(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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,...

(The entire section is 2241 words.)