Swans Commentary » swans.com January 2, 2006  



Hazel Rowley's Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Rowley, Hazel; Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre: Tête-à-Tête, Harper Collins, 2005 - ISBN: 10 0-06-0520590, 416 pages, $26.95 (hardcover).


(Swans - January 2, 2006)   It may well be that the greatest achievement of the joint oeuvres of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir was neither the books, plays, journalism, nor criticism, but the relationship.

Beginning in 1929 and ending with Sartre's death in 1980, these two comrades, lovers, and collaborators shared a roller-coaster ride through the most seminal events of the 20th century. They shared ideas, controversies, lovers, and beds in what emerges, in Hazel Rowley's sweeping chronicle, Tête-à-Tête, as a supremely romantic love story interspersed with lecheries, treacheries, betrayals, reversals, and staggering accomplishments.

Infinitely describing the dizzying permutations of their fifty-one year association, it becomes clear that there is an indissoluble linkage between intellect and sexuality. Sartre outdoes Casanova or Don Juan in the number and variety of seductions he notches onto his belt suggesting that the intellectual energy that produced Being and Nothingness, The Critique of Dialectical Reason, Saint Genet, the plays and the novels, are in some inexplicable way the outgrowth of the erotic power that he wielded throughout his life -- even into his final days when he was blind, unable to walk without aid and dying of pulmonary edema. Throughout his life, he felt the compulsion to seduce, and then colonize women. It was more for the sake of ego than sensual pleasure, as he himself admitted. John Huston described him as "a little barrel of a man and as ugly as a human being can be. His face was bloated and pitted, his teeth were yellowed and he was wall-eyed." None of which seemed to diminish his allure.

Once the conquests were made, the women would become part of the Sartre-Beauvoir extended family. Sartre studiously parceled up his life so as to spend a certain amount of time with each; wrote amorous letters to all on a regular basis whenever he couldn't see them in person, and casually lied to suggest that each meant more to him than the other. Clearly, the most vital and irreplaceable was Beauvoir -- just as for her, it was Sartre. It belittles the depth of their union merely to say they had "a meeting of the minds." They were, as the title suggests congenitally Tête-à-Tête, criticizing one another, helping with each other's work and constantly reporting to each other the most personal details of their daily lives. One would call it "a blessed union" but for the fact that it was a non-marital concord in which each actively pursued alternative lovers and soul mates, in Beauvoir's case of both sexes. But perhaps that is what accounts for the longevity of the partnership. It was invulnerable to corrupting jealousies and the kind of shifting loyalties that usually destroy conventional marriages. There were many couples, both in Europe and America, who fiercely envied the unimpeachable solidarity of the Sartre-Beauvoir relationship and tried to duplicate it, usually without success.

Sartre was not internationally revered. He had a brief and inexplicable romance with Maoism and there were many who viewed him as a repellant apologist for Stalinism during those days when the writer was being fêted in Moscow and singing the praises of repressive Soviet policies. (It was that shortsightedness which mainly accounted for Albert Camus's break with Sartre. On a personal level, it was extremely hurtful to both men; ideologically, they remained daggers-drawn right up to Camus's early death in January, 1960.) When, after the Hungarian uprising, Sartre finally turned against the Soviet Union, it was for many too late an awakening to change their views of his political naiveté. But when one comes to tote up the literary and philosophical accomplishments, plays like The Flies, No Exit, and The Respectful Prostitute, novels like Nausea and The Wall, and criticism like The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert -- not to mention the endless stream of journalism, he dwarfs virtually all the other reigning intellectuals of the century.

But it is Hazel Rowley's fascination with Simone de Beauvoir that inspired the book and accounts for the main thrust of its narrative. One feels it was Beauvoir's work, particularly The Second Sex, The Mandarins, and the Memoirs which "made a woman" out of the author and inspired this homage, and because it was, Beauvoir's changing role in relation to Sartre (and other lovers like Nelson Algren and Sylvie le Bon) light up its pages like a series of tableaux vivant.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Beauvoir glowingly represents the feminist ideal of total independence and selfhood and yet is seen throughout the book tending, caring for, and even coddling Jean-Paul Sartre. She feeds him, bucks up his drooping spirits, chauffeurs him to his various meetings, and protects him from marauding sycophants. She accepts his numerous liaisons with other women and gallantly suppresses the twinges of jealousy she experiences when he is out romancing others. She stoically accepts the subtle lies he concocts to placate her. Occasionally, she procures women for him drawn from her own acquaintances. Presumably, the deep companionship and intellectual stimuli of her liaison with the helplessly promiscuous Sartre are so great it diffuses the normal burblings of jealousy and exploitation. Rowley clearly suggests that is the case and in a more emancipated society, liaisons of this type would be accepted and even encouraged. If one has someone like Sartre as a lover, the author seems to imply, it is incumbent upon the mistress to share him with several others, no matter what pain might ensue. It infers a highly uncommon degree of emancipation. That, more than anything else in the book, makes it a compelling read. It demonstrates a fascinating alternative to bourgeois marriage and extra-marital affairs which makes one question the strictures that underpin conventional morality, and it does so in such a way as to suggest that those who place marital fidelity above all else are sacrificing a bevy of exciting experiences which could profoundly enrich their lives.

The great trick of biography is being able to separate the wheat from the chaff and Rowley, who had a wilderness of letters, articles, and interviews to draw from, sometimes gives the impression that she is simply transferring information from Sartre's and Beauvoir's appointment books onto the page; more thorough than pertinent. But her style is fluidly unobtrusive and she charts the ups and downs of her subjects' exploits with a masterful restraint. Much of it reads like soap opera, but that's how it was lived, and often we have to pause to realize that these jealousies, agonies, and histrionics actually happened to persons who were probably the two most influential intellectuals of their age. Rowley wisely steers clear of analyses of Existentialism or politics and concentrates instead on the changing chemistry of the two, three, sometimes half-a-dozen triangular relationships that swirl around her primary subjects. The bed-hopping and frantic intrigues frequently conjure up Feydeau, but the impact is thoroughly Flaubertian.

The final deterioration of Sartre, saddled with a Ralph Schoenmann-like surrogate (Claude Lanzmann) who uses the enfeebled philosopher as a stalking-horse for his own ideas, lurching from one physical debility to the next until he is sightless, bedridden, and intellectually drained, limns an agonizing "dying fall" that inspires both pity and terror. Deprived of the ability both to write and to see (and it was the sight of what he wrote that made it possible for Sartre to think in print), the intellect stultifies and the body checks out. Rowley makes it feel like the fall of a Titan and whatever reservations one might have about Sartre the playwright-philosopher, or Beauvoir the paradoxical feminist, one realizes on closing the book that few intellectuals have cast such a pervasive influence or lived such formidable lives and so we tend to conclude, as with Lear, that we "shall never see so much nor live so long."


· · · · · ·


Are Culture & Arts valuable to you? Please consider helping Swans


· · · · · ·
Rowley, Hazel; Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre: Tête-à-Tête, Harper Collins, 2005 - ISBN: 10 0-06-0520590, 416 pages, $26.95 (hardcover).

The book can be ordered from your local independent bookstore through Booksense.
Simply enter your Zip code and click on "Go" to find all local independent bookstores near you (in the U.S.):

· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

Book Reviews on Swans

Arts & Culture


About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Charles Marowitz 2006. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


· · · · · ·


This Edition's Internal Links

2006 Infamous Predictions™ - SWANS

Holding Breath - Milo Clark

The Shamefulness Of That Shamelessness - Michael Doliner

The Bottom Line on Two Too Long Wars - Philip Greenspan

Predicting A Republican Sweepstake - Milo Clark

Whether You Sing Along Or Not - Poem by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Battling The Demons - Short Story by Joe Davison

Understanding The Media's Liberal Bias - Ben Mack

Blips #32 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/cmarow35.html
Published January 2, 2006