A Dangerous Liaison: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, by Carole Seymour-Jones, Century, 574 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-1844138227
In the preface to her brilliant, devastating biography of existentialism’s terrible twins, Carole Seymour-Jones writes that “It would be wrong … to suppose that my admiration for both Beauvoir and Sartre … has been in any way eroded.”
The statement may have been a sop to Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Simone de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter and companion for the last twenty years of her life. As Seymour-Jones acknowledges, the book could not have been written without Le Bon’s help. To a detached reader, however – and all the more so to one whose French literature professors lionised the couple – A Dangerous Liaison dismantles another twentieth century icon. After reading Seymour-Jones’s impeccably researched and documented portrayal of the founders of existentialism, it is hard not to conclude that they were dreadful people: politically and morally reprehensible, and unwashed and smelly into the bargain.
Seymour-Jones seems to be saying that Sartre and Beauvoir’s hypocrisy, lack of scruples, self-obsession, lying, and what by today’s standards could only be labelled child abuse, do not lessen the considerable impact of their work, or the literary quality of a masterpiece like Sartre’s autobiographical Les Mots. Doubtless their respective oeuvres stand as great works of twentieth century literature. But at the end of this riveting book you are disgusted with both of them, and annoyed with yourself for being so puritanical.
Most reviewers have concentrated on the couple’s wild sexual lives (of which more later), but their political stupidity arguably ranks higher in the scale of immorality. Until the Second World War, both of these future champions of engaged literature were curiously uninterested in politics. During a stay in Berlin in 1933, Sartre managed to totally ignore the rise of Nazism. Neither of them cared less about the Spanish Civil War or the election of the left-wing Popular Front government in France in 1936.
Sartre and Beauvoir loved American jazz and cinema, but hated the US government. Soviet culture bored them, but they didn’t have the common sense to figure out that their judgement was flawed. Beauvoir wrote in the early 1930s:
Paradoxically, we were attracted by America, though we condemned its regime … while the USSR, the scene of a social experiment which we wholeheartedly admired, nevertheless left us quite cold.
The behaviour of Sartre and Beauvoir during and immediately after the Second World War is probably the greatest stain on their reputation. Sartre knowingly took a plum teaching post at the Lycée Condorcet when it was vacated because Henri Dreyfus-le-Foyer (a great-nephew of Captain Afred Dreyfus of the Dreyfus Affair) was sacked under the Vichy regime’s laws against Jews. “Careerist to the bone, it was his hunger for fame which led him to step over Dreyfus,” Seymour-Jones writes.
Far from opposing Vichy’s laws, Sartre took advantage of them. Though he denied it after the liberation of Paris, he wrote for the collaborationist weekly Comoedia. Jean Guéhenno, one of the principled writers who refused to publish during the occupation, wrote of Sartre and those like him:
Incapable of living a long time hidden, he would sell his soul in order to have his name appear. A few months of silence, of disappearance – he can’t stand it.
Sartre submitted his play The Flies to German censors and socialised with German officers who came to see it. When Simone de Beauvoir lost her job in 1943 for teaching the works of the homosexual writers Gide and Proust, Sartre got her a post at French national radio, which was by then part of the German propaganda machine.
Sartre and Beauvoir compare badly with Albert Camus, who was their friend for less than a decade. Camus risked his life by writing anti-Nazi articles in the Resistance newspaper Combat, and by using his office at the Gallimard publishing house as a maibox. Yet he was always modest about his role. Not only did Sartre reject every opportunity to play a role in the Resistance but when the Americans arrived in Paris, he considered them to be invaders, like the Germans. “The arrival of the American army in France seemed to many people, including myself, like a tyranny,” he wrote. Shortly after the Liberation, he added: “Never were we more free than under the Germans.” It was meant to be a boutade or witticism, signifying that freedom had to be a deliberate choice, especially under oppression.
