Intellectually in love and physically possessive of one another for 51 years, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre lived according to their ‘pact’ of being allowed to have ‘contingent’ love affairs as long as they told each other the truth, making them one of the most intriguing celebrity literary couples of the 20th century. Reading this evocative new biography of de Beauvoir, you can literally smell the coffee and the Gauloises... In this fascinating and deeply researched book, Kate Kirkpatrick blows away a thousand myths that have grown up around them.
She reveals that, far from Sartre being the perpetual object of her obsession, de Beauvoir had other much more physically passionate affairs both before and during the Sartre years, one of them with Claude Lanzmann, director of the Holocaust masterpiece Shoah; and she suggests that it was de Beauvoir who came up with some of the central tenets of Sartre’s philosophy before he did.
Kirkpatrick’s storytelling is detailed and brilliantly selective (a bad mescaline trip that left Sartre hallucinating lobsters is particularly memorable). On Beauvoir’s life and work, her take is clear: Beauvoir upended the notion that a woman philosopher could only write about her personal life at the expense of her intellectual credibility.
But what if we’ve only understood half of Beauvoir’s lesson? Kirkpatrick’s biography shows why we’ve much more to learn from Beauvoir than the tiresome bad faith involved in being a woman in a crassly gendered world. We are not just “made” women, we must also deal with the more difficult existential, moral, and eventually political work of becoming a woman. If women are to unpin their wings from the absoluteness of the male gaze, they must first learn to jump over their own shadows. Then – and this is the real existential question – who knows what might follow?
In some ways, then, Beauvoir helped to distort her own reputation through omission. In others, it was distorted for her – most shockingly in Parshley’s translation of The Second Sex, which cut nearly 15 per cent of the original, systematically removing the feminism from her argument. That disfigured document is still all that most people know of her writings, and yet she considered her fiction perhaps the most important representation of her philosophy (the ambiguity of story, she argued in her 1946 essay ‘Literature and Metaphysics’, allowed readers freedom, which she valued highly), while her memoirs provoked the most passionate responses among her fellow Frenchwomen. In Kirkpatrick’s biography, Beauvoir is restored to her full body of work, her full complexity, her full bravery – so much more than one misquoted line.
Sadly, de Beauvoir has tended to be overshadowed by Sartre. She is as famous for their 51-year open relationship as for her philosophy, fiction and feminism. This, like other de Beauvoir biographies, is keen to establish that she anticipated and influenced Sartre’s philosophy, but inevitably how far that was so remains irresolvable; in fact, judging by the publication dates, their views tended to change in tandem. What Becoming Beauvoir illuminatingly shows, however, is that, unlike Sartre, and even at her most extreme, de Beauvoir was always preoccupied with the place and claim of that “Other” person. “‘Love’ was a concept that de Beauvoir subjected to decades of philosophical scrutiny,” says Kirkpatrick.
Where Kirkpatrick’s biography is strongest is in clarifying and showing the strength of De Beauvoir’s ethical commitments, and how these were transformed into political commitments after the war. Her concern for the situation in Algeria in the 1950s and 60s is movingly recorded, as is her tireless commitment to helping younger women. While Albert Camus once accused her of “making the French male look ridiculous”, the women of France thanked her for using this to effect change, both in the lives of the hundreds who wrote asking for advice or help, and in the lives of the thousands whose freedom she enabled and inspired. “Women, you owe her everything!” the crowd chanted at her funeral. Now we are coming to comprehend exactly what this means.
It’s certainly a warts and all portrait, and Kirkpatrick doesn’t try to defend de Beauvoir when defence seems hard to rustle up. This, after all, was the woman who was trying to grapple with the ethics of existentialism in a way that Sartre was not. But it’s also true that this kind of sexual carelessness seems more shocking in a woman than a man. De Beauvoir did express regret. And in later years, she struggled with the fact that short, ugly Sartre was still juggling an exhausting roster of lovers when she was lucky to attract an admiring glance... Becoming Beauvoir is a book to be read slowly and savoured. There’s too much detail to gulp it down. But it is worth the time it takes to read a fascinating portrait of a woman who inspired women around the world and who changed the way many people think.