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TÊTE À TÊTE by Hazel Rowley

TÊTE À TÊTE

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre

By Hazel Rowley

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-06-052059-0
Publisher: HarperCollins

A neatly assembled record of people behaving badly in the name of literature, philosophy and amour.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, existentialists par excellence, were the Heloise and Abelard of their day—as correspondents and mutual confessors, anyway, for their relationship did not result in any mutilation save the metaphysical. As biographer Rowley (Richard Wright, 2001, etc.) notes, they prided themselves on telling the truth about everything, acting as witnesses on the world’s behalf in repudiation of bourgeois conventions; they would live freely, would never submit to expediency or authority. The truth of their lives, as might be expected, is much less immaculate: As Rowley dutifully records, page after page, even as they took pains, as quasi-spouses, to keep each other informed about their every emotion and thought, they were decidedly more guarded in revealing matters of the flesh. That Sartre was short and ugly in his own self-description, and lived on a diet of amphetamines, whiskey and cigarettes, did not keep him from attracting a succession of young paramours; elegant, even aristocratic, de Beauvoir had the same luck drawing partners, male and female alike. Her partial treatment of the truth (and airing of the parts that she wished) so embittered one lover, Nelson Algren, that late in life he complained savagely, “I’ve been in whorehouses all over the world and the woman there always closes the door. . . . But this woman flung the door open and called in the public and the press.” Meanwhile, Sartre strung along his enchanted “acolytes,” as he called them, including the young Algerian woman he would adopt as his daughter. His secretary once asked how he managed them all. “In some cases,” Sartre answered, “you’re obliged to resort to a temporary moral code.”

C’est la vie, or something like it; you’ve got to admire the philosophers’ energy. A fascinating rejoinder to, and sometimes corrective for, de Beauvoir’s Adieux.