrée, who had been “burned alive” and missed a year of school and now wished to catch up by borrowing the notebooks of the best student in the class, Sylvie of course.

This is an account of the two girls’ friendship, far more intense on Sylvie’s side than Andrée’s, over the next fifteen years, in which Roman Catholicism plays an important part – Sylvie contrasting the fading away of her own childhood faith with Andrée’s need to retain hers.

After their first summer apart, near the end of the War, they return to school –

… I suddenly understood, in a joyful stupor, that the empty feeling in my heart, the mournful quality of my days, had but one cause: Andrée’s absence. Life without her would be death.

Sadly for Sylvie, Andrée’s most important relationship is with her mother, who only grudgingly tolerates their friendship. Sylvie is always headed for an academic life. Andrée, though Sylvie’s equal in class as well as a gifted violinist, is headed only for marriage to ai suitable Roman Catholic boy.

When, at 13, Andrée forms a relationship with the boy next door to their country property she is fully aware of the carnality and sinfulness of their “innocent” kisses. The boy’s father is spoken to and he is taken out of harms way. Sylvie is reluctantly invited to spend the holidays, to divert Andrée, but she never fully understands. Even into her twenties Sylvie is largely impervious to sexual attraction.

At the Sorbonne, Sylvie takes philosophy and Andrée literature. Sylvie “continued to respect Christian morality” and is alarmed by the way her fellows talk and act. She becomes friends with a young man in her class, Pascal, an observant Catholic with “with impeccable manners and … beautiful angelic face.” She introduces Pascal to Andrée, and soon they are going out.

With her older sister married off, Andrée is the focus of all her mother’s attention. She wishes to marry Pascal but it becomes clear that Pascal is as locked in obedience to his father as she is to her mother. It all ends in tears.

This reminds me of those Evelyn Waugh novels where motivation may only be understood via the Byzantine ins and outs of Catholic reasoning. So, for instance Pascal agrees with Andrée’s mother that he should be kept apart from Andrée due to the inherently carnal nature of their attraction. But does it remind me of Sartre or indeed, of de Beauvoir?

Sartre is difficult to read, though I remember enjoying his war-time novels. He examines himself constantly, repeatedly, hoping to make a small progress each time. At the heart of his philosophy, and I think of de Beauvoir’s, is the demand that we be responsible for who we are.

On its face, this is a simply written text, an account of the difficulties Andrée’s faith leads her into, and Sylvie’s reaction. Perhaps the best I can say is that Andrée wants to be the person, the woman, God and her mother want her to be, and she finds this impossible to achieve.

.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Inseparables, Vintage Classics, 2020. Translated Lauren Elkin. Introduction, Deborah Levy. Afterword, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. 145pp

see also: Existentialism, Sartre (here)


From Hazel Rowley’s Foreword to de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (here).

Jean-Paul Sartre was a guiding force and moral support for Beauvoir, just as she was for him. He encouraged her, in the true sense of the word; he brought out her courage. During their long years of literary apprenticeship—years in which they both produced draft after draft that would end up, like their other manuscripts, relegated to a drawer—Sartre saw that Beauvoir was at her best when she portrayed her own experience. “Look,” he told her one day, as they sat in a noisy, smoke-filled Paris café discussing their work, “why don’t you put yourself into your writing?” Beauvoir writes that she felt the blood rush to her cheeks. “I’d never dare to do that,” she said. “Screw up your courage,” Sartre said.*

  That conversation resulted in She Came to Stay (1943). Inspired by the amorous trio Beauvoir and Sartre had formed with a young woman, the novel skated so close to real life that it shocked even their friends …

15 thoughts on “The Inseparables, Simone de Beauvoir

  1. I had this on my bedside table for Novellas in November, but didn’t get to it. (I read The Second Sex at the same time as I read Greer, Betty Friedan and Ann Summers, late 70s, early 80s.)
    I’ve only read bits of Sartre’s philosophy in some anthology of existentialism whose title I’ve forgotten, but I really liked The Age of Reason (translated by Eric Sutton). Is that one of the wartime novels you’re referring to?

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    • I have battered copies of The Age of Reason and The Reprieve on my shelves but, unexpectedly, no Iron in the Soul (now apparently ‘Troubled Sleep’). From distant memory The Reprieve covers the desolation of France’s defeat and invasion by the Nazis.
      I also have Intimacy but not Nausea. My ‘philosophy’ shelves have been unchanged for years. Time I went back there.

