Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2241
Simone de Beauvoir is one of France’s most important female writers of the twentieth century. As a novelist, essayist in the realm of politics as well as philosophy, feminist, and social activist, she has come to represent the socially engaged woman who, with other French intellectuals such as Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, succeeded in penetrating the male-dominated intelligentsia of France. That this was achieved is testimony to her intellectual acumen, perseverance, and strong commitment not just to feminist activity but, generally speaking, to the pursuit of her own ideals. Simone de Beauvoir, the longtime companion of the writer, philosopher, and social activist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), lived, some might argue, in his shadow. Although not possessing as powerful a literary talent as he, nor as inventive a mind, she did make an important contribution to the social fabric of modern-day France through her efforts on behalf of women, the elderly, and underprivileged social groups. Her writings, especially Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (1947; The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948), Le Deuxième sexe(1949; The Second Sex, 1953), and Les Mandarins (1954; The Mandarins, 1956), for which she was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt, reveal her to be a sensitive and prolific commentator on topics such as relationships between men and women, the Algerian question, French colonialism, and women’s issues.
Beauvoir first met Sartre in Paris in the summer of 1929. At that time, both were preparing at the Ecole Normale Supériere and the Sorbonne for the very arduous exams for the agrégation in philosophy, which, when successfully passed the same year, saw Sartre classed first and Beauvoir second. After that summer, Sartre and Beauvoir developed a relationship that is both admirable and perplexing, including what some would see as infidelities as well as unshakable commitment to each other, to shared social values, and to what has been described as a morganatic union. Sartre referred to Beauvoir as le Castor (the Beaver), a nickname given to Beauvoir by a school friend, René Maheu (who appears in Letters to Sartre as “the Llama”), because of the phonetic similarity between “beaver” and “Beauvoir,” and especially since both are constructive and enjoy the company of others. In 1983, when Beauvoir published the letters Sartre had written to her in Lettres au Castor, many hoped that Beauvoir would publish those she had written to him in order to complete the mosaic of their life, but Beauvoir believed them to have been destroyed, and moreover, even if they still existed, that they should not be published during her lifetime. Months after the death of Beauvoir in April, 1986, a voluminous collection of this correspondence, spanning three decades from 1930 to 1963, was found by Beauvoir’s adopted and only child, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. She painstakingly deciphered often almost illegible handwriting, criticized even by Sartre in his letters to the Beaver, and made almost no cuts from the mass of letters. The original work, Lettres à Sartre, was published in two volumes in 1990. The translated version contains approximately two-thirds of the original edition, shortened by translator Quintin Hoare by cutting out letters that overlapped with material previously published in Beauvoir’s autobiographical works.
Any translation of these letters is problematic for various reasons. First, the use of the formal vous throughout the letters would seem perhaps inappropriate as the mode of communication for the lovers, who used it not only in written form but also in speech. Although somewhat idiosyncratic, this form of address is not untypical of a couple of their generation. Second, Beauvoir’s incessant usage of the adjective petit(little), while a very common element in many colloquial expressions in French, is most noticeable when referring to Sartre as her “dear little being” or her “dear little husband.” Letters to Sartre are, fundamentally, love letters written to a man to whom Beauvoir was not wed, but who was an unwavering source of inspiration and profound love, a confidant but, in some ways, also a rival.
Letters to Sartre is divided into six periods: January, 1930, to July, 1939, “Before the War”; September, 1939, to March, 1940, “The Phoney War”; July, 1940, to March, 1941, “Sartre Prisoner”; July, 1943, to February, 1946, “Before Liberation and After”; January, 1947, to October, 1951, “America”; and June, 1953, to July, 1963, “Later Interludes.” What is most striking at first glance is the intimate tone with which Beauvoir wrote Sartre, her attention to the minutest details concerning her daily life, from the meals she consumed to her maladies and financial situation. These elements remain constant throughout her correspondence. What is perhaps surprising to some readers is the nature of these letters, for they are not philosophical in orientation, nor sociological. They do not discuss in the abstract, but, rather, chronicle the activities of the couple’s many friends as well as Beauvoir’s travels within France and to the United States, Mexico, Tunisia, and Algeria. They are, quite simply, written communications between a woman and her lover during absences from each other, the most poignant of which is clearly Sartre’s internment as a prisoner of war from June, 1940, to March, 1941.
