Tag Archives: The Mandarins

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir (translated by Lauren Elkin, Vintage 2021)

Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Inseparables in 1954, the same year as The Mandarins. Her friendship with Zaza (Elizabeth Lacoin) is something she’s already tried to write about in various unpublished short stories, as a section of The Mandarins deleted before publication, and which would become a cornerstone of the de Beauvoir legend when incorporated into her first autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958). De Beauvoir was not satisfied with The Inseparables and decided not to publish it; yet she thought it of enough value not to destroy it either. I’m glad it’s now seen the light publicly. It’s really a very queer story (one I wish someone like Céline Sciamma would film). This roman-à-clef is narrated in the first person by Sylvie (de Beauvoir) who falls in love with Andrée (Zaza), who values the friendship but is rather unaware of the intensity of Sylvie’s love much less reciprocates it. Andrée in turn falls in love with Pascal (the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty as a young man) whom she hope will save her but who is too scrupulous about being truthful to promise to marry her (and thus rescue her from her family). It’s a novel full of intensity of feeling and a complex delineation of social restrictions (Andrée’s family are Catholic activists), some due to class (even though they are best friends, they address each other through the formal vous) or family, which is the real villain of this story: once the older daughter turns twenty-six, the mother informs her –with love and under the guise of it being for the good of all – that she must marry the first suitable candidate or it’s off to the convent. The morays are those of another time; indeed of a hundred years ago. Who now would devote so much time to the significance of the loss of faith; the arguments well-brought up girls of a certain family needed to make in order to get a university education; the significance of being set to run errands in the big department stores or indeed how not wearing a hat might be excused only by the quality of clothes worn. Sylvie’s longing, her love, her adoration, her worship, her clear-headedness and analysis are clearly and complexly evoked. That Zaza died before turning 21 in the throes of a love which her family’s control and her boyfriend’s thought prevented her from living fully – whilst De Beauvoir looked on in the sidelines hoping but unable to hep, is clearly why de Beauvoir so often returned to the story, why it’s such a key narrative in her own telling of her life and of her thought. Why isn’t de Beauvoir more taken up by queer theorists/scholars?

José Arroyo

Ten Books in Ten Days – The Prime of Life by Simone de Beauvoir

The Prime of Life

Andrew Grimes Griffin has challenged me to a new game: 10 Books in 10 Days, with an explanation of how the book affected your life, thought, or work. I’ll skip the work bit as that would be just too much work. Do join in if you’d like: it would be lovely to see the web full of discussions of books.

Today my choice is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life, the second volume of her memoirs which began with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: from my late teens to well into my forties I was, I wouldn’t say obsessed, but I was a constant reader of de Beauvoir’s work and I’ve read pretty much all of it, from The Second Sex to The Mandarins, to the posthumous journals, letters to Sartre etc. What I kept returning to was her memoirs: They seem to offer a gay Hispanic allophone a model for inventing a life in many dimensions: intellectual – she was always reading and seeing and commenting avidly on it all; romantically (it was all discussed; what is love? what are the parameters of an open relationship, why not marry? – it was all thought through and shaped) morally (and this in reference not only to friendships and relationships but a kind of ethics for living), politically (how to behave under occupation), her relationship with her work (she put in the hours, beavered away like a good ‘Castor’) her participation in the intellectual and artistic life of the period (or not), her quest to be free, to act responsibly, to do good. What I found enthralling and inspiring was this conscious shaping of a life and a world, one which felt out of control and alien to me, but which she offered a model of willing, differently shaping, changing. Of all the diaries, The Prime of Life, which covers her early relationship with Sartre, all of the thirties, and ends with the Liberation, was the one that I returned to over and over again for many years, largely because I was in my twenties and thirties as well when I first read and re-read it. Aside from the pleasures it gave of its own, it also introduced me to French intellectual life between the wars and after, which has remained a lifelong interest.


José Arroyo