The legend of Simone de Beauvoir—of how an obedient Catholic schoolgirl cast off her rigid, patriarchal upbringing to become the high priestess of existential feminism—is often narrated as a love story. Her biographers trace her escape from the bourgeois Parisian milieu into which she was born, in 1908, first to the Sorbonne and then to the École Normale Supérieure. There, among the “graceless faces” of the agrégation candidates of 1929, she spied Jean-Paul Sartre, twenty-four years old and—as she rhapsodized in “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” (1958), the first of four autobiographical volumes—“still young enough to feel emotional about his future whenever he heard a saxophone playing after his third martini.” Together, she and her “Playboy,” her “Leprechaun,” as she called him, chased life’s pleasures up the steps of Boulevard du Montparnasse, down the Avenue d’Orléans, and all around the woodland parks of Paris, where her parents had forbidden her and her sister to speak with children outside their social class. Beauvoir’s mother was devoted to the Church and its rigid moralism; her father detested intellectuals and wanted his oldest daughter to “marry a country cousin.” By the time she met Sartre, Beauvoir had different aspirations. “Never have I so loved to read and think, never have I been so alive and happy or envisioned a future so rich. Oh! Jean-Paul, dear Jean-Paul, thank you,” she wrote in her diary.
For all the romance of the city blooming before her eyes, Beauvoir always played the love story itself—her dawning attraction to this garrulous, cross-eyed, funny little man—remarkably cool. She liked Sartre’s face and company but disliked his “false eye.” She was more painfully and earnestly attracted to her friend the philosopher René Maheu, and even to her rakish cousin Jacques. But she exulted in Sartre’s attention to her; it was an opportunity to define herself and the force she longed to be in the world. “We used to talk about all kinds of things, but especially about a subject which interested me above all others: myself,” she wrote. “Whenever other people made attempts to analyse me, they did so from the standpoint of their own little worlds, and this used to exasperate me. But Sartre always tried to see me as part of my own scheme of things, to understand me in light of my own set of values and attitudes.” With him, she was not “the Other,” the subordinate female position that she described in her 1949 feminist classic, “The Second Sex”: a timid and imaginatively impoverished creature for whom love was simply something provided to a husband as a matter of course. Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre, as she recounts it in her autobiographical writings, led her from a state of alienation, in which she was only a bit player in other people’s “little worlds,” to the assurance that she was a singular and irreducible “Self.” She could define and interpret the meaning of her life through the energetic exercise of her “sovereign consciousness.”
Beauvoir’s autobiography, in a sense, accorded perfectly with the principles of French existentialism—its insistence on the freedom of every person’s consciousness and its Sartrean slogan that “existence precedes essence.” Perhaps the correspondence is a little too neat. True, intellectuals often pride themselves on living and loving by their theories—“There is no divorce between philosophy and life,” Beauvoir famously avowed—but it is hard to believe the story of their early days quite as she tells it. Not a hair is out of place, not a moment of shock or doubt ripples the surface of her triumphant self-determination. “Every woman in love recognizes herself in Hans Andersen’s little mermaid who exchanged her fishtail for a woman’s legs for love, and then found herself walking on needles and burning coals,” she claims in “The Second Sex.” How to reconcile such self-abnegating masochism with her joyous recollection of discovering herself with Sartre?
As careful readers of Beauvoir’s memoirs and diaries have noted, the strategically plotted romance between postwar France’s greatest male and female philosophers is haunted by the presence of a shadowy third—a friend. The most extreme feelings of agitation and rapture are reserved not for Sartre but for Elisabeth Lacoin, a brilliant and mercurial classmate whom Beauvoir called Zaza, and whose name Beauvoir underlined in black or brown ink throughout her diaries, casting a pall over all that surrounded it.
