a great biography

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.

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7 Comments

Filed under Biography of Sartre and de Beauvoir

7 responses to “a great biography

  1. I’ve just re-read my review, and I have to admit it is skewed; Sartre dominates it, despite my distaste for him. I’m not sure if this skew is the impact of Rowley’s narrative, which seemed to me to focus on Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre, as it builds up to the climax of Sartre’s death, rather than putting Beauvoir at the centre of the circle, and Sartre in her orbit. Or if it is my skew, that is, because I reacted to Sartre so negatively, he took up centre stage. But I do somehow leave the book feeling that Beauvoir is secondary to Sartre, both in her own emotional/intellectual landscape, and in Rowley’s. Is this an accurate reflection of the position of women in the twentieth century? Is it authorial bias? Is it my reading?

    What do you think?

  2. Angela (Ms LiteraryMinded)

    Hi Christina, I’m very keen to read this, as I loved Rowley’s Franklin & Eleanor. Re your comment above, perhaps Rowley captured his charisma so well that it affected you, too. Perhaps it captured her… I will have to read out to find out who stands out for me. Perhaps it is best read after/before a biography of Beauvoir herself (which doesn’t focus on their relationship)?

    • Christina Houen

      Yes, I’m sure you’re right, Angela; or her autobiographies. I’ve read the first volume, but not the other two, but now I want to.

  3. Hi Christina. I’m visiting from the Australian Women Writers Challenge page. I’m seriously obsessed with de Beauvoir and Sartre, so I’ll be adding this to my reading list right away!

    I’ve always found Sartre particularly prickly too, but it’s so hard not to get caught up in the whole legend of him, and his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir.

    • Christina Houen

      Hi, Michelle, thanks for your visit and comment. I had a look at your blog; it’s a fascinating concept, but I don’t think I could be so disciplined, or afford to read so many books! How can I subscribe to your blog? I don’t want to twitter, just receive your posts when you put them up.

  4. Ooh,
    this sounds quite fascinating. I read Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor and loved it (its meanwhile doing the rounds,my mum read it and loved it and now its making its way through my 3 sisters!)- and have always been intrigued by Sartre and de Beauvoir.
    I do find it hard though, reading about extremely unlikeable characters.
    But definitely must give it a whirl!

  5. Christina Houen

    Hi, MareeLouise

    I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It grew on me, and so did Sartre, despite my distaste for his character and disinterest in his philosophy. Which, I think, is a mark of great biography and narrative.

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