I was shocked and saddened to learn a couple of weeks ago that Hazel Rowley had passed away. As many of you know, Rowley was scheduled to do an Australian tour to talk about her latest book, Franklin and Eleanor.
My acquaintance with Rowley’s work began when I heard her interviewed on The Book Show about Richard Wright on the centenary of his death. Not a reader of biographies, I was surprised to find myself totally absorbed in Rowley’s details of the American writer, whose protest novel Native Son sold hundreds of thousands of copies when it was published in 1940. Rowley was a delightful interviewee, so obviously entranced with her subject, so humble:
How can I be so stupid? Who’s going to talk to me? What the hell do I think I’m doing?…Writing about a man, a black man, an American man? What do I know about this? Zero!
I planned to seek out Rowley’s biography of Wright – I’d never heard anything about him before, and his story was electrifying (an angry black writer, read widely by white readers and deeply influential upon later black writers, who became a communist, joined the John Reed Club, then moved to France).
But I came across Tête-à-tête first, which I couldn’t resist – being as I am conditioned to treasure great love stories. As Rowley writes in the preface, the book ‘is not a biography of Sartre and Beauvoir … This is the story of a relationship.’ Which for me was a sort of relief – I’m not well acquainted with the work of either, and haven’t particularly enjoyed Sartre’s fiction (which I suppose is akin to saying ‘I don’t think Shakespeare was so great at making paper planes’). Nevertheless, it was good to approach this book not burdened by my lack of philosophical knowhow – which was more than supplemented by Rowley’s familiarity with these existentialists’ oeuvres.
It’s a pleasure to track how Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s work developed and changed, and equally wonderful to discover how they supported and encouraged one another. Named after the type of communication the pair found most satisfying, the book is a tender portrait of how, among emotional and political upheaval, Sartre and Beauvoir continually returned to their particular brand of intimacy until Sartre’s death in 1980.
For a biographer to gain this reader’s trust, they must prove their depth and breadth of knowledge, and present themselves as a balanced teller of the particular story. Having interviewed Beauvoir in 1976, as well as many of Sartre and Beauvoir’s friends and family members, Rowley certainly does the former, also providing endnotes, a selected bibliography and a ‘note on sources’ that briefly describes the location and status of the various diaries, letters and other materials she studied. As to the latter – on the one hand, it’s clear how close to Rowley’s heart the two writers are, particularly Beauvoir:
When I read Beauvoir’s memoirs in the late sixties, I was exhilarated – intoxicated, one might say. She made the impossible seem possible. Didn’t we all want an intellectual partner with whom we could share our work, ideas, and slightest thoughts? Didn’t everyone want to write in Paris cafes amid the clatter of coffee cups and the hubbub of voices, and spend their summers in Rome in complicated but apparently harmonious foursomes? Who wanted monogamy when one could have freedom and stability, love affairs and commitment?
This is the kind of passion a biographer needs to stay the course with a subject, but a reader also wants a biographer who can be even-minded with the material, not a hagiographer. At once admiring and tongue-in-cheek, Rowley tempers her obvious interest in the two – as writers and as partners – with a clear-eyed view of the tangled family they eventually wrought. Small details help deconsecrate Sartre (‘He had been keen to get himself a German girlfriend but found he lacked the language skills’) and humanise him – at one point there’s a great image of the ambitious, workaholic academic carrying lunch to an ill Beauvoir, ‘taking great care not to spill it on the way’. Seen through the eyes of later lovers, though, the man is not so appealing. In particular, Sartre’s pursuit of the Kosakiewicz sisters wears its facts sordidly. Wanda, the younger ‘Kos’, was ‘appalled’ when the fifty-six year old Sartre kissed her – then twenty years old – in the back of a taxi. It wasn’t just Sartre who had grand appetites, though: both Sartre and Beauvoir pursued younger lovers, often sharing them. When she was a teacher, Beauvoir seduced a couple of her baccalaureate students.
From the beginning, Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship was a singular one, with few precedents even in the pair’s social circle. Sartre was non-monogamous, and to counter jealousy, he suggested to ‘the Beaver’ that they tell each other everything, which he called ‘transparency’. Sartre wanted her ‘to share … all her thoughts with him’, and Beauvoir found this ‘as frightening as it was exhilarating’. This was to be a central tenet of their relationship, which Sartre called ‘primary’ and ‘essential’, but they did not extend the courtesy of transparency to their other, ‘contingent’ lovers; indeed, they often lied to them. The tension between the pair’s devotion to the ideal of transparency and the emotional consequences of their manipulations held for the rest of their lives, with many of their other lovers constantly requiring assurance, time, continued falsehoods and even funds. Sartre, particularly, continued to accumulate dependants, until he and Beauvoir were supporting several young women. Complicated affairs like these provided ample material for the pair’s creative endeavours, such as Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay and The Mandarins (though her memoirs arguably caused more commotion; one-time lover Nelson Algren reviewed one of the volumes, ending with ‘Will she ever quit talking?’).
Beauvoir was often worse off in these taxing situations. Only once did Sartre admit to having felt jealousy, and being attached to so many young women was eminently satisfactory for him; towards the end, he even said he lied to Beauvoir more than to anyone else – despite their pledge to be honest with one another. On the other hand, Beauvoir struggled with jealousy and was often tortured by worry – she was a woman; society found ‘freedom’ just that much more condemnable in her – and suffered no small anxiety about the edifice of lies the couple constructed in claiming the transparent life for themselves, and leaving the contingent life for others. After Sartre broke off his relationship with Bianca Bienenfeld, a former student and lover of Beauvoir’s, Beauvoir wrote: ‘I blamed us – myself as much as you, actually – in the past, in the future, in the absolute: the way we treat people. I felt it was unacceptable that we’d managed to make her suffer so much.’ It makes for uncomfortable reading, the The Second Sex‘s author bearing weary witness to her partner’s etiolated women. The bitter taste of Beauvoir’s reassessment is echoed in an affecting part of Rowley’s Book Show interview:
The disappointment came really when Simone de Beauvoir’s letters were published after her death and we did find out that she had lied to people and that they had both lied to people, and that she, to some extent, had lied to us readers as well as her lovers, and that was the disappointment.
Yet there is something incredibly salutary about reading this non-judgmental account, in respect of a story that could easily have been rendered merely as farce or muck. Rowley’s inquiring and fair mind has laid out what she discovered, for all to read, as if to regale us with ceaseless tales of her most treasured, high-functioning and flawed friends. This book is a wonderful, naturalistic feat of reverse engineering – from letters, books and interviews to lives.
Sartre and Beauvoir’s philosophical project – resolving to create their own lives’ meaning without recourse to any traditional rubric – was a difficult one. As Rowley puts it, ‘It is not easy, freedom. It brings with it the anguish of choice. It comes with the burden of responsibility.’ And though they did not always discharge that burden creditably, Sartre and Beauvoir forged memorable paths as readers, thinkers, writers, lovers. Tête-à-tête gives those of us intrigued by their work a chance to be caught up in the excitement and newness of the legend as if it were happening now, rather than forty, fifty, sixty years ago.