They met when they were around ten, under the uncharitable eyes of the nuns at the Cours Désirs school and the contemptuous gaze of Zaza’s “odious mother,” as Beauvoir described her. Whereas the Beauvoirs lived in genteel poverty, Zaza was a member of the haute bourgeoisie, the third of nine children, and “very high-strung, like a sleek and elegant racehorse ready to bolt out of control,” as Beauvoir’s sister sniffed to the biographer Deirdre Bair. Zaza had been bred to marry, and to marry well. Nothing could convince Madame Lacoin otherwise: not Zaza’s nimble, mischievous mind, which won her a place at the Sorbonne; not her enthusiasm for literature or her talent for music; not her love for Beauvoir’s classmate the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, called Jean Pradelle in Beauvoir’s memoirs. Zaza, torn between her fealty to her mother and her thirst for freedom, grew wretched, frantic, and frighteningly thin, until one day, in the autumn of 1929, while Beauvoir and Sartre were embarking on their affair, she came down with a fever and an agonizing headache—a case of viral encephalitis, the doctors suspected. She died in a clinic at Saint-Cloud, where she kept calling out for her “violin, Pradelle, Simone, champagne.”
“I loved Zaza with an intensity which could not be accounted for by any established set of rules and conventions,” Beauvoir recalled in her memoirs, almost thirty years after her friend’s death. “The least praise from Zaza overwhelmed me with joy; the sarcastic smiles she so frequently gave me were a terrible torment.” She describes her “subjugation” to her beloved as plunging her “into the black depths of humility.” It was in these depths that Beauvoir’s abject “little mermaid” swam: her idea of love as a state of sacrifice and suffering was provoked not by a man but by what the literary critic Lisa Appignanesi describes, with delicacy, as one of Beauvoir’s “amorous friendships” with a woman. Others have been bolder about calling a spade a spade. “Simone was in the throes of her first great love affair,” her adopted daughter and literary executor, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, writes in an afterword to “Les Inséparables,” a novel about Zaza’s radiant life and swift death, which Beauvoir wrote in the winter of 1954 and then abandoned. It finally appeared in France last year, and now, as if to make up for lost time, appears in not one but two English translations—in the U.K. as “The Inseparables” (Vintage), translated by Lauren Elkin, and in the United States as “Inseparable” (Ecco), translated by Sandra Smith. The story, described in France as “a tragic lesbian love story,” has been billed as “too intimate” to be published during Beauvoir’s lifetime.
“The Inseparables” begins as most love stories do, with the meeting of two young people, each alien to the other. One day, at the Collège Adelaïde, a nine-year-old girl with startlingly dark, fervent eyes and a hollow little face sits next to Sylvie Lepage. The girl’s name is Andrée Gallard, and it is her first time at school. Immediately, she offers Sylvie a glimpse of the pain and the pleasure of the flesh inflamed. When she was younger, she reveals, her skirt caught fire as she stood too close to some potatoes roasting on a campfire. She burned her thigh right down to the bone, and the wound still bulged under her skirt. This incident establishes the asymmetry that defines their relationship. “Nothing so interesting had ever happened to me,” Sylvie thinks. “It suddenly seemed as if nothing had ever happened to me at all.”
About Sylvie, our first-person narrator, we learn very little; on the surface, she is a conventional child of the Parisian middle class. Underneath, her tremendous powers of observation are fixed on Andrée, who appears to her a splendid and uncanny creature. Andrée addresses their teachers as equals, in a voice that is polite but insouciant. She plays the piano and the violin with easy mastery, speaks of “Don Quixote and Cyrano de Bergerac as if they had existed in flesh and blood,” and turns somersaults and cartwheels with unexpected vigor. Her every word is cause for Sylvie’s turmoil; the idea of her absence is, quite simply, unbearable. “Life without her would be death,” Sylvie reflects when they are reunited after a summer apart. “It was in those moments that I was most troublingly aware of the gift she had received from heaven, which I found so enthralling: her personality.”
Sylvie’s feeling for Andrée as they grow up is not just love; it is a transcendent love, the love by which all other loves must be defined and judged. “I could only conceive of one kind of love: the love I had for her,” Sylvie thinks. “The kind of love where you kiss”—by which she means kiss men—“had no truth for me.” Yet Sylvie’s love is not reciprocated, because Andrée’s “love for her mother made her other attachments pale by comparison.” In turn, Andrée’s filial love is not reciprocated, either, because Madame Gallard sees her daughter not as dazzlingly and inimitably alive but as a performer of “social duties,” a girl of marriageable age whose piety and obedience to her family must be preserved if she is to become a respectable woman. “No doubt she loved Andrée in her way, but what way was that?” Sylvie wonders. “That was the question. We all loved her, only differently.”
