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The Inseperables was unpublished in de Beauvoir’s lifetime, presumably because she did not wish it to be, but was found later amongst her papers.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 …