Hazel Rowley
New York: Harper Perennial, 2005
ISBN # 10-0-06-052059-0
416 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2010

Hazel Rowley has written a gripping account of the relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir from when they met in 1929 until Sartre’s death in 1980. The account focuses on the life values they embraced, their pledge to each other, and also includes the many loves and lovers which each of them had and how the other reacted to these affairs. Rowley’s research is impressive and her writing style fast paced, easy to follow and reflects an enormous amount of research.

However, while the theme is clearly the relationship between Sartre and Beauvoir, the book does come across as portraying what existentialism is. I think that is very misleading. It certainly details the particular form that existentialism took in the lives of Sartre, Beauvoir and their friends and lovers, but, as Sartre himself acknowledges, this is just THEIR version of existentialism, their own particular life choices.

The two met when studying for their philosophy examinations in 1929. Sartre had failed the exam in 1928 and had joined with two other buddies of his to study for the 1929 exam. One of them introduced Beauvoir into the circle and the four studied together, all passing, with Sartre winning the first prize and Beauvoir the second. By that time Sartre and Beauvoir were quite close. She went off to southern France for a vacation and Sartre came to visit her. They talked about their views of life:

Sartre explained to Beauvoir his theory of liberty and contingency. It was the subject on which they had written in their exams, and he had been thinking about it for some time. As he saw it, individuals lived in a state of fundamental absurdity, or ‘contingency.’ There was no god, life had no preexisting meaning. Each individual had to assume his freedom, create his own life. There was no natural order; people held their destiny in their own hands. It was up to them to determine the substance of their lives, even the way they chose to love. It was frightening to be free. Most people fled from their freedom. But Sartre embraced his. He was not going to allow any preestablished code determine his life. His life was going to be his own construction. Beauvoir thought this a beautiful philosophy.

There are some interesting passages of existential philosophy in the book. However, if this book were a gallon bucket of information it would have a teaspoon of existentialism and the rest is Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship and that of their legion of sexual partners with the accompanying jealousies and management problems.

[NOTE: I’m going to limit my comments on the book to what is most relevant to Rowley’s analysis of the relationship between Sartre and Beauvoir and that will include many of their other relationships since they impinge on the Sartre/Beauvoir relationship. However, Rowley does include significant material on Sartre and Beauvoir’s version of existentialism itself. I will make some comments on those more philosophical issues in a separate set of notes. See: SOME REFLECTIONS ON LIVING EXISTENTIALISM

In the period from 1929 until the beginning of WWII their life centered around their budding careers as writers, and the growth of their “pact,” and the multiplication of their sexual affairs. On the other hand Rowley might just argue that they were rather expressing their own sense of freedom and commitment. I’d accept either.

The “pact” is crucial to their relationship and never much changed from the very earliest days until Sartre’s death in 1980. They would commit to each other as “partners” and companions. However, they would not live together, would encourage and support each other in having other lovers in their lives, and, perhaps most importantly, they would tell each other EVERYTHING about what they were doing, especially with other people. And they mainly did. However, while they seemed to have continued this pact until death, it didn’t mean that each of them would not suffer jealousy at other lovers, and the place of other people in their partner’s life. Both of them suffered that, but Beauvoir seems to have expressed much more of this in her writings and Rowley catalogues a great deal of it.

However, World War II changed them both. Until that time both were relatively outside the political world and quite naïve, even unlearned in world affairs.

Shortly after the war began with Germany’s invasion of Poland, Beauvoir wrote:

“History burst over me and I dissolved into fragments.”

Indeed she was devastated and terribly worried about Sartre who was in the south of France serving as a meteorologist with the French army. He was immediately captured and spent nearly a year in captivity, much of it rather comfortably in a prisoner of war camp in Trier, Germany. v When he was released he was a changed man, returning to Paris ready to become more involved in political activities, even resistance to the Germans. Beauvoir was simply not there yet, still just sort of devastated by the war and numb rather than active.

“The war really divided my life in two,” Sartre said in his old age. “It started when I was thirty-four years old and ended when I was forty, and that really was the transition from youth to maturity.”

At the same time the two of them began more forcefully to create their lives as writers. After university both had taught philosophy in French high schools for a while, Beauvoir for much longer until she lost her job for seducing a high school girl to become her lover. But during the war they plunged into their writing, with Sartre always being much more successful than Beauvoir.

Two early Sartre works, the novel Nausea and the play No Exit brought him significant fame and began to give him a rather decent income.

