SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR A Life . . . a Love Story By Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier Translated from the French By Lisa Nesselson St. Martin's. 412 pp. $18.95
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR -- now, who could possibly pretend to live completely beyond the ripples of her influence, as if she had never existed? This pioneer in rebellion, fighter for equal rights, advocate of women's sexual freedom and financial autonomy, this theoretician of womanhood -- where would we be without her? And if it is true that she was a product of changing times, of the need for women to go out to work while men were getting themselves killed in World War I, it is also true that she was a catalyst, helping to make those changes possible. Simone de Beauvoir was a flesh-and-blood woman, a passionate one, who wanted everything, tasted everything and wrote everything. But she also became a symbol in her lifetime, a myth, a cult.
It would have been fascinating to follow de Beauvoir's intellectual development from the time she studied philosophy and became a teacher against her family wish (for in her time it was unacceptable in the bourgeoisie that a woman earn a living -- not to speak of aristocrats like her father who considered it unacceptable for men to work for a living) and to follow the progress of her writing, notably of The Second Sex, which has since become a bible to so many women in so many nations. But this is where the biographers leave us hanging. For if their subject's family background and early years are recounted in considerable detail -- sometimes to the point where de Beauvoir's life seems little more than an excuse for anecdote -- her arrival at the Sorbonne brings an end to the intimacy one may have felt with her. We would have liked to know what she studied and felt and said and heard, but all we get is trivia. The reader feels trapped behind a glass window, acting like a small-time voyeur.
In France, the original version of this biography received a prize voted by the readers of Elle magazine, and the book remains a must for all those without any serious interest in philosophy, literature or politics. The outside shell of de Beauvoir's life is here, complete with American mink coat and love letters to Famous American Lover Nelson Algren -- which preoccupy the authors more than all of World War II. Still, the reader looking for saucy "Existentialist" details will be disappointed, for if we are told a bit of the sex lives of assorted spear carriers, the authors seem to have been dazzled by Saint Simone's halo and don't dare ruffle her robes.
One has to read Sartre's letters to de Beauvoir in order to discover what it was that linked them so strongly all their lives long. After reading at length about each and every cafe' she spent time in, and with whom, and feeling one has sniffed every glass of liquor she ever drank, we begin to wonder whether by any chance we've missed the moment when she may have lost her virginity to Sartre. And later, in 1943, while Sartre was a POW of the Germans, the mother of a female student who was under de Beauvoir's spell accused her of abducting a minor. "Friends intervened and the criminal charge was dropped but, after twelve years of teaching, de Beauvoir was barred from the University, and she was lucky that the matter went no further for the offense carried a jail sentence. She could no longer teach in France; she would have to find a new way of earning a living." Now, wouldn't it have been interesting to know the significance of homosexuality in the life of the author of The Second Sex, then and later?
YEARS LATER, in 1970, at the age of 62, de Beauvoir signed a manifesto of the MLF, the French Women's Liberation Movement, requesting the right for women to have abortions and claiming to have had an abortion herself. Clearly since Simone de Beauvoir did tackle such sexual and ancillary questions frontally, provoking the establishment loudly and deliberately, the reader would obviously like to know how she faced them personally. But it seems that the presence -- and then the shadow -- of de Beauvoir paralyzed the authors. It would have been a hard assignment to obtain such private information, and the authors don't give it to us. The result is that we feel very much left outside.
All this changes in the final chapters, covering the last years of her life, when age excused her from having a private life, and she threw herself into militant action on the multiple fronts of feminism, demonstrations against the Vietnam war, the struggle against capitalism and imperialism and allied causes. By this time, the authors had come to know their heroine, and they could interview her on the subjects then of greatest concern to her. But there are three decades of de Beauvoir's life which we can only watch through the glass window, with the feeling of killing time with Saint Simone. ::
Marianne Ve'ron is a French editor and translator.