Simone de Beauvoir
Deirdre Bair has specialized in massive, comprehensive, painstakingly researched biographies of important modern writers. Her portrait of Samuel Beckett, the first full treatment of this reclusive man’s life, took six years, spans 736 pages, and won a National Book Award in 1981. Bair’s study of Simone de Beauvoir took nine years, covers 718 pages, and is at least an equally distinguished achievement. The text can be faulted for long-windedness and careless repetitions, pedestrian prose, and perhaps Bair’s inability to comprehend fully the intricacy of her subject’s opaque personality.
The book’s virtues, however, far transcend its flaws: Bair has rendered a vivid, admiring, yet persuasively balanced exploration of the life of a brilliant intellectual who chose to serve as loyal subordinate to a man who never fully appreciated her worth; a woman who preferred ideas and friendships to marriage and children; the author of a famous treatise on feminism and about twenty other books, of whom it could nevertheless be said that her life was more significant than her work; a generous, affectionate, honest, charming, and remarkably courageous person who could also be abrasive, brusque, haughty, and intimidating.
Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born into the haute bourgeoisie, to one of France’s most illustrious but no longer prosperous families. Her mother, Francoise, was a pious, straitlaced Catholic whose father had been unable to pay her dowry. Simone’s father, Georges, was a self-indulgent, impractical atheist who failed as a lawyer and in a succession of business ventures. Simone and her younger sister, Helene, had lonely as well as impoverished childhoods, constrained by social customs to guard themselves against possibly unsuitable connections; they could not even befriend classmates until Francoise had paid a formal call upon their mothers. The girls attended a prestigious Catholic private school, spent hours at their devotions daily, and were rigidly disciplined by the austere and obsessively orderly Francoise. As Simone changed from a pretty, plump little blue-eyed girl to an awkward adolescent, her father pronounced her “ugly” and became indifferent toward her. From an early age Simone retreated into omnivorous reading, forming her role models from such literary characters as George Eliot’s Maggie Tolliver, a forceful, intelligent individualist at odds with a rigidly unsympathetic society.
In 1927 Simone began studying at the Sorbonne, sometimes attending bars and cheap nightclubs with girlfriends but remaining both a virgin and a first-rate student. Her class ranking in 1928 was second, behind only Simone Weil and just ahead of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. One group of students at the Sorbonne, enrolled in the Ecole Normale Supe’rieure, had a particularly bad reputation, attending lectures only when they liked the professor; it included Rene’ Maheu, Paul Nizan, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sartre stood just under five feet and had a lumpy complexion, thinning hair, teeth and fingers stained by tobacco, and a right eye disfigured by strabismus. His voice was melodious, however, his mind dazzled all, and many young women found him fascinating. Simone and he met quite naturally, as members of an organized study group preparing for the comprehensive oral examinations. Because of her prodigious work habits, Maheu had awarded her the nickname by which she became known for the rest of her life—Castor, meaning “Beaver.” Castor and Sartre began their association by expounding G. W. Leibniz’ theories, then Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s. “I was intelligent, certainly,” she was to insist, over and over, “but Sartre was a genius.” Bair registers her disapproval of such a subordination, preferring Sartre’s assessment in a 1975 interview: “She was the only one at my level of knowledge of myself of what I wanted to do.… What is unique between Simone de Beauvoir and me is the equality of our...
(The entire section is 2,800 words.)