When my Fairbridge project was short-listed for the Hazel Rowley Fellowship (see December 20 post, Collective Biography and Hidden Lives) I realised I needed to read at least one of Rowley’s biographies. So I ordered Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: Tete-a-Tete from Amazon.com (apologies for no accents on French phrase: don’t know how to do them on here!).
It’s not one of those books I couldn’t put down, and I got distracted from reading it over Christmas, and with editing jobs coming in. But gradually, a few pages at a time, usually when eating breakfast or lunch, I read it, and it grew on me. I had to overcome my dislike of Sartre, who is shown warts and all: short (158 cm), ugly, bespectacled, with a squint; convinced of his own genius, deceitful with his many lovers (except for de Beauvoir, or “the Beaver”, as he called her), prone to depression, heavily dependent on drugs and alcohol … I could go on. Yet, he was charismatic, generous (he financially supported his several lovers (again, except for the Beaver) even after the sexual relationship was over. He was also a faithful and intimate friend, lover (for a few years) and devoted companion of Beauvoir, and their relationship was indeed extraordinary.
He was revered by his intellectual associates, and was tirelessly supportive of human rights causes. His integrity was compromised by his very late recognition that Communism was a tyrannical and corrupt system; he remained ambivalent about it until after Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia in 1968, when he publicly dissociated himself from the USSR. Beauvoir shows up much better (at least to me) in this biography. In Rowley’s words, she “dared to live as freely as Sartre, …[her] intelligence shone as brightly as his own, and …[her] passion for life was inexhaustible”.
The biography covers 51 years of their shared lives, until Sartre’s death and funeral in 1980, which was attended by a crowd of 50,000 people; the remaining six years of Beauvoir’s life are summarised in less than four pages. This is, after all, a biography of their relationship. It says a great deal for Rowley’s skill that the pages that describe Sartre’s funeral and Beauvoir’s grief had me in tears, given my distaste for his character and disinterest in his philosophy.
This is a great book, dense with intelligent synthesis of the intellectual and cultural life of the central characters, with fascinating detail of their intimate personal lives, and with vivid detail of the street and cafe life of Paris, and the countries Sartre and Beauvoir visited together.