books

Being, nothingness, and lusting after babes

For 51 years, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir stayed true—in their own extraordinary way

BRIAN BETHUNE November 21 2005
books

Being, nothingness, and lusting after babes

For 51 years, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir stayed true—in their own extraordinary way

BRIAN BETHUNE November 21 2005

Being, nothingness, and lusting after babes

books

For 51 years, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir stayed true—in their own extraordinary way

BRIAN BETHUNE

Almost from the time in 1929 when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir finished first and second in the agrégation, France’s gruelling, nationwide teacher examinations, the two philosophers have been inseparable in the public mind. After the Second World War, they emerged as perhaps the most famous intellectuals in the world. Novels like Nausea, plays like No Exit and existentialist classics like Being and Nothingness eventually brought Sartre the Nobel Prize; de Beauvoir’s fame rests on her groundbreaking feminist work, The Second Sex, and her achievements as a memoirist. And they accomplished all of it within the context of their famous commitment to one another, a 51-year relationship as unconventional as it was enduring. It lasted until 1980, when Sartre died—she joined him in a dual grave in 1986. They never married or even lived together, and openly had other lovers (sometimes shared). But, no matter whom else they dallied with, they told each other everything— their relationship, in his words, was “absolute” and, above all, “transparent.”

Indivisible in life and death, Sartre and de Beauvoir are now the subjects of Tête à Tête (HarperCollins), Hazel Rowley’s extraordinary new biography. The book was no easy task for Rowley, a fine writer and a huge fan of the couple (especially de Beauvoir) who worried that the petty—and frequently sordid—details of their lives might end up trivializing the two.

Born in London and raised in Australia, Rowley, now 5 3, studied French in Adelaide in the late 1960s, during what she calls “the tail end of the era when people still got married within a year of leaving school.” That idea horrified Rowley, and when she discovered de Beauvoir, it was an epiphany: “Her life struck me as a much more interesting alternative. Here was a woman in an open relationship, a writer who travelled all over, had affairs, who lived in a world in which Ulysses and Penelope both went out and had adventures, and then came back and talked about it. For those two, everything was fodder for their writing.”

And that writing included hundreds of letters that caused a scandal when some of them were published after their deaths. The shock lay in what many saw as a spiteful hypocrisy. What “transparency” meant to Sartre and de Beauvoir was now clear: letter after letter mocks their other lovers, describing exactly what each writer was doing sexually, often with the same woman (even though de Beauvoir had always denied ever having lesbian sex). A recurring theme in their lives was to adopt a protege, like 17-year-old Olga Kosakiewicz, whom de Beauvoir met in 1933Two years later, the Frenchwoman proposed to the Russian refugee that she and Sartre take care of her and pay for her education.

The two women started an affair, and Sartre began his two-year pursuit of Olga. He never succeeded with her, but in 1937 he met her

equally beautiful younger sister, Wanda, and did manage to seduce her by 1939After the great moment, the philosopher—who was much more interested in seduction than the physicality of sex—left Wanda lying in her hotel bed so he could get to a café and write de Beauvoir with the news. De Beauvoir, for her part, was troubled by the jealousy she felt over Olga, and wrote a novel, She Came to Stay (l943), in which the de Beauvoir char-

They mock their other lovers, describing what each writer was doing sexually, often with the same woman

acter kills the Olga character. That seems to have purged de Beauvoir’s feelings—she dedicated the novel to Olga.

The triangles—and the writer’s material they provided—continued for most of their lives. That they rarely brought de Beauvoir and Sartre any trouble or even bad press is a tribute to their godlike stature—two personalities who had risen to the apex of a culture that treats its intellectuals like rock stars. (It’s possible to imagine a French reality TV show, an idole française, in which wannabe philosophers compete for a book contract and a reserved table in a chic café.)

Sartre eventually adopted one of his lovers, Arlette Elkaim, with whom he had an affair when he was 51 and she 19; de Beauvoir did the same with Sylvie Le Bon—Rowley believes the two were briefly lovers when Le Bon was 17 and de Beauvoir 42. (Le Bon has said only that the relationship was “carnal but not sexual,” whatever that Clinton-like comment might mean.) The two adoptees are now their parents’ literary executors and control access to correspondence. Both are now in their 60s, and live near one another in Paris, but don’t speak. Le Bon fully co-operated with Rowley; Elkaim did not. Because of the differences between French and North American copyright law—the latter allows “fair use” quotations from copyright material—HarperCollins has published two versions of Tête à Tête, with some references removed from the European edition.

FINALLY A BOOK ABOUT ...

Sartre and the mojito, not to mention other famous people and other famous drinks. Christine Sismondo’s Mondo Cocktail (McArthur) is an elegant and amusing volume of factoids you can serve up along with your gimlets. Some of the “facts” are more dubious than others—did Winston Churchill’s mother really invent the manhattan? As for the link between French philosophy and Cuban rum, maybe so, but it probably only becomes clear through the bottom of several mojito glasses.

Rowley does a marvellous job of sifting through this tangled web and putting it in context. She doesn’t flinch at any part of the couple’s lives. “Actually, I find them admirable. I don’t know anybody else who lived life as intensely. I don’t know how they managed to work so hard, write so much, drink so hard, sleep around so much. There’s something rather sweet about them.” M