Sartre nonetheless performed an amazing flip-flop, becoming a postwar spokesman for the Resistance. As Olivier Todd wrote: “The less they themselves had resisted, the more certain people wanted to punish others for having collaborated.” On principle, Camus – a true member of the Resistance – opposed the death sentence for the collaborationist newspaper editor Robert Brasillach, while Sartre and Beauvoir refused to sign a petition asking for a pardon. Brasillach was executed.
Years later, Sartre mendaciously wrote that he had “taken an active part in the Resistance on the barricades”. As Seymour-Jones comments in a rare ironic moment, “By then he probably believed it.” The philosopher’s fame as the founder of existentialism spread to the US, where the Atlantic Monthly claimed he had “devoted himself to underground activities with sublime courage, organising illegal publications (and) representing the most brilliant tendencies of postwar French literature”.
Abhorrence of the treatment of blacks in America was one of the few things Sartre got right, in the late 1940s:
In this land of freedom and equality, there live 13 million untouchables. They wait on your table, they polish your shoes, they operate your elevator, they carry your suitcase, but they have nothing to do with you, nor you with them … They know they are third-class citizens. They are Negroes. Do not call them ‘niggers’.
Yet even when he was arguably right – about independence for Algeria, the Vietnam War or the May 1968 riots – his extreme views undermined his position. In 1961, during the Algerian war, he advocated murdering Europeans in his preface to a book by the Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon:
In the first days of the revolt you must kill: to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses …
Sartre made a similar apology for violence in May 1968:
These young people don’t want the future of our fathers – our future – a future which has proved we were cowardly, worn out, weary … Violence is the only thing that remains, whatever the regime, for students who have not yet entered into their fathers’ systems … The only relationship they can have to this university is to smash it.”
Sartre and Beauvoir were willfully blind to the evils of the Soviet Union. They broke with Camus in 1952, in part because he condemned Sartre’s support for Stalin, pointing out the older writer’s “taste for servitude”. Jealousy and spite were also factors in the spectacular literary break-up: Camus had rejected sexual advances by Beauvoir, and he seduced one of Sartre’s mistresses, Wanda Kosackiewicz. Sartre asked an underling to demolish Camus’s book The Rebel in a review in Les Temps Modernes.
On returning from one of many trips to the Soviet Union in July 1954, Sartre said: “La liberté de critique est totale en URSS (There is total freedom of criticism in the USSR).” He later admitted this was a lie, saying “Obviously it’s not true yet. But if you want it to become so, you have to help them.” Little wonder Solzhenitsyn later refused to shake his hand.
Sartre had an excuse, however poor: he was besotted by Lena Zonina, a Soviet agent who served as his interpreter on his Russian visits. Zonina became his mistress and dutifully reported everything he said to the KGB. Jealous as she was of Zonina, Beauvoir, like Sartre, was a “fellow traveller” and propagandist for the USSR. In 1962 she claimed that the Gulag of Soviet labour camps were “really rehabilitation centres”, adding that the internees they met approved “in principle” of the system.
It was Sartre’s admiration for the USSR which led him to refuse the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964, though Beauvoir warned him: “People are going to think that you’re refusing it because Camus got it first.” He refused the prize, he said, because it “appears to be a distinction reserved to leaders of the Western bloc and rebels of the Eastern bloc …” He reproached the jury for having given the award to Boris Pasternak, disapproving of the fact “that the only Soviet work to be honoured should be a work published abroad and banned at home”.
·By the time he turned down the Nobel Prize, Sartre was supporting five women (not including Beauvoir) and he needed the prize money. “You’re spitting on 26 million (old francs)!” Wanda Kosackiewicz reproached him. In 1978, two years before his death, frail, diabetic and blind, Sartre boasted of having nine women in his life – not counting Beauvoir and her companion Sylvie Le Bon. The extended, incestuous “family” (as Sartre and Beauvoir called it) of mistresses and lovers was the end result of their famous pact, concluded on October 14th, 1929, which the couple celebrated for the next 50 years as if it were a wedding anniversary.
