The Life She Chose
The French would call Deirdre Bair’s life of Simone de Beauvoir, the great feminist intellectual, a biography a l’Americaine: that is to say, long, with all the warts of its subject unsparingly described. By using tape-recorded conversations and unpublished letters as well as de Beauvoir’s voluminous autobiographical writings, Ms. Bair is able to give us information about her subject’s contraceptive practices (de Beauvoir has to ask her lover Nelson Algren about the subject in a letter: ”There are better ways, I heard . . . but here in this old country we don’t really know your fine new ways”), messy housekeeping, wardrobe, orgasms, jealousies, the contents of her medicine cabinet, what a lot she and her friends drank, the people she slept with and, naturally, the context and content of her works, including ”The Second Sex” and ”The Mandarins.”
One may ask oneself if all this is more than one wants to know; but in fact, a demystifying biography of de Beauvoir – the serious, frumpy mother of feminism, the Mother Courage of existentialism and left-wing French politics, the epitome of bourgeois rebelliousness – leaves its subject better understood and more likable than if one had only read de Beauvoir’s own works, impressive as these are.
De Beauvoir survives the intrusion into her private life, and even improves as she is humanized into a hardworking, sensual, often rather silly person. A serious, plain girl rebelling against her roots, unpopular and very studious because school was all she was good at, she evokes a familiar figure from all our high schools, and her genius and her industry become all the more sympathetic.
Simone de Beauvoir was born in 1908 into a bourgeois Parisian family that, owing to the imprudences of her father, lost its money and had to live in reduced circumstances, scrimping to keep up appearances. The family preoccupation with status explains something of the energy de Beauvoir directed at escaping from middle-class respectability; she managed it by the most bourgeois route, education. It was at the Sorbonne in 1928 that she met Jean-Paul Sartre, her lifelong companion.
But the philosopher was by no means her only companion – a circumstance she tended not to emphasize in her own writing, thus fostering the abiding impression of a selfless woman devoted to a thankless task: the care and maintenance of the philandering Sartre and the ceaseless support of his huge ego. (”Perhaps we did him a disservice by letting [Sartre] live in perpetual childhood, granting him every wish. But he was so charming and generous, and he never hurt anyone.”) So it is rather reassuring to know that in fact Simone de Beauvoir managed to achieve for herself the intellectual and erotic freedom, and even the freedom from housework, that she claimed women ought to have. In fact, she seems to have arranged her life rather well and to have enjoyed it. What has seemed her excessive devotion to Sartre can be thought of as her single homage to femininity, and that may be the way she thought of it, too.
In her preface, Ms. Bair describes how, after writing her biography of Samuel Beckett, she hit upon de Beauvoir as a subject, wrote to her and, to her surprise, was accepted as Boswell to de Beauvoir’s Important Literary Figure. This began an association that continued at intervals during the last six years of de Beauvoir’s life.
Ms. Bair writes from the point of view of the valet for whom the great figure is not a hero but a real person, and Simone de Beauvoir, the real person, seems a little different from the fierce feminist intellectual of legend. De Beauvoir wrote more about herself than most writers do, an advantage for a biographer, who need not accept all that the published works say but can at least test them for truth or self-delusion against alternative accounts.
One episode people have questioned is de Beauvoir’s own account of her affair with the American writer Nelson Algren, in part because Algren himself angrily called it into question before his death in 1981, five years before her own. As de Beauvoir tells it, she and Algren met in 1947, through an introduction arranged by a mutual acquaintance, Mary Guggenheim, and fell in love. It was her first experience of romantic love (in her fluent written English she called it ”a beautiful, corny love story”) – her love for Sartre being of another, to be sure more enduring, sort. One can hardly imagine a situation more fraught with potential for misunderstanding than her relationship with Algren. As in a 1930’s movie, the American tough guy and the French intellectual were each vulnerable in a way that the other was not prepared, either by nationality or education, to understand. ”Who is this ‘Simon Boo-doir’ anyway?” the macho loner and anti-intellectual chronicler of urban lowlifes, Algren, had asked Mary Guggenheim.
It used to be the fashion to joke that the Algren affair was a sort of one-night stand blown up to existential significance by the schoolmarmish de Beauvoir; but as this book and the recent biography of Algren by Bettina Drew make clear, it was a real love affair, lasting for 17 years, with lasting importance for both of them, and an unhappy ending for each, but especially, perhaps, for Algren. Feeling betrayed by de Beauvoir’s semiautobiographical novel ”The Mandarins,” Algren precipitated a final break by writing a bitter review of her work, wounding but also surprising the less emotional and more sophisticated Frenchwoman.
