Letters to Sartre by Simone de Beauvoir, edited by Quentin Hoare

A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in an outdoor cafe in the Piazza Navona. Photograph:   Francois Lochon/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in an outdoor cafe in the Piazza Navona. Photograph: Francois Lochon/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

 

Anyone interested in Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre will already know their situation. Very French, one might say. What makes de Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre so wonderful to read isn’t, then, the grand philosophising, but the dailiness of them; all the little incidentals that are never going to make it into Nausea or The Second Sex or even her fabulous memoirs (all of which I recommend reading first, of course).

I’m fascinated by these minutiae. Yes, there was lots of sitting outside cafes, lots of condemning of bad faith, lots of writing and striving towards truth. But there’s also travel, food, parties. There’s lunch for $1.50 in New York on the corner of “Beaver and Broad Street”. (De Beauvoir’s italics. Sartre’s nickname for her was Beaver take that how you will.)

There’s fleeting mention of a party in de Beauvoir’s honour in Boston, attended by Charlie Chaplin, Kurt Weil and Le Corbusier. There are nights spent sleeping in barns, eating cheap omelettes for lack of money, wild strip joints in Chicago and hiking alone in the French alps.

There’s the joy and the pain their “open marriage” caused de Beauvoir, which at times trickles from these pages like blood from the spaces between her words. There’s her careful presentation to Sartre of her other possible life, the one with the American writer Nelson Algren.

What’s especially notable about de Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre is the total honesty to which they attempt to adhere, and their unwavering belief in a system of living that’s better and truer than any then existent in the West. In spite of its complete novelty, and the inevitable resistance of conservative society, one can’t deny that the desire to live by one’s lights in defiance of convention is noble. She pursued a life of unprecedented female independence that must have been, at times, incredibly painful.

Throughout these letters, what really shines through is de Beauvoir’s simultaneously maintained autonomy and symbiotic relationship with Sartre, her “beloved little one”, along with their total commitment to a life spent in pursuit of ideals, together.

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