The drama of “The Inseparables” lies in the tension between these competing and imperfectly requited loves for Andrée: first the loves of Sylvie and Madame Gallard, then the love of Pascal, a joyful Catholic philosopher (the Merleau-Ponty figure) who allows Andrée to imagine that she might reconcile duty and happiness—at least until he begins to delay proposing marriage to her. The problem that preoccupies the novel is not who loves Andrée best but what kind of love would grant her the freedom she craves. As the girls grow, Sylvie finds herself repulsed by the religiosity of the Gallard family and Pascal, and her faith in God is replaced by her quasi-spiritual devotion to Andrée. The novel leaps from one glorious tableau to another of Andrée in divine solitude, praying or playing her violin in a park. Alongside Sylvie, we, as readers, stop, stay, and bear witness to an outpouring of reverence:
When I sometimes went to pray in the chapel, often I would find she had arrived there first, on her knees before the altar, her head in her hands, or reaching her arms towards a station of the cross. Was she contemplating one day taking her vows? And yet she so loved her freedom, and the joys of this world. Her eyes shone when she told me about her holidays, how she spent hours galloping on horseback through the forests of pine trees, getting scratched by their branches as she went, how she swam through still waters in ponds, or in the freshwater of the Adour river. Was she dreaming about that paradise when she sat motionless before her notebooks, with a lost look in her eye?
The unpretending beauty of passages like this, of which there are many, derives from an aesthetic of distance: the pleasure of coming upon Andrée with her head hidden in her hands, reaching away from Sylvie toward an ineffable dream; the wide-open spaces of woods and water. Here is an attentive and unintimate love, one that relishes the idea of imagining, but never knowing and never delimiting, the infinite expanses of another person’s mind. This love has nothing to do with the masterful assertion of selfhood that Beauvoir attributes to her relationship with Sartre. Rather, it recalls the theory of love advanced by a classmate at the Sorbonne, the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. “To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love,” Weil wrote. “To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the centre of the world in imagination. . . . Such consent is love.” Ironically, perhaps, “The Inseparables” posits separateness as love’s aesthetic and ethical essence.
Compare Sylvie’s quiet, luminous imagination with the loud pileup of possessions that she sees crowding Andrée in the Gallards’ pantry, where Andrée’s mother keeps her busy to acclimate her to the duties of marriage:
Everything was made of cast iron, earthenware, stoneware, porcelain, tin, aluminium; there were cooking pots, frying pans, saucepans, skillets, cauldrons, casseroles, soup bowls, serving platters, tureens, tumblers, colanders, mincers, mills, moulds, and mortars. An endless variety of bowls, cups, glasses, champagne flutes and coupes, plates, saucers, sauce boats, jars, jugs, pitchers, carafes. Does each kind of spoon, ladle, fork and knife really have its own particular purpose? Do we really have so many different needs to satisfy? This clandestine subterranean world must turn up on the surface of the earth for enormous and discerning dinner parties that I knew nothing about.
There is something mesmerizing about these absurdly specialized utensils; one can almost hear them clattering their way into the girls’ hands. Yet the pleasure of abundance quickly yields to the claustrophobic hell of domesticity, the spiritual death of the girl in the process of becoming the good wife. For all Madame Gallard’s talk of God, there is no room for divinity amid such clutter. When, at the novel’s end, Pascal refuses to propose to Andrée, and she falls into a defeated, feverish oblivion and dies, her grave is piled with white flowers, symbols of her untrammelled virtue. Their excess recalls the excess of kitchenware heaped upon the woman-to-be, who has, in dying, simply exchanged one tomb for another. “A dark insight occurred to me: Andrée had suffocated in all this whiteness,” Sylvie thinks. “Atop that immaculate abundance, I lay down three red roses.”
