Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
by Peter Byrne
"All the world has been waiting for is for you to shut up for a second."
H. E. F. Donohue, Conversations With Nelson Algren, 1964.
(Swans - February 11, 2008) The French are unique in the attention
they pay their artistic and intellectual luminaries. Simone de
Beauvoir is getting the full treatment in the centenary year of her
birth. Current agendas inevitably creep in. ARTE, the admirable
Franco-German TV Channel, began the year by showing Dominique Gros's
documentary, Simone de Beauvoir, Une Femme Actuelle. It's full of
striking footage and stills that touch some high points of her life,
but ignore others. We see her marching for "women's liberation" with
the Mouvement de la Libération des Femmes, and along with Sartre
against the war in Algeria. The couple takes part in the Russell
Tribunal, accusing America of war crimes in Vietnam. There's no
mention of her two-month visit to China with Sartre in 1955 and the
naïve conclusions she drew. Nor is there anything about Sartre in the
Paris streets with the Maoists as he tried to get arrested to round
out his curriculum vitae.
A home-movie clip of the couple epitomizes their union. Simone sits
at a small table with nothing before her that might distract from her
work. She writes at top speed like a jumpy robot. Behind her back,
facing the same way, Sartre sits at another table, presumably also at
work, but looking relaxed as he lights a cigarette. Simone appears to
be setting the pace, but also performing, conscious of being
observed, the perfect pupil, a shade uneasy.
ARTE also scheduled Les Amants du Flore, a made-for-TV movie directed
by Ilan Duran Cohen that isn't nearly so bad as it could have been.
The story begins with Simone's troubled relationship with her
hidebound, shabby, genteel father and then settles down to show her
adjusting reluctantly to Sartre's sexual arrangements while devising
some of her own. The script doesn't go beyond the couple's literary
success of 1949. Her book The Second Sex appears and he publishes the
last volume of The Roads to Freedom, his trilogy of novels.
As Simone, Anna Mouglalis's face is frozen in nervous resentment
throughout, which rather loads the dice as far as character study
goes. Nelson Algren appears, does his stud number, and is quickly
sidelined as the iconic couple steamrollers on. This centenary year
has little time for "the Chicago man." He's allowed to bring the good
news of vaginal orgasm and then in a macho huff gets shooed off stage.
Lorànt Deutsch plays Sartre with more variation. For any reader who
has fevered his brain over the Teutonic-French of Being and
Nothingness, there's a jolting moment in the movie. It's when we see
the young Sartre in the buff panting beside his beloved Beaver.
Nathalie Petrowski in La Presse of Montreal, Canada, took to task the
Nouvel Observateur for publishing a nude photo of Simone to greet the
centenary year. But her brief was for equality, not against the
supposed invasion of privacy that has bothered more humorless feminists:
On the day when the Nouvel Obs has the nerve to show us the bare
behind of a great male thinker, we will be able to say that equality
between men and women has at last been achieved. (January 9, 2008)
But won't Deutsch's bottom do as a stand in? Let's hope so. The
simple sight of a fully clothed actor impersonating the maître à
penser of my generation has been enough to traumatize me. Ms.
Petrowski forgets something. Art Shay's photo of the undraped Simone
pushing forty is a thing of some beauty, whereas who knows what
Sartre's bum looked like? If the great thinker's face foreshadowed
it, let's leave him do his thinking with his pants on.
A foreign observer can only marvel that the photo has caused such
hubbub in France. The sterner feminists insisted that a woman's body
had been exposed for commercial gain. But the photo wasn't used only
to sell more copies. As well as bringing pleasure, it gave us
relevant information on a writer who didn't leave her body out of her
considerations. The charge is that the intimacy of a public figure
dead for twenty-two years was not respected. Strangely, this is
exactly the accusation that Nelson leveled against Simone when she
made use of their love affair in her fiction and memoirs. He felt his
privacy had been shattered and what they shared together destroyed.
De Gaulle said of Sartre: "You don't put Voltaire in prison." Nelson
should have known that you don't compete with French national
monuments. He has come out of the year's welter of words as the
necessary fall guy, the foil that put into shining relief the perfect
Sartrian couple. But anyone who reads Simone's memoirs or dips into
her three hundred letters to Nelson will realize that there was more
than good sex between them. (Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir: A
Transatlantic Love Affair, Letters to Nelson Algren, 1998.) He was
"Beloved husband" in 1947 and still "Dearest you" in 1964 for the
writer who signed, "Your own Simone." Nor should we forget that she
was buried wearing his ring.