Sartre wanted to marry Beauvoir, whom he’d met that year at the École Normale Supérieure, but having witnessed her parents’ miserable marriage, she refused. Instead, they swore to maintain their “essential” love but allow other “contingent” loves on the side, on condition that they never lie to one another. Though infidelity has for centuries been a hallmark of French marriage, the idea of “transparency” was new, and would become a model for changing mores in the 1970s and ’80s. In her memoirs and interviews, Beauvoir, however, lied about the relationship, claiming she had never even kissed a man on the mouth before Sartre, and minimising her “contingent” loves, in particular her relationship with Jacques-Laurent Bost, one of Sartre’s students, with whom she had a long affair.
In fact, Beauvoir’s first lover was René Maheu, a married fellow student at the École Normale who gave her the lifelong nickname of Castor, the French word for beaver, which resembled her surname. Within ten days of the initiation of her pact with Sartre, Beauvoir was reunited with Maheu, and rejoiced in her journal at having him “in my bedroom … this enchanted room … How I love him!”
There was a basic imbalance in the relationship since while Beauvoir bordered on the nymphomaniac Sartre was not very interested in sex. Both had passed the daunting agrégation in philosophy that year. He was ranked first, she second. Sartre was assigned to a teaching job in Le Havre, Beauvoir to Rouen. In Rouen, she established a pattern she would repeat at least three times. She seduced an immigrant, teenage female student, in this case Olga Kosackiewicz, had a lesbian affair with her, then tried to pass her on to Sartre.
Sartre was suffering from depression provoked in part by a “bad trip” on mescaline, and Beauvoir dispatched Olga to Le Havre in the hope of cheering him up. She was annoyed by his breakdown, writing: “Psychology is not my strong suit. He had no right to indulge such whims when they threatened the fabric of our joint existence.” Though Olga always refused to sleep with Sartre, two girls later seduced by Beauvoir, Bianca Bienenfeld and Nathalie Sorokine, succumbed to his advances. Seymour-Jones documents his fetish with watching women make love. Both Sartre and Beauvoir confessed to a preference for virgins. When the couple did not share lovers, they wrote to each other in sadistic detail of their conquests.
For a man who did not enjoy sex, Sartre consumed an incredible number of women, who were attracted by his fame. Bianca Bienenfeld recalled that “Sartre was very ugly, with his dead eye. He was small, but with a big tummy.” Bianca was only seventeen when Sartre lured her to the Hotel Mistral in Paris, where he lived at the time. As they went to his room, he remarked: “The hotel chambermaid will be really surprised, because I already took a girl’s virginity yesterday.”
Beauvoir’s early stay in Rouen was particularly sordid. She and Olga settled in a seedy hotel:
Le Petit Mouton, with its tarts and pimps and fist fights, provided endless entertainment. [Beauvoir] had often resented sacrificing her adolescence to academic toil; now Olga enabled her to live out all her fantasies. The hotel was even more squalid than the Rochefoucauld [where they had lived earlier]. In bed, after a hasty supper of ham eaten from its greaseproof paper wrapper, Beauvoir would wake to the sound of rustling as mice dragged the wrapper from the waste-paper basket into which she had tossed it. At night she felt tiny paws pass over her face, although during the evening, when Simone and Olga played chess and drank cherry brandy, the rodents remained behind the wainscoting – not that the pair would have noticed. So drunk was Olga one evening that she rolled down the stairs and spent the night asleep at the bottom, until one of the tenants kicked her awake.
Olga was the first victim of Sartre and Beauvoir’s sexual adventurism. Seymour-Jones suggests that she “may have been violated by Beauvoir” and knew about Sartre’s rape fantasies, because he had written about them. The young woman began to mutilate herself. Sartre and Beauvoir recounted Olga’s self-mutilation in graphic detail in their fiction. In Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, Françoise (Beauvoir) and Pierre (Sartre) watch Xavière (Olga):
In her right hand she held a half-smoked cigarette which she was slowly moving towards her left hand. Françoise barely repressed a scream. Xavière was pressing the glowing brand against her skin with a bitter smile curling her lips. C’était … un sourire de folle, it was the smile of a mad woman …”
The older couple watch speechlessly as Xavière/Olga continues:
With her lips rounded coquettishly and affectedly Xavière was gently blowing on the burnt skin which covered her burn. When she had blown away this little protective layer, she once more pressed the glowing end of her cigarette against the open wound. Françoise flinched …
‘That’s idiotic,’ she said. ‘You will burn yourself to the bone.’
