Simone de Beauvoir’s lost friendship novel

Inseparable. By Simone de Beauvoir. Translated by Sandra Smith. Ecco; 176 pages; $ 26.99. Published in Great Britain under the title “Les Inséparables”. Translated by Lauren Elkin. Period classics; £ 12.99

IN 1958, IN “Memories of a devoted girl”, Simone de Beauvoir remembers having met Elisabeth Lacoin in 1917, when she was nine years old. On the first day of the school year, de Beauvoir found that “the seat next to mine was occupied by a new girl: she was short, dark-haired, with a thin face, with short hair”. Lacoin explained that she was confined to her bed for a year after her dress caught fire and suffered terrible burns. De Beauvoir was captivated by history, and by it. “Nothing as important as this had ever happened to me,” she later wrote. Lacoin “struck me as a very accomplished person… everything she had to say was either interesting or funny.

The couple quickly became good friends – nicknamed “the two inseparable” by their teachers – as well as academic rivals. They sneaked into Lacoin’s father’s office, not to exchange “girlish secrets” but to talk about their reading and their homework, or noble ideas such as the definition of love. They stayed close until college.

Although the Beauvoir family once belonged to the gentility, her father had mismanaged their money, and she was expected to succeed in school and support herself. In Lacoin’s family, however, education was seen as a distraction – ultimately “you either had to get married or become a nun”. De Beauvoir’s friend “begins to fear the future”. Ultimately, Lacoin was denied any choice: she died of a brain infection in 1929. When de Beauvoir wrote the date in her diary, she wiped away the ink with her tears.

It was one of the most important relationships in the life of the feminist philosopher; Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, her adopted daughter, described it as “her first great love story”. De Beauvoir loved Zaza (Lacoin’s nickname) “with an intensity that could not be explained by any set of established rules”. Time and time again she tried to immortalize her friend on the page: like Anne in “When the Things of the Spirit Come First”, a collection of short stories (written in 1937 but published only in 1979); in a passage, later deleted, from the “Mandarins” (1954), for which she won the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary award in France; and in his memoirs.

She also produced another side of the story. De Beauvoir wrote “Inseparable”, a barely fictionalized tale of friendship, in 1954, but hid it in a drawer. Jean-Paul Sartre, her romantic and intellectual partner, found this personal material uninteresting and dissuaded her from publishing it. Discovered by his daughter, the novel was released in French last year and is now available in English.

The marriage plot

Some of them will be familiar to admirers. The book begins with Sylvie (Beauvoir’s avatar) meeting Andrée (Lacoin’s) at school and a description of the accident; it ends with the untimely death of Andrée. In between, he points to the restrictions of bourgeois society obsessed with decorum and reveals Andrée’s upset court with Pascal (in real life Maurice Merleau-Ponty, another philosopher) and the painful disapproval of his parents. The context in the memories is removed, leaving only a poignant story of intense affection. “I could only conceive of one kind of love,” Sylvie reflects. “The love I had for her.”

The book distills subjects that will preoccupy Beauvoir throughout his career. “It gives us such a great insight into the formation of one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century,” says Charlotte Knight, her UK editor. One theme 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 did not explain much, or in any case we understood very little.

De Beauvoir would probe the meaning of self-determination and freedom in “The Ethics of Ambiguity”, a defense of existentialism published in 1947. “Man exists,” she writes. “For him, it is not a question of asking himself if his presence in the world is useful… It is a question of knowing if he wants to live and under what conditions. Andrée, meanwhile, is invited to believe in self-sacrifice, an idea with which Beauvoir “struggled for much of her life”, explains Kate Kirkpatrick of the University of Oxford, author of “Becoming Beauvoir”, a biography.

Lacoin’s story also informed his feminism. In “The Second Sex” (1949), de Beauvoir writes that a young woman “has more difficulty than a young man in fulfilling herself as an autonomous individual”. She lamented the fact that “marriage is the benchmark by which the unmarried woman is defined” and the bourgeois penchant for arranged and loveless unions – an outcome Lacoin desperately wanted to avoid. In a scene described at length in the short story and briefly in “The Second Sex”, Andrée / Lacoin thrusts an ax through her foot to escape the chores of domestic work and family obligations.

As Lauren Elkin, the translator for the British edition, notes, the women usually got married or died by the end of the novels. In his, de Beauvoir accuses society and the institutions which “make them the only two options for Andrée”. At the funeral, the imagery of the two destinies is confused as his grave is surrounded by pale flowers. She “was suffocating in all this whiteness,” observes Sylvie.

This lost short story will introduce some readers to the pivotal role Lacoin played in de Beauvoir’s pioneering life and career. The philosopher herself, who died in 1986, has always understood this. At the end of her memoir, she says that she is haunted by her friend’s visions at night and by her memory by day. “We had fought together against the appalling fate that awaited us,” she wrote, “and I believed for a long time that I had paid for my own freedom with her death. â– 

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “His Brilliant Friend”

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