One wonders if Beauvoir would have approved of the novel’s publication nearly seventy years after she drafted it. “When I showed it to Sartre after two or three months, he held his nose,” she recalled in “Force of Circumstance,” the third volume of her memoirs. “I couldn’t have agreed more: the story seemed to have no inner necessity and failed to hold the reader’s interest.” Whether her concurrence with Sartre is feigned is impossible to determine; certainly it seems overeager. I suspect that Beauvoir, picking up her pen, was pricked by two conflicting compulsions—the desire to summon her ghost and the desire to exorcise her forever. And perhaps, too, Sartre found it inconvenient that another had preëmpted him as Beauvoir’s first love. Much of her fiction up to that point, such as “She Came to Stay” and “The Mandarins,” had concerned him and her, and had done much to enshrine the myth of their “essential love” with all its “contingent love affairs.”
Notwithstanding the salaciousness surrounding the novel’s release today, it reveals nothing new about the facts of Beauvoir’s life. Nearly all the events related in “The Inseparables”—Sylvie’s thwarted love, Pascal’s refusal to propose, Andrée’s death—were repurposed, four years later, in “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter,” often nearly word for word. And neither book marked Lacoin’s first appearance in Beauvoir’s writing. In “When Things of the Spirit Come First,” a collection of stories she began in 1935, Lacoin was disguised as Anne, a young woman who dies after her Catholic mother manipulates her into giving up the man she loves. When it came to telling the story of Zaza, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction was, for Beauvoir, largely ornamental, a matter of swapping names and places.
“Howard’s stuck in transit—he’ll be FaceTiming in.”
Cartoon by Joe Dator
The true “inseparables” are not Andrée and Sylvie, or Zaza and Simone, but the discarded novel and the wildly successful memoir. The novel restores Zaza to her rightful place as a subject, presenting her as a singular being, incomparable and ultimately unknowable to the narrator herself. It is propelled by the jealous, curious, melancholy, and blissful contractions of eros without any expectation of reciprocity. The Andrée / Zaza figure is permitted to live and die on her own terms, her story untethered from the future fame or philosophical rationalizations of the narrator, who is, in these pages, nobody of note at all.
“Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter,” by contrast, treats the story of Zaza as a single thread in the large, complicated, and busy tapestry of Beauvoir’s early life. As if to agitate against the asymmetry of feeling between her and Zaza in life, Beauvoir framed her journey to selfhood in her memoir through Zaza’s loss of it. The writer, by surviving the friend who had outshone her, became “both mind and memory, the essential Subject.” The idea that their fates were entangled in a zero-sum struggle between female freedom and bondage, Self and Other, repeats in the memoir’s final sentences: “She has often appeared to me at night, her face all yellow under a pink sun-bonnet, and seeming to gaze reproachfully at me. We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time, I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.”
Why the reproachful gaze? If there is something touching about Beauvoir’s persistent elegiac impulse, then there is also a strain of cruelty in her consignment of Zaza to the role of the Other in the memoirs. Her submission to Simone is consistent with Beauvoir’s understanding of youthful lesbianism in “The Second Sex.” In the chapter titled “The Girl,” Beauvoir explained with cool conviction that “nearly all girls have lesbian tendencies; these tendencies are barely distinguishable from narcissistic delights.” Lesbianism among girls was the handmaid to heterosexual self-determination, and no one was a more dutiful handmaid than a best girlfriend. The argument destigmatizes lesbianism while also minimizing its erotic and social power, its centrality to both pleasure and politics. But the book undercuts its own position, through the sheer descriptive delight with which Beauvoir writes of the sweetness of a woman’s skin and the curves of her body—not to mention the repeated disgust with which she details heterosexual intercourse. “It is as if the very subject of lesbianism makes Beauvoir incapable of organising her thought,” the critic Toril Moi has observed. Desire, when improperly acknowledged, gives birth to a theory that tells on its author.
To read “The Inseparables” is to learn what could have been, and to judge what was a little more harshly. It is to see in the memoirs a lingering refusal to give Zaza the autonomy that everyone in life seems to have denied her at the greatest possible cost. And it is to see in “The Second Sex” an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to make as affirmative a case as possible for lesbian identity. Was it “because she did not trust her own fragmentary experience or her understanding of it?” the literary critic Meryl Altman has asked. “Because she did not feel she could, or should, speak for others?” Or, we might wonder, was it because she wanted to enfold it calmly and quietly into a general theory of love?
