Picks and Pans Review: Simone De Beauvoir: a Life, a Love Story

by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier

Jean-Paul Sartre and the writer Simone de Beauvoir relentlessly turned their lives into literature. Sartre, the father of modern existentialism, and the feminist-activist de Beauvoir were not shy about revealing even the most intimate details of their shared existence, and in the years since their deaths—his in 1980, hers in 1986—additional letters and journals have appeared. So these three biographies faced a daunting task—how to tell anew already well-told tales. They succeed only fitfully. The basic story is certainly fascinating. Sartre and de Beauvoir, middle-class children in revolt against what they considered France’s stifling bourgeoisie, met at the Sorbonne in 1929. Sartre wrote later of the young Simone: “I’ve always thought her beautiful, even though she was wearing a hideous little hat when I first met her. I was dead set on making her acquaintance.” For de Beauvoir the encounter was equally momentous. Sartre, she wrote, “was the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence.” They became inseparable, yet never lived together. From the start Sartre had what he called contingent loves, and de Beauvoir adjusted. Sartre, who once called himself “a wage-earning Don Juan,” had numerous affairs with women de Beauvoir knew or came to know. She had two great loves other than Jean-Paul: American author Nelson Algren and French writer Claude Lanzmann. About one amour Sartre could write to de Beauvoir, “She sucked my tongue with the strength of an electric suction fan so that it still hurts and glued herself to me with her whole body.” Their strange nonmarriage was, however, strained at the end by Sartre’s illnesses and his decision to adopt one of his mistresses as his daughter.

Written with flare and brio, Cohen-Solal’s Sartre: A Life (Pantheon, $24.95) is the showiest of these three biographies. Cohen-Solal is a French writer born in Algeria. Her book, published in France in 1985, has gotten the most publicity of the three. Ronald Hayman, a British actor before he became a critic and writer, has produced a more cerebral narrative with the same title (Simon and Schuster, $22.95), so crammed with facts the reader at times needs to pause for air. Francis and Gontier, two American professors, interviewed de Beauvoir frequently during a 10-year period before her death. Theirs is a quiet but absorbing biography (St. Martin’s, $18.95). Although it contains fresh material about de Beauvoir’s relationships with her father and with Algren, its perhaps unavoidable flaw is that it relies heavily on de Beauvoir’s autobiographical writings. That only points up the problem for these three books: de Beauvoir and Sartre wrote, if not everything about themselves, as much as most people would ever wish to read.

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