Books

Simone de Beauvoir (translated by Lauren Elkin)
The Inseparables

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s monumental autobiography, was devoured by bookish women of my generation. It appeared at a time when female life stories were a publishing rarity. Written by the famous author of The Second Sex, it set out to chronicle a young woman’s self-liberation from patriarchal tyranny and matriarchal meekness – in short, it was a user’s manual for undutiful daughters. De Beauvoir’s life, like her account of it, seemed to promise everything: intellectual discovery, political engagement and sexual adventure that mingled with the counterculture cartwheeling through our own youth.

Yet Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter ended with a self-punishing cry. De Beauvoir had just recounted the death of Zaza, her childhood friend, at the age of 21. Viral meningitis said the doctors, but de Beauvoir believed otherwise. The dead woman, her face yellow, visited her in dreams. They were dreams born of agonising guilt. De Beauvoir ended her book with this confession: “... for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.”

The Second Sex appeared in 1949. It was followed in 1954 by The Mandarins, the novel that brought de Beauvoir the coveted Prix Goncourt, and by Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter in 1958. De Beauvoir’s power decade also contained a novella about her friendship with Zaza. She showed the manuscript to Jean-Paul Sartre, who read it and held his nose.

It’s the kind of thing that brings up the question memorably formulated by Angela Carter: “Why is a nice girl like Simone sucking up to a boring old fart like J-P?” But de Beauvoir agreed with Sartre; they relied on each other’s unsparing criticism of their work. “The story seemed to have no inner necessity and failed to hold the reader’s interest,” she decided, and went on to write her autobiography instead.

Now, 35 years after de Beauvoir’s death, here is that abandoned novella: straight from bottom drawer to Vintage Classic. In these circumstances, “classic” can only be a publisher’s fragrant way of saying “old” while simultaneously implying an imaginary evaluative freight. De Beauvoir’s text comes hedged with a defensive barrier of supplements, as if her unflattering assessment still hovered around it, creating an anxious wish to value-add.

Along with the customary translator’s note, The Inseparables has an introduction by Deborah Levy, an afterword by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir (de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter), and an archive of images and texts. Finally, an apparatus of footnotes comes into play whenever a factual reference is deemed obscure – always intrusive in fiction and surely redundant in the Age of Google.

The novella is narrated in the first person by Sylvie (de Beauvoir) and begins with the arrival of a new girl, Andrée (Zaza), at her school in 1915. Sylvie is “the best student in the class”. The nine-year-olds become fast friends and are dubbed “the inseparables”. Teachers complain of Andrée’s unsettling influence on Sylvie (the pair chatter in class), while Andrée’s pious mother is wary of Sylvie’s less fervently Catholic upbringing.

Both girls are spirited and intelligent. Their friendship deepens throughout adolescence, although Sylvie loses her faith while Andrée’s persists. Andrée falls for a neighbour’s son, but their parents are displeased and the boy is sent away. Later, at university, Sylvie introduces her friend to Pascal (in real life the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty) and the pair fall in love.

This match, too, attracts the disapproval of Andrée’s rigidly conventional mother. She tries to minimise Sylvie’s influence, stifling Andrée with household duties. Pascal can’t marry while still a student and has scruples about a long engagement, so he refuses to propose. In the absence of a firm commitment, Andrée’s mother decrees that her daughter must go to England for two years. Andrée accepts the decision but sickens and dies.

In the social circles to which Andrée belongs, women are advised to enter a convent if they’re still single at 25. “Being unmarried was not an option.” That kind of period detail might startle modern readers but isn’t enough to jolt The Inseparables into being more than an efficiently told tale. One incident, however, flares into brilliance: while chopping wood, Andrée deliberately slices into her foot. For Levy, this symbolises Andrée’s unconscious wish to sever the maternal tie, while Le Bon de Beauvoir reads it as fleshly mortification fuelled by Catholicism.

The Inseparables is valuable as literary history, being the last attempt by de Beauvoir to fictionalise her friendship with Zaza. Le Bon de Beauvoir reveals others, including a section that was deleted from The Mandarins. The novella also opens up a fresh reading of She Came to Stay, de Beauvoir’s first published novel, which ends with a young woman’s death and a guilty friend.

The obsessive revisiting of a subject suggests a psychological wound equal to Andrée’s self-directed blow. Who can say exactly why de Beauvoir saw a causal link between her freedom and Zaza’s death? But stripping her guilt of fiction’s camouflage was the “inner necessity” she required to produce a mesmerising account of the friendship. By making herself and her emotions the object of scrutiny in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, de Beauvoir became a pioneer of the women’s life writing that proliferates today. No surprise that the girl who came first in class was out in front of the pack.

Michelle de Kretser

Vintage Classics, 176pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Simone de Beauvoir (translated by Lauren Elkin), The Inseparables ".

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Reviewer: Michelle de Kretser