Publishing the letters, by the way, was surely a violation of privacy
greater than that of using a single photo in a Parisian weekly. Maybe
the thinking was that the letters would be read by an elite
readership, not drooled over by newsstand browsers. In any case, the
book of correspondence had "Love Affair" in big letters -- bigger
than the word "Transatlantic" that preceded them -- spread across the
dust jacket. Didn't some customers bite because they hoped for hot
stuff within? Still more incriminating, there's a center spread of
photos where Simone, stripped of her turban, exhibits a daring
stretch of upper arm on several pages.
That Nelson became the faceless figure in the Sartre-Simone triptych
is understandable. His shade would have fled the monster Colloque
International de Paris organized by Julia Kristeva in January. He
would have needed a stiff bourbon followed by the diversion of an
all-night poker game. But we shouldn't ignore him. All too typical of
even the more subtle scenarios is his character's corny remark in Les
Amants du Flore: "I don't like being made use of only for my cock."
Though sexual compatibility may have been the point of departure of
their relationship, the mutual attraction between the two can best be
termed an immense fascination. Sartre introduced the concept of "the
other" into lecture rooms. Simone and Nelson lived it on their skin.
It's been said that "the Chicago man" came from another planet. But
this assumes that Simone's postwar Paris was the norm of human
environments. In fact it was another part of the solar system for Nelson.
What fascinated both partners was their difference. Simone found
relief escaping the hothouse atmosphere of the Left Bank. In her
intense life there every word she uttered meant taking up a position.
Nelson had holed up in a Chicago slum and woven a mythology of misery
around himself. He shied away from other writers while complaining
that he lived in a vacuum. Chicago in the late 1940s wasn't rife with
ideas. The Parisian vie intellectuelle scared but attracted him.
That they were both writers didn't make matters easier or themselves
more similar. Simone had gone through the French educational system
from bottom to top. That meant continual striving from childhood
onward and becoming une bête à concours -- an animal raised to pass
exams. To climb the hill to the Agrégation, as she did, meant a dozen
grueling years. She bypassed her discord with her parents by forming
another family, first with fellow students, then with those she
taught, and finally with a circle of intellectuals.
Nelson's education, topped off with a university diploma in
journalism, was a much more lackadaisical affair. It didn't make him
the member of a caste or guarantee him a job as Simone's had. The
lack of a salary and a group lending support wasn't of itself an
infertile situation for a novelist. Nelson had no inclination to deal
in ideas or analysis. Simone, with her training in philosophy, would
always be at home in intellectual debate. Though a searing dissector
of her own experience, she would never rid herself of a professorial
rigidity in her fiction.
Politically the two only seemed to be of the same family. Simone came
out of a Catholic middle-class milieu, lived through the Nazi
occupation, and moved left with Sartre until by the time she met
Nelson her radical views had taken her beyond the French Communist
Party. He concurred in these, but his experience had been very
different. Drifting in the jobless 1930s he flirted with the American
Communist Party, breaking away completely at the time of the Spanish
Civil War. While ideology meant little to him, he would always take
the defense of the have-nots. What he didn't like about the Party was
its schoolroom discipline. The doctrinal infighting among European
intellectuals was all Greek to him.
WWII marked another cleavage between the two. In a way, unless they
were actually scarred by battle, the war left all Americans as minors
in an adult world. The French under the Vichy government and German
occupation had been faced with a stark choice, for or against. This
was quite different from choosing to vote for FDR rather than for his
opponent. Nelson's attitude to the army in which he served was
detached in the manner of Joseph Heller's characters in Catch-22. His
patriotism was closer to Woody Guthrie's than to that of a member of
the French Resistance.
When Simone arrived in Chicago and met Nelson in 1947, her weighty
past came with her. She also brought along the French romance of
America that had burgeoned with the Libération and was much
influenced among literati by Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. She
swallowed Nelson's myth of the "loser" whole. It fit the anti-luxury
stance of the austerity-hardened European intelligentsia. Both
parties were in a fog over the other's homeland. To read Simone and
her circle, you would think white Americans spent the best part of
their time lynching "Negroes." When Nelson sat at a table on the
terrace of Les Deux Magots, he felt parachuted into a nation of
Given these differences, it's not so much, as Sylvie le Bon de
Beauvoir says, that they didn't know each other, but that they
couldn't know each other or exist in harmony for any length of time.
