Simone de Beauvoir at 100

A tiny tempest in a Café Flore coffee cup has been brewing in Paris these days, as to honor her 100th birthday, the weekly Nouvel Observateur published – on its cover – a naked photo of Simone de Beauvoir. There is an interesting piece by the photographer, Art Shay, on how the photo was taken, here (but in French), as part of a longer and very worthwhile “dossier” the Nouvel Obs has dedicated to Beauvoir, here. Fascinating, the account of her long affair with Claude Lanzman, the author of Shoa, who is the only man who actually ever lived with her. That was during the fifties, the years when she and Jean-Paul Sartre were the existentialist couple of Saint Germain-des-Prés and soon of the world. (Interestingly enough she never lived with Sartre). Lanzman: “I never had the impression of living with an icon. She was funny and full of joy. A real woman, complete.” Her life-long “affair” with Sartre (though they don’t seem to have slept together after the first year or so) – in their own terms a “necessary” affair, while they both pursued “contingent” affairs – was really an affair of philosophy and writing. And they wrote to each other continuously, about literature and philosophy but also about the minutest details of their affairs and imaginings, from grand to sordid. Here is a typical extract of a letter from Sartre to his “Castor” (“beaver” – named thus by a school friend as a pun on “Beauvoir”): “…I only stopped working for half an hour to have dinner (pea-soup, filet of brill with Bercy sauce – its smell easily mistaken for that of woman, so much so that it gave me half a hard-on – but just like a dog that lifts its head a little and goes back to sleep seeing that he made a mistake and that it was not his master –, shepherd’s pie and desert)…” Most intriguing for me, however, is the correspondence that came out of de Beauvoir’s passionate affair with Nelson Algren. The latter doesn’t much approve of her philosophy of “contingent affairs,” (though Shay says that Algren was a very sympathetic reader of The Second Sex, which she was working on at the time of their affair, only regretting that she hadn’t included radical American women such as Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Candy Stanton, Susand B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells or Margueret Sanger) and the Chicagoan writes her: “Where I’m from the whores just call that a trick.” (my retro-translation from the French). And Beauvoir, the author of that first great feminist manifesto, 39 at the time, decorates her letters to him with hundreds of little lipstick kisses and promises: “I will be a good girl, I will do the dishes, I’ll clean the apartment, I’ll buy your eggs and rum-cake myself, I will not touch your hair, your cheeks or your shoulder without your permission… I will never do anything you do not give me permission to do.” (this quote also a retro-translation from Sylvie le Bon’s French version of those letters which Beauvoir wrote in English as Algren had no French, but there is an English edition, here).
I for one will try to find a lazy Sunday and reread one or two volumes of her memoirs, books that made me dream of the literary life when I first arrived in Paris (and had a chambre de bonne the under the eaves on Rue de Rennes just a five minute walk from the Flore and the Deux Magots) as a young student in 1965.
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