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  2. I have never read anything by de Beauvoir, although I am of course aware of The Second Sex. I hadn’t known about her connection with Sartre. Actually, I’ve always assumed Sartre was a misogynist because he’s my dad’s favourite philosopher – the Venn diagram of men my dad admires and virulent misogynists is very nearly a circle. I’m therefore surprised to hear that Sartre was partner to such a famous feminist, and fear I must have misjudged him!

    This sounds like it might be an interesting place to start with de Beauvoir’s work – I am always interested in reading about people’s relationships with faith and religion.

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    • Lou I often enjoy the same – people genuinely engaging with religious dilemmas, as often happens in C19th works though much less often in especially the late C20th (though, Australian Thomas Keneally’s early novels do, for instance).
      I forget a lot of what I once knew about Sartre and de Beauvoir. They were first and second in their Philosophy class at uni and became lifelong lovers, living separately, I think, and with an open relationship (and I admit that is usually code for the guy having other women).
      Dads are problematic, I know, but Sartre was as much anarchist as he was communist, and certainly, by Paris, May 1968 he had rejected the Party and moved to the left, so being pro-Sartre I would count as a point in your father’s favour. Society as a whole expected women to be subservient at least up until the 60s and whether Sartre was better or worse than average, I can’t say.
      The Inseparables is about that subservience and you will probably make more of it than I did.

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    • I could probably say the same about Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which I carried around with me for years. But last time I saw my battered old copy it was in my son’s mate’s bookcase and I didn’t have the heart to reclaim it.

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  3. I love reading about famous creative couples, like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I have The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas on my TBR, which is not really an autobiography but a book by Gertrude Stine, who wrote this book as if it were an autobio by her lover, Tolkas. Actually, according to the summary this book covers so much of the 1920s art and lit movement that I really should move it up on my TBR.

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  4. I’ve had The Dutiful Daughter on my shelves for a very long time, waiting patiently for her time to be read. I picked up The Inseparables a month or so ago, thinking that it’s much slimmer size would be more likely to attract me at this time. Alice B. Toklas is also waiting for her turn. I’m less interested in Sartre though and wish that more women penned philosophy. One day I will read Simone Weil too.
    My recent brush with Camus was interesting, but his views on government, politics and how society works are seen through such a male gaze that I found a real disconnect or distance between his world and mine.

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    • I wonder if I see politics with a male gaze. Probably! De Beauvoir is the only female philosopher I know of. Philosophers seem to be out of fashion these days, though every man (and woman) and their dog is a public intellectual. Perhaps I should move on now to Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (I looked that up) which I am sure is more – not thoughtfully, but more densely – written.

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  5. I am adding these lines to my post – from Hazel Rowley’s Foreword to Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter:

    Jean-Paul Sartre was a guiding force and moral support for Beauvoir, just as she was for him. He encouraged her, in the true sense of the word; he brought out her courage. During their long years of literary apprenticeship—years in which they both produced draft after draft that would end up, like their other manuscripts, relegated to a drawer—Sartre saw that Beauvoir was at her best when she portrayed her own experience. “Look,” he told her one day, as they sat in a noisy, smoke-filled Paris café discussing their work, “why don’t you put yourself into your writing?” Beauvoir writes that she felt the blood rush to her cheeks. “I’d never dare to do that,” she said. “Screw up your courage,” Sartre said.*

    That conversation resulted in She Came to Stay (1943). Inspired by the amorous trio Beauvoir and Sartre had formed with a young woman, the novel skated so close to real life that it shocked even their friends …

    Like

  6. I’ve seen this cover (imprint? series?) before and I always find it intriguing; then, when I think about this one, I don’t know if we’re edging into headless-women territory, but I still appreciate the fact that we can kind of imagine the characters’ faces in that kind of image, based on our own image of them. Kind of reminds me, with this orange, of the old penguin paperbacks, with a band of orange and the cover illustration. Likely I’ve said before that Sartre (and most of de Beauvoir, other than excerpts) is a gap for me.

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    • I hadn’t thought about the imprint – Vintage is owned by Penguin Random House. I see I have another, Bathes, Camera Lucida, a paperback and only the spine is red. I have The Inseparables in hardback and it is red all over (a deeper red than the photo). I hadn’t thought about the legs. It conveys a different impression than the standard headless woman don’t you think.
      Buying and thinking about this one made me pick up another Sartre, Nausea which I don’t have, though I did once.

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