SARTRE: A LIFE By Annie Cohen-Solal Translated by Anna Cancogni
T.M. ROBINSON,ERNA PARISSeptember71987
Masks and moral icons
SARTRE: A LIFE
By Annie Cohen-Solal Translated by Anna Cancogni (Random House, 592 pages, $36.75)
When it was first published in France in 1985, Annie CohenSolal's epic biography of the
life of French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre won critical acclaim. Newly translated, it tells a story whose elements are already well-known: after all, Sartre spent much of his life talking and writing about himself. But Algerian-born scholar Cohen-Solal has a healthy suspicion of autobiography. Her work, based on careful study of Sartre’s immense output and interviews with an impressive list of his associates, corrects Sartre on several points. And her amendments make him an even more interesting person than he painted himself. Despite a wooden, at times unintentionally amusing translation, Sartre: A Life deserves many of the accolades the French have already accorded it.
Born in Paris in 1905 to a middle-class family and raised in the provinces, Sartre was a weak, odd-looking child. But by his mid-30s he had produced two books, Nausea and The Wall, which,
even had he vanished from the scene right then, would have won him a small but influential place in French literature. The Second World War and the German occupation of France jolted him
into confronting a more complex and dangerous universe in which political commitments were paramount. In particular, in The War Diaries he began developing the philosophy that others called “existentialism,” based on the idea that humans were doomed to be free—free to create standards for their own actions without reference to societal values.
For Sartre, that meant a political commitment to a postwar society combining the socialism promised by the Commu-
nist underground and the freedoms promised by the Gaullist resistance. Sartre called this the “third option”—a rejection of communism’s constraints on individual freedom and Gaullism’s lack of egalitarianism. His position failed to
attract other leading French thinkers, but it remained his ideal for most of his life.
After the war, as the philosophy of existentialism grew popular among European youth, Sartre became wealthy and famous, his works widely admired. Despite his reservations about communism, he was an active supporter of
the Soviet Union, but changed course in 1956 with Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations about brutality under Stalin. It was too late: many of his admirers branded him politically naïve and drifted to the camp of Albert Camus, who held that communism and existentialism were incompatible.
In his final years Sartre took up the cause of oppressed Third World peoples. But after backing the Algerian rebels against France, he found
himself labelled a traitor by many of his countrymen. Many remaining supporters abandoned him when he began to support the more radical version of revolution preached by China’s Mao Tsetung. Still, he pressed on, directing
barbs against the United States, the Soviet Union and the French Communist Party until his death in 1980.
Some readers may be disappointed at the scant space Cohen-Solal devotes to Sartre’s complex love life. For long periods he had several mistresses, meanwhile maintaining a long-term relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. The shifting patterns of Sartre’s love _ life masked a great deal of tension and jealousy and even—to borrow a key term of disapproval from existentialism’s vocabulary-bad faith on his own and others’ parts. Although Cohen-Solal fails to assess the implications of sexual politics on Sartre’s life, her book remains an impressive work of literary scholarship. But a complete picture will only emerge as more pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of Sartre’s experiments in human relation| ships fall into place.
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR:
A LIFE ... A LOVE STORY
By Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier (Methuen, U12 pages, $26.95)
In her memoirs and her fiction, Simone de Beauvoir told the story of her times: the Nazi occupation of
France, the postwar period in which
she and Jean-Paul Sartre reigned as high priestess and priest of the philosophical fashion—existentialism—and the conflicts engendered by France’s colonial war in Algeria. De Beauvoir loved ideas, debate, food, travel—and love itself. And she applied her formidable mind to writing the 20th century’s first and most important analysis of the condition of women, The Second
Sex. Because de Beauvoir did such a good job of self-promotion, it is disappointing to read Simone de Beauvoir: A Life ... A Lave Story. It is a biography devoid of analysis, or even a unifying thematic voice.
With the notable exception of The Second Sex, there was a distinct narcissism to de Beauvoir’s writing: she relayed all of French postwar culture
through the prism of herself and Sartre. To a degree, her approach was valid. By the end of the Second World War the French establishment was shifting. The political right was dishonored by its Nazi collaboration, and the Resistance had become the new heroes. In a country that revered intellectuals and needed to forget the past, the de Beauvoir-Sartre axis appeared at precisely the right time and place.
But far from analysing the two lovers, the book’s authors, Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, seem like enraptured fans carrying tape recorders. Indeed, they began their interviews by arriving at de Beauvoir’s doorstep to tape her reminiscences. Although their preface admits that she “willfully blurred some parts of her life,” their excessive admiration has effaced critical judgment.
Ironically, their reluctance to investigate only makes the questions they do not address all the more provocative. They hint at de Beauvoir’s passionate friendships with women, but are coy on the subject of whether she was bisexual. They also fail to determine whether de Beauvoir and Sartre engaged in real Resistance activities; in France it has long been rumored that they did not. De Beauvoir in particular tended to escape from reality. At an early stage in the German Occupation she signed a declaration that she was neither Jew nor Freemason—a true statement, but considered by many to be an act of cowardice. She then withdrew from public life, the authors report, and “immersed herself in Hegel.” During the early years of the Algerian War she again removed herself from the conflict, this time to write her childhood memoirs.
The authors’ approach trivializes the sexual relationships that both de Beauvoir and Sartre conducted, making their various loves read like a French bedroom farce. De Beauvoir dedicated her 1954 autobiographical novel The Mandarins to her American lover, Nelson Algren. At the time, she was living with film-maker Claude Lanzmann and continuing a relationship with Sartre—although, according to the book, de Beauvoir and Sartre did not actually sleep together after the late 1930s.
The original French edition of Simone de Beauvoir was published before her death in 1986. No doubt she enjoyed reading the authors’ melodramatic summation of her story: “The word for this [her life] is glory.” But readers may be sure that someone will see beyond the myth and eventually write a more insightful biography of Simone de Beauvoir.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.