How many feminists struggle over their intellectual relationship with Simone de Beauvoir‘s works?
The name itself presages that intimidating shadow cast by the French existentialists, those daunting intellectual luminaries of the 20th century. Albert Camus. Jean-Paul Sartre. Maurice Merleau-Ponty. And Simone de Beauvoir foremost among them. With names such as these, how could they have wound up being anything but great philosophers? One simply doesn’t expect to encounter a grocer named Jean-Paul Sartre.
De Beauvoir’s name somehow permeated my intellectual awareness at a young age, but it was only in graduate school – working on a PhD in Gender Studies – that I finally came face to face with her, so to speak. Or rather, her translators.
One year our department splurged its guest speaker budget (and then some) on hosting not one but both of the translators of the long-awaited second English translation of de Beauvoir’s classic The Second Sex. The first English edition of the seminal feminist work – produced in 1953 – was translated by a zoologist (Howard Parshley), and his effort was vehemently criticized for the ensuing half-century. In 2009 a new English translation appeared, translated by two women: Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (whose names alone render them infinitely more suitable to translate de Beauvoir).
Their appearance at our annual departmental gathering produced an epic clash of feminisms. Our professors, many of them still products of second-wave feminism who were reluctantly being dragged into the third, were positively a-twitter with anticipation and intellectual giddiness. We students, on the other hand, obliged to participate in performative enthusiasm, glared disparagingly at them behind their backs, rolling our eyes at each other and muttering angrily in a corner about all the money being spent to celebrate a mid-20th century white feminist. Still, the hors d’oeuvres were first-rate and there was an open bar, so our performative enthusiasm needed little prodding once the talk (delivered in French, of course) was over.
To be honest, I’m not sure any of us had ever actually read de Beauvoir. We’d had a few seminars on her work, most of which devolved into professors arguing over the proper pronunciation of her last name. We could quote her key lines (“One is not born, but becomes, a woman!”). But as far as most of us were concerned she was an over-hyped white feminist whose iconic status among second-wavers rendered her philosophical legacy immediately suspect.
If our professors had been more attentive to our concerns, rather than concerned with showing off to each other, they might have pointed out her complicated contributions to theories of whiteness, or her pivotal role in explicating the social construction of gender, with its vital implications for trans and queer theory. These were things I learned much later, on my own.
It’s only been in the years since I moved on from an academic career that I’ve found the time and space to engage with her work first-hand. Doing so free of the peer pressure of the academy has helped me to explore her work on my own terms and wrestle with her complicated legacy (the dubious ethics of her sexual ideals, or her role in Nazi-occupied France).
I grabbed up her new, “never-before-published” novel Inseparable as soon as it hit the shelves. In fact, as I later discovered, two competing English translations hit shelves at roughly the same time: the one I wound up with was translated by Sandra Smith and published by Ecco. Vintage also published one, translated by Lauren Elkin. Never published when she wrote it in 1954, her daughter released it in French last year.
At 128 pages, the autobiographical novel is far less daunting than her four-volume memoirs (running to more than 1,200 pages). And the cover blurb promising the tale “of an intense and vivid girlhood friendship” sounded like just the sort of light reading I wanted (and far less taxing than her existentialist philosophy).
In fact, the novel is more complex than its description (and queer-baiting cover) imply. It’s based on an actual friendship – one whose intensity and outcome clearly haunted de Beauvoir for the rest of her life. De Beauvoir (who appears as Sylvie in the text) met Elizabeth “Zaza” Lacoin (Andree) in school at the age of nine. They become fast friends. It was de Beauvoir’s first experience of falling in love, and although Lacoin did not reciprocate her romantic feelings, the two became close, “inseparable” friends.
Tragically, Lacoin died at the age of 22. The ultimate cause of death was viral encephalitis, but de Beauvoir makes it clear that it was Lacoin’s harried, high-strung and stressed state of mind that wore her down and made her vulnerable to such a disease. What was the source of her worn-down state? Therein lies the true value of the novel: de Beauvoir masterfully depicts the social pressures that produced a soul-wrenching struggle within her friend as she struggled to break free from the prison of social convention.
Inseparable starts innocently enough, with a charming depiction of the budding friendship between two young girls and Sylvie’s (de Beauvoir) first startled stirrings of love. But it quickly becomes apparent that Andree (Lacoin), born into a wealthy upper-class family, suffers profoundly from the stultifying social obligations of status. Her family deftly manipulates her with a combination of guilt and passive-aggressive love, couched within a façade of respect for her freedom. They seek to control her relationships, her marriage prospects (and timing), her friendships. They drown her in social obligations and pointless chores (delivering gifts, picking out fabrics for wedding dresses).
They also show little respect for her intellectual achievements. Lacoin, by all accounts, could have been the intellectual equal of de Beauvoir or any of the other existentialists, had she broken away from the control of her family (and not died so young). But in typically sexist fashion her family treated those achievements as a pastime – something to improve her marriage prospects – rather than an actual future career.
So controlled was Lacoin’s existence that she admitted in a letter to de Beauvoir that she deliberately sliced her foot open with an axe one summer, feigning an accident, in order to get a breather from the stifling stranglehold of social obligations. “At least I had a bit of solitude and the right to not speak and not have fun,” she wrote to de Beauvoir while recuperating.