In a way it is curious that neither one got more out of their affair from a literary point of view. Writers have often made much more out of much less. But their relative silence may be an index of its real meaning for each of them, and the special bitterness of its ending was more characteristic of the way Algren tended to end his relationships than of de Beauvoir, who tried to keep all her friends and lovers at once, never breaking with anyone.
The dominant relationship in de Beauvoir’s life was, of course, her peculiar allegiance to the weirdly unattractive (in Ms. Bair’s presentation, anyway) Sartre. A great writer and philosopher, but also a 4-foot-11-inch-tall wall-eyed speed freak, he was madly successful with women. It is never clear whether this was so because of his charm, fame, generosity, simple need of being taken care of – or because of some demonic energy lent him by the huge quantities of amphetamines and other pills he consumed each day, along with at least a fifth of whisky.
There has always been something about the couple that has goaded bystanders into taking sides. Ms. Bair’s portrait of Sartre will irritate his supporters. Admirers of the philosopher were apt to see de Beauvoir as a sort of meddlesome dragon standing between them and the great man. Especially after ”The Second Sex” was published in 1949 – reflecting her view that ”all male ideologies are directed at justifying the oppression of women . . . women are so conditioned by society that they consent to this oppression” – conservative males of any sort saw her as a bad influence on their wives and daughters. After all, was she not advocating far too much freedom, a sort of sensual equality, and suggesting by example that a woman can, to answer Professor Higgins’s famous question, ”be more like a man” than had been thought?
Deirdre Bair writes not as a native in French language or culture but as an outsider. Her references to de Beauvoir’s work and place in the intellectual history of France are thorough, but seem more conscientious than insightful. For the American reader this is not entirely a disadvantage. Her perspective is likely to somewhat resemble that reader’s, and her tone of wonderment comes at the right points in the narrative. But because Ms. Bair addresses herself to her subject from this strongly American point of view, the answers she comes up with are sometimes innocently at variance with French probability.
Talking about de Beauvoir’s life during World War II, Ms. Bair describes her stormy friendships with a number of young women, almost all of them mistresses of Sartre. Ms. Bair concludes that, despite a long recitation of loverlike jealousies and intrigue, there was nothing sexual about these friendships; she thinks that de Beauvoir’s stake was emotional, arising from her possessive feelings about Sartre. But a new collection of de Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre, recently published in Paris, has led people to conclude that de Beauvoir sexually seduced these young women, manipulated them rather coldheartedly, played one against another and was careful to tell Sartre all.
One wonders whether Ms. Bair didn’t see these particular letters. Or did she put a rather innocent construction on certain phrases? Here Ms. Bair is reminiscent of the unworldly American, Lambert Strether, in Henry James’s novel ”The Ambassadors,” who has no idea what Mme. de Vionnet and Chad are really up to. One cannot help but notice, also, that the picture de Beauvoir gives in her letters of her treatment of the young women is somewhat similar to the picture Ms. Bair gives of the way de Beauvoir treated her decades later at their interview sessions – the older woman, no longer seducing but always charming, managing and brilliant, offering a little whisky in a tumbler, dear, before we get down to work?
On one of the most controversial topics, the charge that de Beauvoir, and more particularly Sartre, collaborated during World War II and the German occupation, Ms. Bair concludes that collaboration remains ”unproven,” but that they could have done more resisting than they did. ”Sartre and Beauvoir were isolated, islands adrift on the stream of war, as untouched as it was possible to be by the daily irritations and unspeakable outrages of the occupation. They were cocooned within [their circle] , none of whom faced more than the ritual indignities of lack of food, heat and freedom of expression. No one from the Resistance asked them to help; the Germans left them alone to further their careers.”
It is still too soon to say what the final significance of those careers will turn out to be. Of de Beauvoir’s most influential work, Ms. Bair notes that ”it is remarkable that she wrote ‘The Second Sex’ while living in relative isolation from other women and their problems, without the context of a feminist environment, yet Simone de Beauvoir succeeded in defining the central issues which are still the focus of international feminism today.” De Beauvoir herself hoped for wider appreciation: ”I have written novels, philosophy, social criticism, a play – and yet all people know about me is ‘The Second Sex.’ Granted, I am pleased that that book has had such an impact, but I want people to remember that I am a writer! A feminist certainly, and I do not deny the importance of feminism in my life, but first of all I am a writer!”
It is the writer that comes across most clearly in Deirdre Bair’s book. De Beauvoir lived the often solitary, roistering, egotistical, hardworking, promiscuous, slightly alcoholic, affirmative life of a writer – but it was the life of a prototypical 20th-century male writer that she had the will to choose.
Diane Johnson is the author of a biography of Dashiell Hammett and six novels. She lives part of each year in Paris.
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