‘It doesn’t hurt,’ said Xavière.
Sartre called Olga “Ivich” in his novel The Age of Reason. In a scene in a nightclub, Ivich grabs a pocket knife and someone shrieks:
Mathieu [the Sartre character] looked hurriedly at Ivich’s hands. She was holding the knife in her right hand, and slashing at the palm of her left hand. The flesh was laid open from the ball of the thumb to the root of the little finger, and the blood was oozing slowly from the wound.
‘Ivich!’ cried Mathieu. ‘Your poor hand!’
The Sartre-Beauvoir love triangles sold well as fiction. Bianca Bienenfeld, the Jewish girl they abandoned at the beginning of the Second World War because she became too demanding, and Nelsen Algren, Beauvoir’s American lover, pleaded not to appear in their novels, to no avail. After he read Beauvoir’s Force of Circumstance, Algren wrote:
I’ve been in whorehouses all over the world and the woman there always closes the door … but this woman [Beauvoir] flung the door open and called in the public and the press … I don’t have any malice against her but I think it was an appalling thing to do.
When Albert Camus’s friends urged him to respond to the unflattering portrait Beauvoir painted of him in The Mandarins he refused, saying: “You don’t discuss things with a sewer.” Yet doubtless the most scathing critique of a Beauvoir novel (She Came to Stay) was recorded by the poet Jean Cocteau in his diary:
She’s a bitch who recounts the lives of dogs, who gnaw at bones, who take turns to piss on the same lamp post, who bite and sniff each other’s bottoms …
Sartre and Beauvoir were revolted by the idea of children, but both legally adopted young women with whom they had had affairs. Their “daughters” became the executors of their respective literary estates. Sartre probably gave Beauvoir the idea. He adopted Arlette Elkaim, an Algerian mistress who was 32 years his junior, in 1965. Seymour-Jones implies that another Sartre mistress, Evelyne Lanzmann (the sister of Beauvoir’s lover Claude Lanzmann), committed suicide because she was so upset by the adoption.
Sartre, and especially Beauvoir, portrayed their partnership of a half century as exemplary. But it quickly ceased to be a sexual relationship and did a great deal of damage to their “contingent” lovers. Sartre proposed marriage to at least three women other than Beauvoir; it is doubtful their partnership would have survived his marriage. Though their sexual behaviour appeared predatory, Sartre and Beauvoir rarely broke off with members of their extended “family”. He in particular felt a duty to provide financially for his mistresses.
Both had unhappy childhoods, which go a long way to explaining the way they lived. “Childhood decides everything,” wrote Sartre, whose father died when he was just a year old. The boy enjoyed an almost incestuous love with his mother until he was twelve, when she remarried. Sartre identified with the poet Baudelaire, who also felt outraged and abandoned when his widowed mother found a second husband. “When you have a son like me, you don’t remarry,” Baudelaire wrote. For his part, Sartre said his stepfather, Joseph Mancy, “was perpetually the person I wrote against. All my life. The fact of writing was against him.”
The hatred was mutual. When Sartre finally succeeded in publishing his first collection of short stories in 1937, his stepfather particularly objected to “The Childhood of a Leader”, a vicious attack on the far right and Charles Maurras’s Action Française. “My little one, Uncle Jo has asked me to return your book … he is outraged,” Sartre’s mother, Anne-Marie, wrote to him. She admitted she hadn’t read the story herself. “But why do you write such unseemly things? … My little one, try to regain a little purity.”
