A Dangerous Liaison

Existential Affairs

June 3, 2008By Paris UpdateBooks

When Jean-Paul Sartre was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery (on the south side of Paris) on April 19, 1980, a crowd of 50,000 people surged forward as his distraught partner Simone de Beauvoir threw a white rose onto his coffin. The pandemonium was such that one onlooker even fell into the grave. On the same date six years later, de Beauvoir herself was buried in the same cemetery, attended by a crowd of 5,000.

As impressive as 5,000 mourners might be, the extreme difference in numbers between the two funerals is one indication of the declining popularity over time of these two great French intellectual figures, forever associated with existentialist philosophy.

In some ways, A Dangerous Liaison: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (London: Random House, 2008), Carole Seymour-Jones’s meticulous and constantly fascinating new biography of de Beauvoir and Sartre, will do little to resurrect the flagging reputation of the couple, who are shown as they ruthlessly manipulate their public image and exploit others, but in other ways the extraordinary details of their private and public lives show them to be two utterly compelling characters.

Sartre and de Beauvoir’s 50-year relationship was one of great devotion and complicity, but that tells only part of their story. De Beauvoir refused to marry him, insisting on breaking free of what she saw as outworn conventions. They agreed that as long as they told each other about their other relationships and placed them below their love for each other, they would be able to celebrate a truly free kinship. The reality was somewhat different, as at several points in their lives their numerous affairs led to a lack of transparency that seriously threatened their relationship.

At an early stage, a worrying pattern emerged: de Beauvoir would seduce an impressionable young female pupil and then pass her on to Sartre. A number of these conquests would themselves be dropped after having served their purpose. Olga Kosakiewicz started to self-harm when rejected, and Bianca Bienenfeld, who was seduced by both de Beauvoir and Sartre in 1938 at the age of 16, was given no help when in extreme danger of being deported during World War II because of her Jewish origins.

These incidents make Seymour-Jones’s title, A Dangerous Liaison, particularly appropriate, since the couple seems to have been a latter-day Valmont-Merteuil team. Valmont, however, would certainly not have stayed on good terms with many of his ex-mistresses and sustained them financially, as Sartre did. In this sense, Seymour-Jones is perhaps less than generous in her assessment of him.

There were other affairs by which one or the other felt threatened. De Beauvoir had several long-term heterosexual lovers, including Jacques Bost, the American writer Nelson Algren and Claude Lanzmann (17 years her junior). Sartre, for his part, fell passionately in love with his Russian interpreter Lena Zonina (who in all probability was a KGB spy) while visiting Moscow and even proposed marriage to her. As they grew older, de Beauvoir seemed to find happiness with Sylvie le Bon, who was 35 years younger than her (Le Bon has clearly been a major source of information for Seymour-Jones’s book). In his last years, Sartre even adopted as his daughter his young lover Arlette Elkaïm.

Seymour-Jones doesn’t neglect their writings, including Sartre’s Nausea and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, for which each is probably best known. Inevitably, as is the case with most biographers, she tries to extract rather too much biographical information from fictional texts, but she explains their writings cogently and eloquently. She is particularly effective in discussing The Second Sex, which surely must be the most lasting legacy of de Beauvoir’s oeuvre, even if many feminists have rejected some of the book’s assumptions.

It is on the political stage that both Sartre and de Beauvoir made their most disastrous choices, and Seymour-Jones is wonderfully perceptive in her analysis of this aspect of their lives. The way in which Sartre recast himself as a hero of the Resistance after World War II, when in fact both of them had been remarkably indifferent to the occupation of Paris by the Germans, makes for grim reading. Sartre even knowingly took on a teaching post previously held by a man who had been dismissed because he was Jewish. One cannot help siding with the writer Albert Camus, who genuinely had been part of the Resistance, in his later feud with Sartre.

Both Sartre and de Beauvoir were fêted and, it seems, hoodwinked by the Soviet regime. Their refusal to recognize the reality of its repression of artists and writers, not to mention all the others, seems willfully blind, and does not paint them in a favorable light. The importance of Sartre’s passionate support for the independence of the former French colonies and de Beauvoir’s backing of the feminist movement, however, should not be underestimated either.

Given the extreme care Seymour-Jones has taken in pursuing the facts rather than the myths about this couple, it is a shame that she did not get somebody with an accurate knowledge of French to proofread the numerous French snippets, which she includes along with the translated quotations, as they are littered with basic errors. It is clear that she has a working knowledge of French, but the sloppiness of the transcription might (unfairly) call into question the rigor of her other findings.

Overall, this mammoth book (574 pages in all) is unfailingly entertaining and makes for gripping reading.


James Gascoigne

Reader David Platzer writes: “The Sartre-Beauvoir myth of the perfect liberated couple has been somewhat tarnished by close biographical examination and the publication of their letters but I don’t think it is accurate to talk about their flagging reputation. At least not in her case. Her centenary this year has seen a plethora of new books about her. The best is probably Daniele Sallenave’s CASTOR DE GUERRE which points out her flaws, especially the political misjudgements, while doing justice to her virtues. Her writing reads better than much of Sartre’s, his autobiographical LES MOTS excepted.

“The chapter on the couple in Aude Lancelin and Marie Lemonnier’s LES PHILOSOPHES ET L’AMOUR gives a good concise summary. Sartre was no more eager than Beauvoir to marry. Like Pasolini and Kerouac, he lived with his mother while pursuing his life of permanent “jeune homme” outside. Lancelin and Lemonnier point out that Beauvoir’s true feelings of jealousy and resentment – perfectly normal of course – are portrayed more accurately in her novels than in her memoirs. As a memoirist, she was too concerned to perpetuate the myth. Fiction provided a veil. Lancelin and Lemonnier also dispense with the Merteuil/Valmont comparison. That couple would never have gone beyond their evil and perverse games to envision edification of the masses and liberation of women.

“For his contemporaries, Sartre was an iconic figure like Voltaire and Hugo, his name known to everybody, hence the large crowd at his funeral. His generosity was real, as Gascoigne remarks. Camus is generally the more attractive character, despite his Mediterranean sexist remarks about LE DEUXIEME SEXE. His feud with Sartre came about after Camus’s rejection of Stalinist crimes and refusal to let the supposed end justify the atrocious means.

“I don’t know who Carole Seymour-Jones is but the name sounds English/Welsh and as anyone familiar with England or the English press knows, the English are quick to seize any opportunity the bash the French. French intellectuals and left-wing to boot are red rags to a bull, whether John or Jane.”


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