Appearing in what might be called a “sexography,” Sartre, the Nobel-winning existentialist philosopher, and Beauvoir, existentialist and pioneering feminist, cavort with a dizzying panoply of partners.
Seymour-Jones (Painted Shadow: The Life of Vivienne Eliot, 2002, etc.) begins by switching her focus between her two principals; as their lives intertwine in a most sinuous way, so do the author’s paragraphs. Beauvoir refused to marry Sartre. In 1929, at the dawn of their relationship, he proposed several times. They shared an insatiable demand for fresh, and ever younger, sexual partners—in Beauvoir’s case, of both genders. Moreover, they sometimes shared partners, or siblings thereof, and Sartre kept a virtual harem, notes Seymour-Jones. Beauvoir countered by seducing a number of her young female students and fans, and she enjoyed a steamy relationship with Nelson Algren. Still, as the author shows, they were, in their self-absorbed ways, fiercely devoted to each other for a half-century, maintaining what they both termed a “morganatic marriage.” They are now buried together in a Paris cemetery. Seymour-Jones seems interested in their vast literary output only insofar as it illuminates their personal/sexual lives. Continually, she quotes scenes from their novels, plays and stories that parallel events revealed in their letters, journals and memoirs. The author’s admiration for her subjects gradually dwindles as their rise in the literary world involves them in numerous ethical and moral compromises. During the Occupation, for example, they both behaved in cowardly fashion. When they saw the imminent Allied victory, they shape-shifted—Sartre in particular, who portrayed himself thereafter as a hero of the Resistance. Later he became a feckless pawn of the Soviets, a role he did not surrender until the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
A spiraling double-helix of a relationship whose sordid beauty fascinates even as it repels.