Simone de Beauvoir: The Courage to Love Differently

La Nausée

La Nausée BY Jean-Paul Sartre
(Gallimard 1938)

Sartre was able to incorporate these events into the legend that would eventually be built up around them: “Nobody could love one of us without being gripped by a fierce jealousy — which would end by changing into an irresistible attraction — for the other one, even before meeting them,” he proudly wrote. And there was undeniably something magical about the couple, blended from their intellects, their ambitions and their passionate natures. A friend of Beauvoir’s, Colette Audry wrote: “I can’t describe what it was like to be present when those two were together. It was so intense that somehow it made others who saw it sad not to have it.” (This was not a problem as far as Sartre was concerned; he quickly had an affair with her.) But Beauvoir’s self-esteem was taking a battering, and she believed that the young women who fell in love with her saw only a reflection of what their own futures could be in her attractively independent, achieving life. Beauvoir’s inability to see her own power was hardly likely to prevent Sartre from abusing his. Towards the end of his life, one of Sartre’s last loves wrote to him “you and [Beauvoir] together have created a remarkable and dazzling thing which is so dangerous for those people who get close to you.” It was an accurate and astute judgement.

But something good did finally emerge from these wretched and complex relationships for Beauvoir: successful fiction. Up until the war years, Sartre and Beauvoir worked hard on their writing with little to show for it except a stream of rejections. Sartre cracked the problem of overcoming his dry, philosophical style by basing his first novel, Nausea (La Nausée) on personal experiences, and he urged Beauvoir to do the same. “To put my raw, undigested self into a book, to lose perspective, compromise myself — no, I couldn’t do it,” Beauvoir recalled in her memoirs. “I found the whole idea terrifying. ‘Screw up your courage,’ Sartre told me, and kept pressing the point.” As ever, Sartre’s persuasion carried the day, and Beauvoir went on to write a roman à clef that launched a frenzy of gossip across Paris. She Came To Stay (L’Invitée) was the story of Sartre, Beauvoir and Olga Kosakiewicz and their tangled relationships; even more so when Olga, tired of Sartre’s manipulative behaviour, took up with another man, Jacques-Laurent Bost who went on to become Beauvoir’s lover, too. Bost did not subscribe to Sartre’s notion of transparency and kept the affair from Olga. Goodness knows, then, what Olga thought when the novel, dedicated to her, was published with the full story intact. The reviewers found it a sleazy, decadent book, Beauvoir’s mother was horrified, and the possibility of the Prix Goncourt was raised.

L'Invitée

L’Invitée
BY Simone de Beauvoir
(Gallimard, 1967)

It seemed as if the honesty that Sartre valued so highly had moved lock, stock and barrel across to the realm of fiction, because it was in precious short supply elsewhere. The writer Raymond Queneau commented on the novel: “Extraordinary veracity of the description, total lack of imagination. Even when S de B attributes a different childhood to one of her characters, it belongs to someone else.” In real life, however, both Sartre and Beauvoir had succumbed to the pressures of dishonesty in order to keep some kind of status quo. The “family” frequented the same cafes to work and to socialise (the Café de Flore in the Boulevard Saint-Germain was their favourite) and the ruling work ethic meant timetables were strict. Sartre took to assigning visiting hours to each of his women, rigid limits that failed to compensate for the entire lack of boundaries elsewhere. He managed to divide and rule, so that each woman fondly felt she was alone in his sexual favours; except Beauvoir, who had the privilege, if it could be called such, of knowing it all. She conspired, but her conscience was far from clear. “I blamed us — myself as much as you, actually — in the past, in the future, in the absolute: the way we treat people. I felt it was unacceptable.”

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