Love is often defined through opposition and negation: love versus friendship, love versus hate, love versus indifference, love versus money. Yet the most moving part of “The Inseparables” is a dedication addressed directly to Zaza, which suggests a different axis along which love comes into focus: death. “If there are tears in my eyes tonight, is it because you are no longer alive, or because I am?” Beauvoir wonders. “I should dedicate this story to you, but I know that you no longer exist anywhere, and my writing to you like this is pure literary artifice. In any case, this isn’t really your story, only one inspired by us. You were not Andrée; nor was I Sylvie, who speaks in my name.” What is the purpose of an utterance destined to remain unread by its designated addressee? Why speak when the one you speak to will never answer?
In “The Inseparables,” the distinction between friends and lovers, straight love and queer love, pales before the difference between loving a friend who is alive and one who is dead. As Jacques Derrida shows in “Politics of Friendship,” many great meditations on friendship—by Cicero, by Montaigne, by Bataille, by Blanchot—are also meditations on mourning. These mourners “entrust and refuse” the death of the friend by committing his essence to words, his spirit to memory. The figure of the dead friend is not a test of love’s endurance but, rather, an act of ritual purification. The author’s address to “the unique one” is converted into a universal language, an utterance directed not to one but to many. The project of grieving a friend is one of flinging pleas and promises and imprecations into the abyss, hoping against all hope to hear something other than the echo of your own voice.
For Derrida, death lays bare the essential separateness of the friend not only in death but also in life—the belief in alterity that has structured all theories of modern friendship since Montaigne described a friend as one who “surpassed me by an infinite distance.” In death’s shadow, this separateness reaches its unbearable limit. It was this limit that Beauvoir spent much of her life pushing against, not just by stirring the memory of Zaza again and again in her writing but also by attempting to find another such relationship—that is, to reincarnate Zaza. Beauvoir’s long relationship with Sylvie Le Bon, whom she adopted and made her executor before she died, was the last of these endeavors. “You can explain my feeling for Sylvie by comparing it to my friendship for Zaza. I have kept my nostalgia for that my whole life. Since she died, I have often desired to have an intense, daily, and total relationship with a woman,” she claimed. Yet a surrogate is usually a poor imitation of the original. Only now that Zaza and Beauvoir are both dead can a kind of reciprocity be restored. Neither can speak; neither can listen. Neither can be known to anyone anymore, let alone to each other.
“Doubtless it was my friendship with Zaza which made me attach so much weight to the perfect union of two human beings; discovering the world together and as it were making a gift of their discoveries to one another, they would, I felt, take possession of it in a specially privileged way,” Beauvoir wrote in her memoirs. The description evokes other idealized relationships that haunt her writing. The first is the love between adult women described in the chapter of “The Second Sex” titled “The Lesbian.” This love transcends the narcissistic closeness of love between girls, in a beautiful balancing of selves. “Between women, love is contemplation,” Beauvoir wrote. “Separation is eliminated, there is neither fight nor victory nor defeat; each one is both subject and object, sovereign and slave in exact reciprocity.” She knew, of course, that there was no actual human relationship that this described. It was a utopia on par with the idea of the living communing with the dead. But it was a utopia she claimed for women, the women that she and Zaza had never been together.
The other idealized relationship is the impersonal intimacy between reader and writer. As Beauvoir must have known from her great love of Proust, reading and writing were, for him, the truest forms of “sincere” friendship, for they were the purest attempts to converse with a person who was absent or dead. Friendship with the living offered merely the cool veneer of “friendliness,” Proust wrote, for immediately it trapped us in conventions of “deference, gratitude, and devotion” that led nowhere but back into the hollows of our own anxious minds. What Beauvoir in “The Inseparables” calls the “pure literary artifice” of speaking to a mute, inglorious reader points to the sincere friendship and queer love tangled deep in the heart of her writing. It is a friendship that we are now invited to partake of as her reader, the two inseparables’ shadowy third. ♦