Tuesday, March 27, 2012


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Tete A Tete (The Tumultuous Lives & Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean Paul Sartre), Hazel Rowley, HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, 353 pp

I have been abducted! The tale goes like this: Two years ago I read Beauvoir's incredible account of her investigations into womanhood: The Second Sex. I had already read her four novels: She Came to Stay, The Blood of Others, All Men Are Mortal, and The Mandarins. The novels were intriguing but The Second Sex tempered my feminism in ways that changed me forever.

Last month I acquired a copy of a memoir by Claude Lanzmann (The Patagonian Hare) with the agreement that I would review it for BookBrowse. How could I turn this book down after learning that Lanzmann was one of Beauvoir's lovers and in fact had lived with her from 1952 to 1959? Even though she was in an intimate relationship with Jean Paul Sartre from 1929 until his death in 1980, they never lived together.

My only problem was I knew nothing of Lanzmann. I had read Beauvoir's first volume of autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, but it ends in 1929 just as she first meets Sartre. I knew Beauvoir as a novelist, as a young girl up to her 20th year and as a feminist philosopher but not as a grown woman. It may seem odd to some but for me I could only approach the Lanzmann memoir from the world of Simone de Beauvoir.

I made myself a reading list. I already had Tete A Tete on my own book shelves so that went to the top of the list. Hazel Rowley was an accomplished biographer when she decided to tackle this dual biography. She published Christina Stead: A Biography in 1994, followed by Richard Wright: The Life and Times in 2001. Unlike Deirdre Bair, whose Beauvoir biography was published in 1990 and who had interviewed her subject many times between 1981 and 1986, Rowley worked from Beauvoir and Sartre's letters as well as interviews with their still living lovers and associates. (And isn't it amazing how many viewpoints it takes to encompass these larger than life figures?)

Tete A Tete is fascinating, addictive, and revealing. Rowley says, in the interview at the back of the Harper Perennial paperback edition, that she did not want to write another big fat doorstop of a book on this famous couple. "The answer, I realized, was selectivity. I had to trim my narrative with a sharp razor: sublime detail, but no superfluous detail."

She accomplished her goal beautifully. I tore through pages in which both of these passionate intellectuals came to life as persons with high ideals yet sometimes petty natures, who did their best to live by their ideals as they personified their natures. Beauvoir and Sartre, from the first hours of their relationship, vowed to tell each other everything and kept that vow for over 30 years.

All of Beauvoir's novels are fictionalized accounts of her own affairs: romantic, philosophical, and political. Her memoirs are partial revelations because she chose not to hurt anyone who was still alive when she wrote them. But in their letters, they told all, so that Hazel Rowely could tell us more, not excusing them but giving a picture of two hardworking, prolific public intellectuals who developed their views by living them.

By the end of the book, having been through all the relationships of both, the secrets, the lies, the passion and the heartbreaks, the highs and lows of career, the travel, disillusionment, aging, and death, I was weeping as uncontrollably as Beauvoir often did. But I was still hungry for more. I opened Beauvoir's second volume of memoirs, The Prime of Life and continued to read.

(Tete A Tete is available in hardcover, paperback or eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.
To find it at your nearest Indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

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