By Simone de Beauvoir | Translated by Lauren Elkin | Vintage Classics | $24.99 | 176 pages
Let’s take a moment to freshly appreciate Simone de Beauvoir. She’s hardly a neglected figure, but the occasion of the publication of her “lost” 1954 novella The Inseparables is as good a time as any to take stock.
Writing The Second Sex (1949), one of the most influential feminist texts of the twentieth century, would have been enough to ensure her place in history, but Beauvoir was also a prize-winning novelist, a superb memoirist and a brilliant philosopher (though she stopped short of calling herself one). The life she led — almost satirically French bohemian, for better and for worse — has inspired a plethora of biographies and trips to Paris. And, since her death in 1986, interest in her life and work has eclipsed the attention received by her long-time partner, philosopher Jean Paul-Sartre.
Evidence of Beauvoir’s influence is everywhere, including in the life-writing of Deborah Levy, who provides the sparkling introduction to the English edition of The Inseparables, and in Lauren Elkin’s skilful translation and illuminating translator’s note. They provide enticing preludes, but it’s best to read them afterwards and instead dive right in. Beauvoir completists will already be familiar with the friendship that inspired the novella, while readers with no pre-existing knowledge will lose nothing if they catch up on the real-life details afterwards.
For the purposes of this review, some basics will suffice. Beauvoir and Elisabeth Lacoin, affectionately known as Zaza, met as precocious Parisian schoolgirls. From their first encounter until Zaza’s tragically premature death in 1929 to a sudden illness, just as she was about to turn twenty-two, they shared a deeply felt but lopsided friendship, with Beauvoir the most devoted of the pair. The Inseparables is not her first or only attempt to capture this formative connection — most memorably in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958) — but it is her most distilled, vivid and elegiac.
All of Beauvoir’s fiction, like her philosophy, was inspired by life, and so it is here. In this radiant novella, anticipating so-called “auto-fiction” by decades, she fuses the craft of fiction with the force of lived experience and an abiding existential commitment to freedom.
Divided into two parts, The Inseparables traces the friendship between Sylvie (Beauvoir) and Andrée (Lacoin) from their years of Catholic schooling through to their time at the Sorbonne, where Andrée chooses to study literature and Sylvie philosophy. It’s Sylvie’s perspective and world that readers are inducted into, but swiftly it is Andrée, a confident new arrival with an intense gaze and an arresting explanation for her diminutive stature (“I got burned alive”), who becomes the main story.
Or rather, it is the story of Sylvie in relation to Andrée. In meeting Andrée, Sylvie’s young life properly begins, a realisation that hits her first with force — “Life without her would be death” — then very soon after with the bittersweet sense that Andrée does not, or cannot, reciprocate in kind. For all her evident singularity, and no matter their status at school as “the inseparables,” Andrée is too deeply ensconced in her large upper-class Catholic family, and especially devoted to her formidable mother Madame Gallard.
This inaugurating imbalance is never quite overcome, but it is also part of the making of Sylvie. “No, our friendship was not as important to Andrée as it was to me, but I admired her too much to suffer from it.”
Sylvie grows into her resolution, but with her desire to know and be known by Andrée, some suffering is inevitable. At midpoint in the novella and in their friendship, Sylvie is stricken to hear Andrée declare that a summer boyfriend “was the only person in the world who loved me exactly as I was, and because I was myself.” “What about me?” she asks. Emboldened by alcohol, Sylvie declares her devotion, “the kinds of things you say only in books.”
Through Andrée’s bemused reaction we learn more about Sylvie, as well as the mysteries that sit at the heart of intimate human relationships. And yes, there’s an erotic undertow, but it remains inchoate. Sylvie is not so much jealous of Andrée’s “non-platonic kisses” with others as struck by what they give Andrée access to. “Well informed” about sex, Sylvie professes that her body “had dreamed its dreams,” but there was a “passageway between the heart and the body that remained a mystery” to her.
Sylvie’s maturity is marked in other ways. She comes to understand her family’s downward mobility as a kind of liberation — “I was obliged to go out and work; the problems that tormented Andrée didn’t concern me.” Early on, Sylvie abandons God, though it’s her continuing respect for “Christian morality” that draws her to her first university friend, the brilliant Pascal Blondel (based on Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who would go on to become the leading philosopher of phenomenology). Blondel is affectionately depicted by Beauvoir as a serious-minded, but intensely loving and lovable young man, and when Andrée and Pascal fall in love, Sylvie is “not jealous” and instead marvels at how her friends ripen into better versions of themselves.
The joys and tragedies of the second half of The Inseparables orbit around the love affair of Andrée and Pascal, but while the plot resembles melodrama, its execution is an exquisite meditation on the costs of societal constraints on human freedom — especially that of young women. That Andrée was raised to make a good marriage on her family’s terms is presented as her doom, but there is deep loss for Sylvie too. When she sees Andrée cry for the first time, Sylvie wants “to take her hand, make some gesture, but I was imprisoned by our strict upbringing and I didn’t make a move.”
Apparently not published in her lifetime because Beauvoir felt the book too “intimate,” The Inseparables is far more than an abandoned curiosity. The novella firmly belongs in the precious canon of fiction about female friendship, most recently perfected by Elena Ferrante. Above all, in The Inseparables Beauvoir honours her first impressions of her first true love: “Secretly I thought to myself that Andrée was one of those prodigies about whom, later on, books would be written.” •