The initial period of written communication between Beauvoir and Sartre (January, 1930, to July, 1939) reveals that, despite having known Sartre for only a few months, she already had developed an unparalleled passion for him, as she states in the closing of the work’s first letter, dated January 6, 1930: “How are you, little man? I’m really longing for a letter from you tomorrow. We’ll be seeing each other soon, won’t we, my love? You promised, so I’m taking good care of myself. I love you, I love you. I am, most tenderly, your own Beaver.”
Beauvoir wrote daily to Sartre during their separations. An intriguing aspect of the entire correspondence, first evident in this early period, is the sometimes surreptitious nature of their relationship, maintained that way in order not to offend their other lovers, many of whom knew each other. The frankness with which Beauvoir requests Sartre to participate in this sort of deception, from the beginning months of their relationship, is noteworthy given their philosophical quest for truth and justice. Moreover, that Beauvoir had sexual relations with Sartre’s lovers, such as Bianca Bienenfeld, is perplexing, especially since these relations were discussed openly between Beauvoir and Sartre. It is precisely this sort of revelation that is one of the most unexpected, since it portrays Beauvoir as supremely manipulative. After reading countless directives to Sartre, such as: “I’m telling Kos. that I’ll be staying at La Pouèze till Monday. No point in saying I’m at St Fargeau, etc. I won’t come back on Friday, as I’m only leaving tomorrow. I’m telling Bienenfeld too that I’m at La Pouèze.” One realizes Beauvoir’s insecurities in her friendships. While wishing to cultivate friends, she seems also to have wanted to keep them at a distance when necessary, and such times inevitably were linked to her desire to spend time with Sartre. The complex web of names and alibis inLetters to Sartre reveals, ultimately, the capital importance Sartre held in Beauvoir’s affective and intellectual life. Footnotes offer summary explanations of references to people, to literary works mentioned by Beauvoir, and to her plots to maintain friends in ignorance of some of her activities. The correspondence written in this section was composed in France, in the provinces as well as in Paris, in cafés, brasseries, and hotels. What is of note during this period is the worldly attitude that Beauvoir exhibits, traveling extensively in France and developing friendships among the Paris circle of young writers and intellectuals such as the novelist Paul Nizan and the actor and producer Charles Dullin.
The second period of the letters, from September, 1939, to March, 1940, represents approximately one-half of the entire work. One of the more fascinating letters of this period, dated September 17, 1939, the day of the Soviet invasion of Poland, was written from Crécy-en-Brie while Beauvoir was visiting the actress and playwright Simone Jollivet (Camille in Beauvoir’s autobiography), nicknamed Toulouse, and Charles Dullin, with whom she lived and worked. In this letter, Beauvoir speaks of Jollivet’s eccentric mother, of Louis Jouvet, an important actor, of Jean Giraudoux, a novelist and playwright, and of the necessity of supporting the production of French film. Beauvoir also recounts stories told to her during that visit by Dullin, regaling Sartre with a spicy anecdote concerning André Gide and Henri Ghéon, author of religious dramas, both of whom had a predilection for young men. Beauvoir refers to books she is currently reading, from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Taras Bulba. Through all her writing, the strongest impression the reader receives is the tenderness with which Beauvoir cherishes the private moments shared with her lover, for example, in this letter.
The third section, from July, 1940, to March, 1941, contains correspondence written during Sartre’s internment in France and Germany by the Germans. From the time Sartre was taken prisoner in mid-June, 1940, following the collapse of the French armies, Beauvoir received virtually no answers to her correspondence, written on official forms until December of 1940. It is unclear whether Sartre was unable to undertake correspondence or whether such letters might have gone astray. During this time, Beauvoir speaks to Sartre about changes to Paris since the occupation, of areas in the Latin Quarter they frequented together. On January 20, 1941, Beauvoir writes: “I have constant nightmares about you: you come back (since I think it’s impossible directly to dream an absence), but you don’t love me any more and I’m filled with despair. At times, not knowing when I’ll see you again has me literally fighting for breath.” The poignancy of these comments underlines Beauvoir’s helplessness in knowing that she may never see her lover again, her vulnerability when absent from him.
In the fourth section, from July, 1943, to February, 1946, Beauvoir recounts to Sartre, who is visiting the United States, meetings and conversations with the Paris literary elite of the time: dinner with the novelist and philosopher Albert Camus, lunch with the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and with the eccentric playwright Jean Genet. These were exciting times for Beauvoir, who published The Blood of Others in 1945. It had been written between 1941 and 1943 and was set during the Resistance, but its publication had been delayed by wartime censorship. Invited by the Alliance française to lecture in Tunis and Algiers in 1946, Beauvoir writes of the great success enjoyed by her talks on existentialism, which had received sustained public attention after the publication of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, begun during his captivity and published in 1943.
Beauvoir’s travels took her to the United States in 1947. There she met the American writer Nelson Algren, with whom she had a romantic liaison until 1951. The penultimate section of Letters to Sartre, from January, 1947, to October, 1951, contains remarks on people Beauvoir met during her American tour as well as direct comments regarding the nature of her relationship with Algren. This sort of frankness is characteristic of the Beauvoir/Sartre dialogue. Nothing was left unsaid or considered inappropriate.
The final period represented in the work, June, 1953, to July, 1963, has letters composed during trips to Italy, Algeria, Tunisia, and Spain, as well as within France. Beauvoir’s love for Sartre has matured; its manifestations are assuredly less effusive. Since 1929, the dynamics of their relationship have stabilized, for the couple has over the past decades established a singular life, founded paradoxically on dependence and independence. At this stage in her life, Beauvoir was an accomplished writer, having been awarded in 1954 the Prix Goncourt for The Mandarins. This final section of her letters has the same focus as the preceding ones: observations made during trips, such as the objectionable patriarchal atmosphere in Algeria and comments on the political situation in France. One letter from 1958 exhorts Sartre to write an article in protest of the authoritarian tendencies in the new Gaullist administration. The latter is indicative of Beauvoir’s continuing activity in the sociopolitical arena. For many people, this is the legacy left by Beauvoir.
Letters to Sartre offers an intimate portrait of Simone de Beauvoir, of her insecurities and of her strengths. Because of her social activism, Beauvoir clearly is considered to be one of France’s most important contemporary authors. The physical portrait often seen in pictures—simply dressed, neatly coiffed, often in a turban—belies personal intricacies manifested in her relationships, manipulated to her best advantage. This characteristic would seem appropriate, however, to an individual whose self-absorption was extreme, and the focus of much of her writing. What is perhaps most intriguing in her letters is the nontraditional nature of her relationship with Sartre. His confidante and lover, Beauvoir was also a supporter whose passion for this man withstood all obstacles. Letters to Sartre presents one voice of this renowned couple and joins, fortunately, the private voice of Sartre made public in 1983 in his Lettres au Castor. The mosaic now complete,Letters to Sartre offers an in-depth personal portrait not only of Beauvoir but also of the literary and social elite of contemporary France.
Sources for Further Study
Belles Lettres. VIII, Fall, 1992, p. 44.
Boston Globe. February 28, 1992, p. 33.
Chicago Tribune. February 16, 1992, XIV, p. 3.
The Christian Science Monitor. April 1, 1992, p. 17.
Kirkus Reviews. LIX, December 15, 1991, p. 1563.
Library Journal. CXVII, February 15, 1992, p. 176.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 24, 1992, p. 2.
New Statesman and Society. IV, Decmeber 13, 1991, p. 38.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, July 19, 1992, p. 13.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, January 6, 1992, p. 60.
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