Simone de Beauvoir’s lost friendship novella

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Inseparable. By Simone de Beauvoir. Translated by Sandra Smith. Ecco; 176 pages; $ 26.99. Released in the UK as The Inseparables. Translated by Lauren Elkin. Vintage classics; £ 12.99

IN 1958, IN “Memories of a dutiful daughter”, Simone de Beauvoir remembers meeting Elisabeth Lacoin in 1917 at the age of nine. On the first day of the school year, de Beauvoir noted that “the place next to mine was taken by a new girl: she was short, dark, thin and had short hair”. Lacoin stated that she was tied to her bed for a year after her dress caught fire and she was badly burned. De Beauvoir was fascinated by history and by it. “Nothing so important has ever happened to me,” she later wrote. Lacoin “seemed like a very accomplished person to me … all she had to say was either interesting or amusing.”

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The couple quickly became steadfast friends – referred to by their teachers as “the lovebirds” – as well as academic rivals. They sneaked into Lacoin’s father’s study not to exchange “girlish confidences” but to talk about their reading and schoolwork or lofty ideas like the definition of love. They stayed closed until the university.

Although de Beauvoir’s family once did the Upper class, her father had mismanaged her money, and she was expected to be academically successful and able to support herself. In Lacoin’s family, however, education was seen as a distraction – after all, “you either had to get married or become a nun”. De Beauvoir’s friend “began to be afraid of the future”. In the end, Lacoin was denied any choice: she died of a brain infection in 1929. When de Beauvoir wrote the date in her diary, she wiped the ink away with her tears.

It was one of the most important relationships in the feminist philosopher’s life; Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, her adopted daughter, has described it as “their first great love affair”. De Beauvoir loved Zaza (Lacoin’s nickname) “with an intensity that could not be explained by any established set of rules”. Again and again she tried to immortalize her friend on the page: as Anne in “When the things of the mind come first”, a collection of short stories (written in 1937, but not published until 1979); in a later deleted passage in “The Mandarins” (1954), for which she won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize; and in her memoir.

She also produced another version of the story. De Beauvoir wrote “Inseparable” in 1954, a thinly fictional account of friendship, but hid it in a drawer. Jean-Paul Sartre, her romantic and intellectual partner, found such personal material uninteresting and advised her not to publish it. The novella discovered by her daughter was published in French last year and has now appeared in English.

The marriage plan

Some things will look familiar to admirers. The book begins with Sylvie (de Beauvoir’s avatar) meeting Andrée (Lacoins) at school and a description of the accident; it ends with Andrée’s premature death. In between, it hints at the rigor of decent bourgeois society and reveals Andrée’s foiled publicity with Pascal (in real life Maurice Merleau-Ponty, another philosopher) and the painful disapproval of her parents. The context in the memoir is removed, leaving only a poignant story of intense affection. “I could only imagine one kind of love,” reflects Sylvie. “The love I had for her.”

The book distills subjects that would preoccupy de Beauvoir throughout her career. “It gives us such a great insight into the training of one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century,” says Charlotte Knight, the British editor. One topic is religion. Through Sylvie, the author examines her own rejection of the church and her loss of faith. “Without God, the world was undoubtedly difficult to explain,” says Sylvie, “but God didn’t explain much, or at least we understood very little.”

De Beauvoir examined the importance of self-determination and freedom in The Ethics of Ambiguity, a defense of existentialism published in 1947. “Man exists,” she wrote. “For him, it’s not about wondering whether his presence in the world is useful … It’s about knowing whether he wants to live and under what conditions.” Meanwhile, Andrée is pushed to believe in self-sacrifice, an idea , with whom de Beauvoir “had struggled for much of her life,” says Kate Kirkpatrick of Oxford University, author of the biography “Becoming Beauvoir”.

Lacoin’s story also shaped her feminism. In “The Second Sex” (1949) de Beauvoir wrote that a young woman had “it more difficult than the young man to realize himself as an autonomous individual”. She deplored the fact that “marriage is the reference by which the single woman is defined” and the civic preference for arranged, loveless relationships – a result that Lacoin was determined to avoid. In a scene described in detail in the novella and briefly in “The Second Sex”, Andrée / Lacoin puts an ax on her foot to free herself from the drudgery of housework and family obligations.

As Lauren Elkin, translator for the UK edition notes, women typically got married or died at the end of novels. In her, de Beauvoir accuses society and the institutions that “make this Andrée the only two options”. At the funeral, the images of the two fates are merged, as her grave is shrouded in pale flowers. She “suffocated in all that white,” observes Sylvie.

This lost novella will introduce some readers to the pivotal role Lacoin played in de Beauvoir’s seminal life and career. The philosopher, who died in 1986, always understood it. At the end of her memoir, she says that she is haunted by her friend’s visions at night and her memory during the day. “We had fought together against the horrible fate that was to come”, she writes, “and for a long time I believed that with her death I had paid for my own freedom.”

This article appeared in the Books & Art section of the print edition under the heading “Your brilliant friend”


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