All his life Sartre delighted in provoking the hated bourgeoisie from which he came. By the time he met Beauvoir at the École Normale in 1929, he’d earned a bad reputation:
She’d heard that he’d gone naked to the student ball, that he and his friend Pierre Guille had dropped water bombs from the roof of the École Normale on to the heads of the dinner-jacketed guests below, shouting, ‘Thus pissed Zarathustra!’ It was common knowledge that he had vomited drunkenly on to the feet of the principal of the Lycée Henri IV on passing his baccalauréat, and performed in drag in La Belle Hélène.
His years as a lycée teacher in Le Havre inspired Sartre to write Nausea, in which the existentialist anti-hero, Roquentin, is sickened, among other things, by the local bourgeoisie looking at paintings in an art gallery. Seymour-Jones describes the sensation Sartre created at prize day at the lycée where he taught:
The rebellious teacher, supported on the platform by two colleagues, was too drunk to speak, and made a hasty exit through the emergency exit, where he could be heard vomiting. A rumour ran round the hall that his condition was due to having spent the previous night in a local brothel with his students.
Beauvoir too was a rebel. Her mother, Françoise, was a banker’s daughter whose dowry was never paid because the bank went bust. Despite his aristocratic-sounding name, her father, Georges, was a dandy who was too lazy to finish law school and frittered away his money on mistresses and prostitutes. As the Beauvoir family grew ever poorer, they were forced to move to a fifth floor walk-up flat without a lift, bathroom or running water. The plight of her mother, trapped in a loveless marriage and doomed to drudgery, made the young Simone determined to escape and prefigured her most successful book, the feminist manifesto The Second Sex. In her diary, Beauvoir recorded:
Every day lunch and dinner; every day washing up; all those hours, those endlessly recurring hours, all leading nowhere: how could I live like that?… No, I told myself, arranging a pile of plates in the cupboard; my life is going to lead somewhere.
Sartre’s physical ugliness was another determining factor. His grandfather had “Poulou’s” golden curls shorn when the child was seven:
His mother’s reaction was unexpected. She shut herself in the bedroom, weeping. Not only had her little girl been changed into a little boy, but his ugliness had been revealed.
Anne-Marie would accompany Jean-Paul to the Luxembourg Gardens, where other children refused to play with him. As an adult, he would be only 5 foot two and a half inches tall; one of the attractions of Beauvoir was that she was only an inch taller. As a boy, he was tiny in size, and already had a squinting cross-eye. “Shall I speak to their mothers?” Anne-Marie would ask, and the little boy shook his head No. He was, he wrote, “ever pleading and ever rejected”, an experience he said he never recovered from. But he did learn to befriend little girls with a Punch and Judy theatre his mother gave him. He reconciled himself to his ugliness, and learned that intelligence is the greatest seduction:
I should have hated anyone to love me for my looks or my physical charm … What was necessary was for them to be captivated by the charm of my … plays, my speeches, my poem, and to come to love me on that basis.
When Sartre and Camus initially became friends in 1943, the two writers chased women together in St-Germain-des-Prés:
‘Why are you going to so much trouble?’ asked Camus, as Sartre showed off to a pretty girl. Sartre replied, ‘Have you taken a look at my face?’
Despite their rebelliousness, Sartre and Beauvoir shared a hunger for praise and success. In the 1930s, both suffered from repeated publishers’ rejections. But both had decided in childhood that they would be writers. Beauvoir was fifteen when she answered the question in a friend’s album: “What do you want to do in later life?” with the words “to be a famous author”.
I was born from writing,” Sartre wrote. “By writing, I existed, I escaped from the grown-ups; but I existed only to write, and if I said: me – that meant the me who wrote.
Writing was their shared passion, the glue that kept them together.
Sartre often quoted Dostoievsky: “If God does not exist and man dies, everything is permissible.” With a little help from Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Hegel, he and Beauvoir spun out the philosophy of existentialism: simply stated, that we must strive to create meaning in an absurd, Godless world. Few readers mastered the complexity of Sartre’s existential treatise on Being and Nothingness. Now their flawed lives risk overshadowing whatever meaning they created.
Lara Marlowe studied French literature at the Sorbonne and at UCLA. She has been France correspondent for The Irish Times since 1996.