When No Exit was to be staged they hired a young Algerian to direct it – Albert Camus, and thus began a relatively short-lived close relationship with Camus. While both admired him greatly and liked him personally, they had bitter disagreements about politics, especially centering on Sartre’s strong approval of and support for The Soviet Russia from about 1950 to 1956. They ended up breaking with Camus over those issues and after 1952 never spoke to him again.

After WWII Sartre seemed to treat his many lovers with more genuine care. Rowley is unclear what the motive was. Before that time he and Beauvoir seemed nearly callous in their use of their lovers, and, following their own agreement for sharing EVERYTHING with each other (which they never really did), they come across as simply brutal and even nasty toward many of their lovers.

After their deaths, most of their letters to each other were published, Sartre’s with some editing, but Beauvoir’s just as they existed. This caused some serious uproar.

The shock would be even greater when Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre were published in 1990, after her death, without any censorship whatsoever on the part of Sylvie Le Bon. The scathing comments about others (including Beauvoir’s sister, Poupette) were left intact, and so were the details of her lesbian relationships. With every new publication, readers shook their heads in wonder. Was this the famous Sartrean pact of transparency. This voyeurism and exhibitionism, this lying to others? Many remarked that the complicity between Sartre and Beauvoir resembled the scheming Viscount of Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil in LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES.

However, the most shocking of those letters tended to refer to the pre-WWII letters and pre-WWII behavior. They continued to have lots of affairs, but Sartre, who had seemed the more offensive in his treatment of his lovers, appears to have mitigated his negative behavior after WWII. In fact, after his THIRD change of life (around 1968 when he joined the students in revolt and became a member of the radical Maoist group), he seems to have settled into a strange routine. He had many lovers, sometimes at least ½ dozen at a time.

He not only supported them financially, but kept schedules of when he would be with one and when with another, and seemed quite solicitous of their well-being.

Sartre like to describe himself as ‘the district nurse.’ ‘You’re lucky,’ he told his psychoanalyst friend Jean-Bertrand Ponalis. ‘Sick people come to your rooms and they pay you. In my case, I’m the one who does the rounds and I pay them.’

It also seems that both Sartre and Beauvoir realized that some of their earlier behavior was unduly brutal. They both had a hard time admitting this, it was too close to denying their right to complete freedom, but Beauvoir expressed it late in life:

Sylvie Le Bon, 30 some years younger than Beauvoir had a relationship with Beauvoir that went back to when she was a teen. In later years she reports: “The Beaver [Beauvoir] often used to tell me that she had been very cautious with me. . . . She felt she had made mistakes in the past.”

In any case they had both become quite famous by the 1950s and existentialism was the rage and they were taken to be the heart of it.

Beauvoir writes:

“We were astonished by the furor we caused. My own baggage weighed very little, but Sartre was now hurled brutally into the arena of celebrity, and my name was associated with him.”

“Their names were everywhere – Existentialism had become a buzz-word. Sartre’s play No Exit had been the talk of the theatre season.”

Note that from the very beginning they identified themselves as writers and/or intellectuals, not academics or philosophers. And Sartre was not above going a bit farther:

“I looked upon myself – though in all modesty, if I may say so – as a genius.”

Many of their writings were novels, plays and short stories, and many of them were also roman à clef in which recognizable actual people are represented without their own names but fictional names. No Exit, for example would feature Sartre as Garcin, Beauvoir as Inez and sort of a combination of Olga and Wanda, the Russian sisters, as Estelle. Many people in the intellectual circles of Paris could recognize the characters which often caused those people serious troubles in their own lives.

The underlying existentialist philosophy of Beauvoir’s memoirs -- it was also the underlying philosophy of her relationship with Sartre --is that it is “bad faith” to look to another, whether a human being or a god, or a sense of salvation. As individuals we are free, and act in “bad faith” when we try to avoid our freedom it is not easy, freedom, it brings with it the anguish of choice. It comes with the burden of responsibility.

That other people might suffer so that Sartre and Beauvoir could manifest their own freedom seemed not to matter too much to them.

In sum, this is a fascinating read. Hazel Rowley presents Sartre and Beauvoir in all sorts of light. She just lays it out, not judging nor protecting. She does range a bit here and there for a good story, which, actually, I appreciated, but in the main this remains what the title says it is: the story of their relationship with all its tumult and the many partners which each of them took on.

I would highly recommend it to all.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu