The Story of the Lost Novel
Inseparable by Simone de Beauvoir, trans. Sandra Smith. Ecco, 176 pages.
There’s a scene in Simone de Beauvoir’s 1967 novella, The Age of Discretion, in which the narrator, a scholar, despairs over her latest book’s lukewarm reviews. It’s stale; it’s repetitive; she has no new ideas, it seems. “Why didn’t you warn me that the book was worth nothing?” she asks her partner, an academic in a separate field. He reluctantly agrees that she “stumbled a little,” and he comforts her mildly. The narrator won’t have it: “I know it’s bad,” she implores. “Believe me.”
I reread The Age of Discretion in order to write about a newly published book by de Beauvoir called Inseparable. Translated by Sandra Smith, the novel fictionalizes de Beauvoir’s friendship with a religiously and socially oppressed girl named Zaza—Andrée in the book—who died young, a formative tragedy for the novelist and philosopher. Zaza died in 1929, and de Beauvoir was haunted by her face in dreams, “yellowish . . . beneath a wide-brimmed pink hat, looking at her with reproach,” according to de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter and literary executor, Sylvie Le Bon-de Beauvoir. “To counteract the void and to never forget her,” the writer wove Zaza into “the unpublished novels written in her youth,” a collection called When Things of the Spirit Come First, as well as a passage later removed from her novel The Mandarins. Clearly, she was compelled to write about her friend—and compelled to keep that writing to herself. Written in 1954, the year The Mandarins was published, Inseparable was “conserved by Simone despite her critical judgement of it.”
I was drawn to the story in its own right, but I was also interested, somewhat perversely, in the way Inseparable was marketed as a lost feminist text overlooked for its themes of friendship and women’s oppression. In an introduction to the novel, Margaret Atwood examines de Beauvoir’s choice not to publish Inseparable in her lifetime, chalking it up to the condescending influence of Jean-Paul Sartre, fellow existentialist thinker and de Beauvoir’s lifelong partner, with whom she forged a controversial relationship. The two never got married and never lived together, and they were publicly non-monogamist, a choice that aligned with their existentialist project, scandalizing their contemporaries. Even recent writing on their arrangement can be skeptical and paternalistic. “Did Simone de Beauvoir’s open ‘marriage’ make her happy?” an early aughts headline from the Guardian asks. Atwood appears to share this skepticism. “Beauvoir . . . made the mistake of showing [Inseparable] to Sartre,” she writes. His judgement against the novel, according to Atwood, was on political grounds; he didn’t understand the significance of women’s undervalued and unpaid labor, nor of “pathos,” nor even of “individual people and their circumstances.”
These conclusions feel too neat to be wholly true, but they’re serviceable as promotional material. I wondered: Was the book a hidden classic, or at least a smart and moving story, written ahead of its time and suppressed by its author, her self-centered partner, and her own internalized misogyny, her pooh-poohing of “the inner life of young girls of the bourgeois”? Or was its posthumous publication a cash grab, an attempt to repackage a duly dismissed project in order to profit from the 2010s’ enduring literary buzzword, “female friendship,” now as sheeny and salable as the nineties’ “girl power”? And if de Beauvoir, champion of free will, believed her own book wasn’t fit to be read, albeit on the grounds of her partner’s critiques, should we not respect her choice?
On the other hand, rejecting unauthorized, hardly authorized, and posthumously published books altogether feels reductive. There are some obviously gross cases, like Harper Lee’s cartoonish, half-baked, hardly authorized draft-turned-product. But there are also murkier and more relevant examples: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, rearranged by Ted Hughes for its publication two years after her suicide, then reissued in its originally intended form decades later; Kafka’s The Castle, which he’d reportedly wanted to burn, and which remains a classic; de Beauvoir’s own choice to publish Sartre’s letters to her after his death.
If de Beauvoir, champion of free will, believed her own book wasn’t fit to be read, should we not respect her choice?
