Monday, September 06, 2010


We are leaving Italy this evening to visit the France of the existentialists:

A Dangerous LiaisonA Dangerous Liaison by Carole Seymour-Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"What did you do in the war, Sartre?"

Two years ago when I was in hospital I reread de Beauvoir's "Prime of Life" and it occurred to me that she and Sartre had rather an easy war. Now Carole Seymour-Jones, in this double biography, explodes the myth that the couple were prominent in the Resistance and we learn that they did very little indeed. It was Albert Camus who put himself in danger by publishing clandestinely, while Sartre and de Beauvoir attended only one committee meeting of the underground newspaper "Combat". What is more incriminating is that Sartre wrote nothing against the laws of Vichy France and the famous articles he is supposed to have written for "Combat" were actually penned by de Beauvoir.

Resistance and collaboration are difficult subjects and, since none of us knows what we would do under occupation, perhaps the golden couple of existentialism cannot be blamed for what they did not do.

More shocking for a whole generation of women, perhaps, is de Beauvoir's bisexuality and her abuse of her position as a teacher when she seduced female students. Her compliance in Sartre's affairs - the two had a pact whereby they were both free to take other lovers as long as they told each other - is well known. In acting as procuress for her "intellectual partner" and making friends with his lovers, she was, after all, following a tradition set by many a "maîtresse en titre" but we are talking about the "mother of feminism" here!

I do not have a problem with Sartre's womanising or de Beauvoir's acceptance of it but I do have a problem with the fact that the greatest "anti-bourgeois" of his time took the very bourgeois step of setting his women up financially and that de Beauvoir did not rail against this.

The second major point on which the couple can legitimately be criticised is, of course, their tardiness in condemning the post-war actions of Stalin: fêted by the Russians, they fell into every trap set for them: protagonists of their time, perhaps, but startlingly naive.

I had never understood de Beauvoir's relationship with her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon but much is clarified here. It seems that the adoption was contrived mainly so that Le Bon could become de Beauvoir's literary executor, a decision which de Beauvoir' s sister understood.

Interestingly, Le Bon says that de Beauvoir never had an abortion, though of course the writer famously signed the "Manifesto of the 343" stating that she had. The extent to which de Beauvoir was pilloried after the publication of "The Second Sex" shocks even today.

All in all, then, a fascinating and timely biography of a couple who changed the thinking not only of their own generation but of generations to come. De Beauvoir emerges as less likeable than before but I admire her none the less: her feminism was based not upon ranting or hatred of men but upon intellectual rigour and that leaves her forever enthroned as "the mother of feminism". De Beauvoir once said of Sartre that he was "the writer who never lets you down". For me, it is de Beauvoir herself who never disappoints and continues to sustain me today as she did forty years ago.

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Leslie: said...

Sounds like a fascinating read. I've always been interested in WW2 in Europe and the real people involved.

lakeviewer said...

Another great insight/review about a famous couple.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Leslie. Yes, a very interesting and tragic period. Hi, lakeviewer. Thank you.

RNSANE said...

There are so many books I would like to read and this is one...but I will never get to it, probably. I have stacks of unread volumes here that will take me the rest of my life to finish ( where have all the years gone? ).

At 65, I've done it! My poetry book - Life's Journey by Carmen Henesy - is out on Amazon! ( Poems about the things that have been important to me in my journey through life, some humorous, some sad, some that may have meaning to you as well )
( Check out the site and read reviews of what others
have thought about my book )

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Carol. I think we all get to feel like that once we are over 60! What a pity one can't take one's books to heaven - assuming that's where one would end up - as eternity is such a long time! You must be overjoyed about your book. You did it! xx


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