(Sartre, in the movie, tells Simone that he knows her better than she
knows herself. Of him, his biographer, Annie Cohen-Solal, says that
he was at the same time "the best feminist and the worst macho.")
As a matter of fact, their days together were not very many. The
love-at-first-bedding occurred in 1947. They met in February, and she
left with Nelson's ring at the end of summer. She returned in 1948
for two months, and they traveled strenuously. Nelson went to Paris
for three months in 1949. In 1950 she spent two months in America; in
1951, less than a month. No meetings then occurred till 1960 when
Nelson passed several months in Europe. In 1964 even letter writing stopped.
The emotional trajectory is clear from Simone's letters and books and
Nelson's remarks. Both accept the initial meeting as life changing,
but have trouble actually making any changes. Nelson was a marrying
kind of man, who liked divorces too. He immediately asked Simone to
marry him. She answered, April 23, 1947, in a letter that touched the
essential. She loved him deeply but couldn't give him all of herself.
Part would go elsewhere. She feared that one day this would make him
hate her. (She was right, and it would.) She proposed they should go
on meeting when their lives allowed it.
The arrangement never satisfied Nelson. But it's doubtful he saw into
himself with Simone's acuity. He'd never been at ease in marriage and
often commented that a solitary life best suited a writer. His
gambling mania -- he almost always lost -- could not but jar any
domestic setup. What's more he had a lifelong obsession with prostitutes.
In brief, Simone knew what she was doing, while Nelson deluded
himself. Her letters, full of love but also of Sartre, hardly
reassured him. Her existentialist truth-telling must have shaken him.
To a man who felt he was somehow diminished if he didn't totally
possess his mate, she insisted on reporting her various dalliances.
A moment of truth came in 1948. They admitted that neither could live
in exile. Nelson, however, felt that her Paris life was full and his
Chicago one empty, though he also felt that without the emptiness he
couldn't write. Still he wanted someone beside him. Simone's 1950
trip to Chicago was the beginning of the end for Nelson. He decided
to remarry the wife he'd divorced and announced to Simone, who had
never stopped declaring her love for him, that he'd fallen out of
love with her. This was Sartre's truth-telling with a vengeance. It
was a terrible summer on all sides.
Now it was Simone who seemed to be deluding herself. Her short stay
in 1951 went better. Nelson thought that after all he might just
still be in love with her. He in fact put off remarrying his former
wife for two years. After the ceremony, everything began to go wrong
for him. He was soon besotted with a new woman and couldn't get a
second divorce from the wife he married twice. There was trouble with
publishers. He couldn't obtain a passport because of his one-time
association with the Communist Party. His health faltered and he fell
In 1956, when The Mandarins appeared in America, Nelson revealed a
submerged but fundamental part of himself. Outraged that Simone made
use of their intimacy in her books, he began to speak of her in
spiteful language that spared no misogynic cliché. By 1964 he'd taken
the hard edge off his remarks, but they hadn't changed in substance:
We had already begun a relationship that assumed the secondary status
of the female in relation to the male. . . . The irony of the title
The Second Sex is a purely literary irony. In reality there was no
irony. Second is where second belongs. It is still interesting to me
how a woman may accept the secondary status of the second sex in a
personal relationship -- and the relationship never got off that
basis -- which contradicts her philosophical premise. (Conversations
with Nelson Algren, page 225.)
We would like to have entered this conversation and explained to
Nelson that his erect penis hadn't put him in pole position. Simone's
lucidity had guaranteed equality. Here in 1964 he seemed relieved to
no longer have to deal in any position whatsoever with Miss de
Beauvoir, as he'd come to refer to her with a sneer. They'd met in
Europe on friendly terms in 1960. Now all contact ceased.
And that photo of Simone nude on the cover of a magazine? More than
anything else it's part of a necessary cleansing operation. I don't
refer to the foolish touches added to Art Shay's work. Simone had to
be scraped clean of all doctrinal claptrap. Once the incrustations
fall away, we can see the woman who wrote to Nelson in her limited
but passionate English: "Words are useless; I want to use my lips, my
hands, to kiss you, to hold you, all my body to feel your body, your
warmth, your love and to give you mine." (Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir,
letter of October 27, 1947.) It's true Simone never stopped talking.
But every word declared her openness and hunger for life.