When Lacoin died, she was in a relationship with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who would go on to become a famous existentialist philosopher as well. Her family disapproved of the romance, and Merleau-Ponty balked at the notion of getting engaged, which Lacoin hoped would help her escape her family’s dictates. Haggard, not eating or sleeping, Lacoin fell ill and died.
Such at least is how de Beauvoir depicts things in the novel. She was deeply affected both by the friendship and by Lacoin’s early death and grappled with it in multiple ways across multiple works – both fiction and non-fiction – throughout her life. Inseparable offers the most straightforward and focused exposition of their friendship.
When she wrote it and showed it to her colleague and lover Jean-Paul Sartre, he was dismissive of the novel, which he derided as not being a serious or worthwhile work. Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, in a superb introduction to Inseparable, suggests – quite rightly, I think – Sartre’s dismissal of the novel was rooted both in his own sexism as well as his jealousy at the thought that someone else (a woman!) could have played a more important role than he in de Beauvoir’s philosophical and emotional development.
It wasn’t only Lacoin who was struggling with social obligations – her entire society was. De Beauvoir deftly illustrates this. Sylvie (de Beauvoir) starts off as a meek conformist, who is both shocked and attracted by Andree’s (Lacoin) forward and outrageous ways. But as the story progresses, Sylvie matures into autonomy more quickly, rejecting both Christianity and nationalism and pursuing philosophy instead.
Pascale (Merleau-Ponty) prevaricates at the idea of marriage to Andree, but it’s clear that his motives are also indelibly affected both by his sense of social obligation to his family, as well as his desire to rebel from social convention entirely. Lost amid this narcissistic struggle between radical poles is any possibility of recognizing the emancipatory potential of a loving relationship with Andree as intellectual and autonomous equals.
Even Andree’s domineering mother, Madame Gallard, bears the scars of struggle. Determined to abide by social convention and marry off her daughters to acceptable, high-status suitors, she reveals hints of thwarted dreams and loves from her own youth. She’s the archetypal conformist parent who internalizes their own youthful failure to chart an independent path and struggles to validate their failed hopes by stamping out those of their children.
And yet she skillfully manipulates her daughter, ensuring her emotional reliance on her. Andree spends the book struggling between her desire to defy her parents and pursue her dreams, and the love she’s convinced she has for them (and they for her). Failure to recognize and surmount the contradiction between their love and their control over her is what ultimately prevents her from breaking free and pursuing her own life.
De Beauvoir’s presentation of all this is adroitly done: for most of its pages, the novella remains a light-hearted, pleasant romp through inter-war France from the perspective of two vibrant young girlfriends. It’s only gradually, as the book reaches its conclusion, that the reader realizes just how stifling and destructive the social pressures surrounding Andree have become.
Had it been published when she wrote it 70 years ago, Inseparable would doubtless have become a classic of feminist and lesbian literature, shining an important light on the devastating – even fatal – consequences of succumbing to familial or societal conventions at the expense of one’s own autonomy and well-being. Indeed, in a superb essay on the book, The New Yorker’s Merve Emre observes the book’s clear evocation of same-sex love renders de Beauvoir’s own later intellectual ambivalence on the topic harder to fathom.
“To read ‘The Inseparables’ is to learn what could have been, and to judge what was a little more harshly,” she writes. “It is to see in ‘The Second Sex’ an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to make as affirmative a case as possible for lesbian identity.”
I think the novel still has that important role to play. While the social conventions of early 20th-century French society might seem anachronistic to contemporary readers, the passive-aggressive pressures of peers, family and social institutions remain just as potent and dangerous today. Even if it’s not parents trying to marry you off to unseen suitors, people surely face other pressures just as daunting, rooted in social norms and conventions.
In the book, Sylvie becomes a radical by losing her faith in Christianity; but the role of Christianity is only that of a convenient stand-in. It’s declaring her autonomy from social norms that renders Sylvie both radical (in the eyes of those around her) and deliciously free (in her own experience of life). That struggle remains just as fraught today as it was a century ago.
Inseparable is a mostly pleasant read, but one with a message that’s every bit as relevant today. In addition to the delightful introduction by Atwood, there’s a lengthy and thoughtful afterword from Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir (the author’s daughter) putting the book in its historical context and offering important explanatory notes. She also shares several illustrative, annotated letters between de Beauvoir and Lacoin from different phases of their lives. These moving contributions help underscore the emotional and intellectual intensity of the relationship between the two women.
“I find happiness on every page, happiness in bigger and bigger writing,” de Beauvoir writes in the final letter she sent to her friend (unaware of her serious and sudden illness). “And I am closer to you now than ever before, my dear past, dear present, my dear inseparable friend.”
The words – and de Beauvoir’s moving tribute to her friend’s thwarted legacy – reflect the lingering power of a beautiful friendship.
Merve, Emre. Simone de Beauvoir’s Lost Novel of Early Love“. The New Yorker. 23 August 2021.
Hay, Carol. “Who Counts As A Woman?” The New York Times. 1 April 2019.
Heter, T Storm. “Beauvoir’s White Problem“. lire ecrire.org. 24 January 2021.