Critique “Inseparable”: A lost story of youth of Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir, born in 1908 in Paris, was the eldest of two daughters of a strict Catholic couple and, as a child, dreamed of becoming a nun. Instead, she lost her faith at the age of 14, and in her early 40s, she became the Superior Mother of the new belief called Existentialism, a humanistic response to the devastation of WWII. In fact, there was little “novelty” about it, except in France. There, its theorists – Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty – freely plundered German philosophy from Hegel to Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl and called it theirs. Unlike his fellow philosophers, Sartre’s real gift was that of a publicist. His clever formula for existentialism – “Existence precedes essence” – popularized a dynamic for all human action, in which “contingency”, or chance, rolled the dice.
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Beauvoir’s passionate life began early, and luck was on his side. Her father’s financial losses after World War I forced the family into poverty and crammed them into small smelly neighborhoods. But the compensation of the parents being the social status, the girls are admitted in a fashionable convent, the Cours Adeline Désir. It was here, on her first day of school, that Simone, aged 9, fell in love.
His classmate Elisabeth Lacoin, known as Zaza, was a smaller version of Simone. She had a narrow face, olive skin, and dark eyes, and both girls had short, brown hair. Unlike Simone, who hid her thoughts behind what she would later call a “conformist mask”, Zaza was straightforward, funny, fearless and competitive. At 10, she gave off an air of authority. Then, a few days later, she was gone.
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Zaza was injured in a camping accident when the hem of her skirt caught fire. Before the flames could be extinguished, his flesh was burned and swollen. For the next several months, recovering in her family’s country house while immobilized in bed, she endured constant pain and endless loneliness. When she returned to class, she was determined to follow through. Her first words to Simone were an urgent call to borrow her notes from the missing year: she needed them now.
The fiery Zaza became Simone’s purest love – the nuns called both “the inseparable” – and her untimely death in 1929, a month before her 22nd birthday, made their friendship immortal, incorruptible through time. (A portrait survives of the two young women, sitting on the grass, photographed in profile but facing each other. It each shows a hidden hand to the camera. Are they holding hands?) In the years immediately following Zaza’s death, Beauvoir vowed to write about their friendship, but each of the many attempts was quickly abandoned.
In 1943 Beauvoir became a published author and soon produced essays on social and political issues, travel articles, autobiographies, and novels. In 1949, her assault on the inferior position of women in society, “Le Second Sexe”, made her famous in France and beyond. In her new role as a public intellectual, she felt that she needed the private space offered by fiction to rework memories of herself. For a 1954 short story, her first work after “Les Mandarins” of 600 pages, winner of the Prix Goncourt, she looks back on her school years and her passionate attachment to Zaza. Simone became “Sylvie”, Zaza was renamed “Andrée”, and the distance proved to be liberating, work finally possible. The little novel, without a title, was completed in a few months but was not published during Beauvoir’s lifetime. (She died, aged 78, in 1986.) Last year, thanks to the efforts of Beauvoir’s adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon-de Beauvoir, he finally appeared in France, under the title “Les Inséparables”. It now appears in America, in a usable translation by Sandra Smith.
In Beauvoir’s fictionalized pages, Sylvie accepts that her love for Andrée must compete with the young girl’s other attachments, starting with Andrée’s mother. In real life, Zaza’s family, the Lacoins, comes from an ancient military line that is both strict and religious: one child becomes a Catholic priest, another nun. Ms. Lacoin was Zaza’s idol, but she was also a cunning manipulator of her children. In the novel, Andrée’s fervent Catholicism exposes her mother’s hypocrisies: her social rise and her obsession with making the “right” marriage for Andrée despite her “brutal” suspicion of marital love. Andrée punishes this adored but imperfect woman with self-harm: during a family picnic, she picks up an ax and voluntarily drops it on her own foot. As she happily told Sylvie, she knew exactly how to do it without touching her bone.
Andrée’s new love, barely tolerated by her mother, is an exuberant compatriot, a student named Pascal Blondel. Beauvoir modeled Pascal on the young Merleau-Ponty, the future existentialist philosopher. In the novel, Pascal is horrified by Andrée’s self-harm and dismayed at his blasphemy. She was, he feared, drifting into the dark heresy of Jansenism, which denies free will and accepts an absent God. Even more frightening, Andrée tells Pascal that God “hates” her. Pascal, alas, fails Andrée in sacred and profane love, and withdraws on the excuse that they are both “too young” to be engaged. Together, he and Andrée’s mother persuade the desperate young girl to spend two years in Cambridge, England, alone. She is already dying, Beauvoir-narrator tells us, “murdered” by the “spiritualist crime” of the two conspirators and her heart broken. (In real life, Zaza’s cause of death was likely viral encephalitis.)
A piñata of surprises springs from this news of only 128 pages. First, “Inseparable” shows us an unknown side of Simone de Beauvoir, a romantic in the great French tradition. Sartre called this little novel “banal” and recommended that he destroy it. He wasn’t reacting out of envy – he was a successful novelist himself, after all – he just found this experience of romanticism unworthy of his talents as a progressive thinker. (Margaret Atwood, in her witty introduction to “Inseparable,” imagines the conversation: “The inner life of middle-class maidens?.. Pouf. Enough with that small-scale pathos, Simone.”)
The biggest surprise here, at least for me, is Beauvoir’s genius as a writer of fiction. In his day, we, his readers, were so captivated by his ideas and theories – about gender, sex, politics – that we forgot to get lost in his delightful literary style. Tender and mean, Beauvoir uses everything here: nature, families, poverty and wealth, and the material world of things – clothes, decor, pots and pans. Beauvoir pledged his art to the promise that one day Zaza would live. This last unpublished novel seems a miracle to resuscitate the dead from an icy memory, to ward off the openness of youth, its devouring love and its loss. Beauvoir’s brilliant words reward us by reminding us of how we were.
-Mrs. Eisler is the author of “Chopin’s Funeral” and “Naked in the Marketplace: The Life of George Sand”. She has also translated essays by Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
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