Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are icons that won’t go away. He was our last great philosophe , and she was the most adored feminist of her time. They both grew famous after World War II with the “wild success of existentialism” and its belief that women and men had their own “gift of fate” in a lonely, mechanized universe. They were comrades, lovers, friends, with a “little morganatic marriage,” where each of them had other liaisons. As Beauvoir was bisexual, she and Sartre shared the same “mistress” more than once. And her romance with the American primitif, novelist Nelson Algren, became a minor fable of the 1950s. Sartre and Beauvoir shocked and educated us, and they lived to see themselves grow a little out of fashion. But that’s the inevitable “punishment” to a pair of snake charmers who exercised so much power over us. Neither of them had a very original prose style. They didn’t have the savagery of Celine or Genet. But they still wrote extraordinary books. Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” is a profound celebration of the female in a masculine world, and Sartre’s “Nausea” is a novel of terrifying displacement that relives the fugue state between the two world wars.
Sartre died in 1980. In 1983 Beauvoir published the letters Sartre had written to her and to several of his other mistresses, calling the book “Lettres au Castor” (“Letters to the Beaver”). The Beaver had been Beauvoir’s nickname ever since her years as a student at the Sorbonne. Beauvoir left out certain details in the letters and “changed certain names” (those of the mistresses she shared with Sartre). Critics grumbled a bit and wondered about the Beaver’s own letters to Sartre. “They’re lost,” she told several journalists. She died in 1986, and that same year the letters were found. They’d been squirreled away in her apartment near the Montparnasse Cemetery.
These letters compose an incredible gift. Her correspondence with Sartre, covering almost 40 years, has an intensity about the “everyday dust of life” that has seldom been seen. For the first 15 years of their “marriage,” Sartre and Beauvoir wrote religiously whenever they were apart; they had a ruthless devotion to each other that went far beyond romance. The letters themselves seem to define their existence, something that no love partner could ever match. “You tell me almost nothing,” Beauvoir chides Sartre, “but it’s a living word.” And it’s the “living word” between them that was their most perfect creation.
But the reader of Sartre’s letters may feel a little cheated. We have only the first volume, 1926-1939, whereas Beauvoir’s treasure is more complete, taking her to the end of World War II and her time in America. Beauvoir’s letters serve as a kind of palimpsest to Sartre’s, through which Sartre is revealed. “I’ll recover you--concretely--on a street corner, with your face, your smiles, your little body and your determined step,” writes Beauvoir.
Sartre is much more stingy with Beauvoir and himself. He boasts to an earlier “Beaver,” Simone Jollivet, that he wrote his first novel when he was 8. “I can’t look at a blank sheet of paper without wanting to write something on it.” And he says, “deep down, I have the personality of a little spinster.”
He realizes that after the age of 5 he “turned ugly as a frog.” The ugliness doesn’t interfere with his sexual conquests. But he distances himself from those around him. “Parents lodge like a knife in the skulls of their children, whose thoughts they cut in two.”
And he writes to Bianca Bienenfeld, one of the mistresses he shares with Beauvoir, that “the good Beaver” arrived at a train station “so dark, her nose and arms peeling from sunburn and awful raw skin on her neck, charming little monster.” He can’t bear too much tranquillity in matters of love: “It takes the violence of arguments or the touching quality of reconciliations for me to feel alive.”
But Sartre is plucked from his little family of mistresses during the “phony war” of September, 1939, to March, 1940, when he was mobilized and attached to a meteorological unit. “Right now there’s neither war nor peace. Rather than soldiers, we look like chauffeurs at some estate.” His company dons gas masks. “When you speak to your neighbor, you have the feeling the words are passing through a poisoned world.”
But we have nothing after 1939, when Sartre was a prisoner of war. We have to seek him out in Beauvoir’s letters. She has a thousand diminutives for him. He’s her “beautiful little marvel,” her “best of little men,” her “littlest of all charmers, little all-charm, little charm-all,” her “poor little person.” He haunts her entire being: “You’re so much richer than any memory. I cannot replace you, even with the most violent passion.” But there is also an underlying ambivalence: “I dreamt about you: you were dressed as a soldier and you were a murderer and wanted to strangle me.”
She learns the art of distancing herself, of becoming her own little murderer, through the medium of language. Alone, without Sartre, during the early years of the war, she evokes Paris with a merciless eye for detail. She watches a German tank crew on the Boulevard Raspail, “with their black uniforms, big berets and death’s-head insignia.” While fuel trains burn everywhere, Parisians begin to look like “chimney-sweepers.”
She visits the United States in 1947, and she discovers the New World from the window of her plane: ". . . a vast black material as far as the eye could see, and against its background girandoles of light of every hue.” Yet the farther she moves from her “best of little men,” the closer she gets. All her letters remain poignant, because they’re marked by Sartre and his ghostly presence. She feels “mutilated” without him. And we have to wonder at her own “mutilation” of Sartre’s letters. Did she reinvent Sartre through her lifting of passages and orchestration of Sartre’s mistresses? Was she a bit of a destructive Beaver? Perhaps we’ll never know. But taken together, Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s letters read like a marvelous epistolary novel, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” dressed in modern clothes.
Their shared darling, Bianca Bienenfeld, emerges as a tormented plaything. “We’ll have to hide out like criminals,” Beauvoir tells Sartre, as Bianca wants more and more of the Beaver’s “little man.” The two of them behave like conspirators, shaping Bianca, avoiding Bianca, falling in and out of her arms. “She told me she loved us exactly the same,” Beauvoir writes Sartre, “and wouldn’t be able to choose between leaving one of us or the other. That you were gayer, more sensual, coarser, and with an indescribable character deriving from the fact that you’re a male. In my case, it’s more serious, purer, more religious.”
If Sartre and his Beaver seem less sympathetic here, they still haven’t lost their mystery. They’re dream-riddled creatures, adrift in their own existential night.