Accepting de Beauvoir’s judgements about her work would feel better if only the evidence weren’t so contradictory, so, well, ambiguous. By the time she finished and ultimately wrote off Inseparable, de Beauvoir had already published her two best-known novels as well as The Second Sex. In other words, Inseparable is not juvenilia, and de Beauvoir was not a young or unseasoned writer when she decided to nix it. It also feels relevant to the question of her authorial agency to mention that, while she surely valued Sartre’s insights, he also valued hers. While revising his first novel, Nausea, which he later regarded as among the handful of his works he’d like to be remembered for, Sartre wrote to de Beauvoir: “I will of course wait for you and together we will decide what must be done.” On the other hand, Inseparable and the rest of de Beauvoir’s estate was entrusted to her long-time confidante, Le Bon-de Beauvoir, who she adopted in order to ensure a smooth transfer of her works. Le Bon-de Beauvoir told the New York Times recently that she knew Inseparable would be published eventually; she’d known that since just after her adopted mother’s death.
As I laid down to read Inseparable, I tried to shake the feeling that I was rifling through someone’s personal stuff, searching for evidence of a fixed, predetermined theory about de Beauvoir and her life. This was hard to do, especially because the story’s conceits of privacy, freedom, and the danger of predetermined judgements kept announcing themselves.
The book begins when Sylvie—a “good girl” of nine whose individual spirit has been “defeated” by war and religion—meets her classmate, Andrée Gallard, who’s blunt, sharp, and, like a troubled hero, covered from her legs down in burns. They’re immediately attached, and they discover together the pleasures of transgression together, acting out in school, mocking their authorities. A talented and stirring musician who eschews the more domestic task of sewing (although “she was good at it”), Andrée becomes the object of Sylvie’s passion, and the site of her budding existential inquiries.
While away in the country for the summer, Sylvie wistfully stares at the poplars, missing Andrée, wondering if her longing is reciprocated, and wishing she were capable of expressing her passions somehow. The writing here is consciously sentimental, carried by the contextless woes of youth. “When the wind blew, the poplars would whisper,” de Beauvoir writes. “I shed a few tears when saying goodbye to the poplar trees.”
When they’re reunited, Sylvie realizes, with joy that’s soon followed by dread, that Andrée is her reason for living; without her, her own life would be “over.” Sylvie’s dependence on Andrée causes her “anguish,” and she imagines her death often. At the same time, she knows that despite her feelings she is freer than her friend, whose big family is committed to conserving its own history, its own order. Heading this project is Andrée’s mother, arranger of marriages, thrower of parties, preserver of jams, delegator of household tasks—which are endless—and warden over Andrée’s social prospects, romantic and platonic. She approves of Sylvie, if warily; the two compete for Andrée’s affection, a conflict heightened by Sylvie’s newfound atheism and her wariness of Madame Gallard’s religiosity, which weighs Andrée down with obligations. Andrée isn’t allowed, for example, to study for her teaching diploma after she earns her initial degree. “Enter a convent or get married” is her mother’s view; “Celibacy is not a vocation.”
One night, when they’re fifteen, the girls discuss their diverging paths openly. “If God exists, evil is not comprehensible,” Sylvie says, to which Andrée replies, “It’s prideful to want to understand everything.” But Sylvie is unabashed in her pursuit of understanding and of a full life generally. When Andrée asks how she can bear to live if there’s no god, Sylvie responds simply: “I like living.” She studies philosophy, and she imagines she’ll have a career. “I was obliged to work,” she observes, explaining that, egotistically, she thanked the Bolsheviks—and her father’s financial ruin—for her autonomy. “The problems that tormented Andrée didn’t concern me.”
While on a break from her duties, Andrée meets and falls in love with Sylvie’s friend Pascal (as in the wager), a promising scholar indebted to his father and sister, who’ve funded his education. “I wasn’t jealous,” Sylvie insists. “I had decided to make myself care about her a little less. She still counted enormously to me, but at present, there was the rest of the world, and myself: she was no longer everything.”
