HAZEL ROWLEY'S TÊTE-À-TÊTE: SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR AND JEAN-PAUL SARTRE, NEW YORK: HARPERCOLLINS, 2005
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre embarked on a great experiment-to live in an open relationship free of lies and jealousy. And yet from the very beginning their relationship was plagued by jealousy.
They spun a web of falsehoods, mainly to keep Sartre's lovers in the dark about his other liaisons. Those lies violated Sartre's public existentialist stand against "bad faith," as more than one of his lovers would point out indignantly upon the publication of the Sartre-Beauvoir correspondence revealing their complicity. Occasionally, Sartre lied to Beauvoir. So was their experiment a failure?
Sartre and Beauvoir met in Paris in 1929, when he was twenty-five and she was twenty-one. Both were studying for the agrégation, the competitive examination for a lifetime career as a philosophy teacher in the French school system. Beauvoir fell in love with Sartre and he seems to have fallen hard for her too. Both decided to forge a lifelong tie without the bourgeois trappings of marriage. They made a pact based on the lofty philosophical ideas that would make Sartre famous. They could each have affairs, but they had to tell each other everything. Theirs would be the "essential" love; all other affairs would be "contingent loves."
But they neglected to consider how a third person might feel about this arrangement. "Anybody who can experience love contingently has a mind that has recently snapped. How can love be contingent'?" was the angry riposte from American writer Nelson Algren, an ex-lover of Beauvoir's who had wanted to marry her. "Procurers are more honest than philosophers," he concluded bitterly in his scathing 1965 review of Beauvoir's memoir Force of Circumstance, which described her affair with Algren and her pact with Sartre.
In Tête-à-Tête, Hazel Rowley's book about the Sartre-Beauvoir relationship, Rowley does not flinch from detailing the dirty laundry even as she maintains a respectful tone about the philosophical couple. Without casting judgment, Rowley weaves each new lover-in an otherwise dizzying succession-into a tight narrative and gives a sense of why each one seemed so tantalizing at first. Sartre's and Beauvoir's ideological blindness in another realm-their support of the Soviet Union during the Cold War-gets a clear-eyed treatment in this book.
Even with these disappointing details, Beauvoir comes across as a far more sympathetic person than Sartre, perhaps aided by the unprecedented access that Rowley had to her papers. If there's one consistent feeling we get about Beauvoir, it's the immense joy she took in seizing, almost greedily, every new aspect of life and her sense of embarking on a great adventure. Rowley gives us a palpable sense of her ebullient appetite with her descriptions of Beauvoir hiking through the mountains at a pace that left her male companions flagging, her delight in a new lover, and her eagerness to understand everything from the streets of New York to the markets of Morocco.
Beauvoir wanted freedom-and Sartre offered her a kind of freedom that had previously been the province only of men. What other women, beyond courtesans or queens, had ever been allowed to range so freely, sexually or intellectually? Despite bouts of jealousy, loneliness, and even despair, there's no evidence that Beauvoir ever tried to renegotiate the terms of their radical experiment, or that she wanted to.
Sartre's public stance was that jealousy was an "unpleasant" emotion he had managed to control. Describing one of his first bouts of jealousy over an ex-lover, he recalled, "I concluded jealousy is possessiveness. Therefore, I decided never to be jealous again."
Boy, was he wrong. I began the book by carefully noting every mention of his jealousy. I soon lost count.
Shortly after his pact with Beauvoir, Sartre embarked on what would be a lifelong career of seduction of other women. …