Pascal isn’t ready to be married, at least not until he’s finished with his studies. But Madame Gallard doesn’t accept this, and she forbids her daughter from seeing him. Distraught, Andrée travels to meet Pascal’s father, pleading with him, growing delirious, her cheeks flushed. She dies four days—and a few pages—later. De Beauvoir’s fictional account of her best friend’s life ends abruptly, with an image of Sylvie placing vibrant, red roses on a grave otherwise done up in cold, virtuous white.
The book, in other words, is heavy-handed, schematic, and thin. It’s about the length and scope of de Beauvoir’s novellas but has been packaged as a complete novel, padded with a laudatory introduction, a defensive afterword asserting the project’s significance, and selected letters between de Beauvoir and Zaza. Still, it has obvious merits: most of all the prose and the psychological insights, which are wry and movingly direct in turn. “I admired her nonchalance without being able to imitate it,” Sylvie thinks of Andrée at one point, articulating the unscalable rift between desire and its fulfillment.
But it’s hard to imagine, as Atwood suggests, that Sartre and de Beauvoir dismissed the book because it was insufficiently political. Actually, as a work of art, Inseparable is too aware of its own ideas, which are conveyed gracelessly through symbols—those red roses laid atop a grave adorned with white flowers; Andrée swinging wildly and freely on a trapeze; Andrée leaving a dinner party to swim, again wildly and freely, beneath a waterfall—so that its characters feel at times reduced to props, instead of full, round actors. There are moments of direct political discussion, too, as when Andrée’s zealous father opposes women’s suffrage because “in the working classes, there were more women Communists than men.” These observations, because they come naturally from the characters, constitute the book’s more artful scenes.
But Inseparable’s ending is especially reductive; de Beauvoir lands on the moment of highest drama. What happened, I wondered, after Andrée’s funeral, once Sylvie realized, and was forced to accept, her continued existence, her total independence from her friend? Instead of spending time with this ambiguous inner conflict, de Beauvoir flattens the living world she herself created in service of a clear, authorial message. This flatness makes sense given her subject: a tragedy she had no way of stopping, or even, it seems, of processing. Dramatizing such a blunt loss—one that haunted her with the enduring image of Zaza’s yellow face and pink-brimmed hat—may have left little room for nuance.
As a work of art, Inseparable is too aware of its own ideas, which are conveyed gracelessly through symbols.
For anyone hoping to better understand de Beauvoir as a figure—a brilliant thinker who, in her personal life, tried to reconcile individual desires with values of openness, devotion, and community—Inseparable is simply more information, or the same information dressed up in the gauze of fable. As a work of art, it’s a reminder of her talents, which are on fuller display elsewhere.
The stories de Beauvoir did choose to publish—about affairs and the process of aging, about gaining wisdom while slowly approaching death—offer a more nuanced portrayal of the struggle between what she and Sartre called facticity and freedom: one’s constraints and one’s ability, however limited, to act against them, to reinforce them, or simply to exist within them.
The Age of Discretion is an excellent example of this. Published over a decade after de Beauvoir wrote Inseparable, it’s a complicated novella full of movement, lively discussions in lieu of symbols, and existence in lieu of its more static counterpart: just being. The narrator’s failed book and her partner’s reluctance to admit her failure is just one of The Age of Discretion’s tensions. As the narrator grapples with her intellectual stagnation and with getting older—events she regards as tragedies beyond her control—she also considers her son’s marriage to a neat, bourgeois woman and his subsequent withdrawal from academia; he’s chosen to make money instead.
The narrator of The Age of Discretion considers all this while holding her partner’s hand, sitting on a bench at the foot of a cypress. “Ahead there were the horrors of death and farewells,” she observes. “Loneliness in a strange world that we would no longer understand and that would carry on without us.” But, she thinks, they would have each other, and that would make the factive constraints on their freedom bearable. It’s an optimistic choice on de Beauvoir’s part, centering human drama while the end of her characters’ lives, and the threat of the bomb, loom. In Inseparable, the characters’ losses are foregone conclusions, predetermined to the point of hyperbole; Andrée’s death is foreshadowed so often that she hardly comes alive on the page. In The Age of Discretion, loss may be inevitable, but life stirs anyway.