Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Way back in 1929, two young philosophy students named Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir became attracted to one another. Sartre explained that personal freedom was really important for him, but so were relationships. He and Beauvoir made a pact at the ripe old ages of 21 and 24 to never marry and to always have an open relationship. Amazingly, they kept this pact all their lives, until Sartre's death in 1980. Tete A Tete is the complete history of that relationship, complications and all.

Maree: I'm intrigued by Tete A Tete despite not knowing much about Sartre or Beauvoir. Is this book a good introduction?

You would not be intellectually intimidated by reading this portrait of the two, so maybe it is a good introduction. Their work and philosophies are discussed in varying degrees throughout the book. Some years, biographer Hazel Rowley neatly summarizes what they're working on, and in other years, especially in the 1960s when Sartre was having a change of heart about communism, it becomes more front-burner material. The bulk of the book is about their love relationships with each other and other people. Personally, I would've liked a little more balance.

Book Zombie: What one thing made you read this book? What six words come to your mind?

I found this biography last summer when I was in the US, and it sat on my TBR for a few months until I decided to include it as one of my reads for the In Their Shoes challenge.

Six word review? Philosophers in love -- so typically French.

Bookfool: How is it?

Bookfool, I really don't think it would be your cup of bouillabaisse because of the extreme emphasis on who's doing it with who. Not only Sartre and Beauvoir, but there were also many lengthy discussions of who their lovers and mistresses would hook up with when they decided to stray.

Dewey: Is it worth the wait? For whom do you feel more sympathy, Sartre or Beauvoir? Are there letters in the book, or is it all narrative?

I felt a little let down, although I'm a sucker for literary gossip. My interest was piqued when Beauvoir went to America and began a love affair with novelist Nelson Algren, whose impatience with Sartre and Beauvoir's set-up was a breath of fresh air in this often claustrophobic study of their lives. For whom did I feel more sympathy? Most of the time I was irritated with both of them, but in the earlier years, I felt sorry for Beauvoir because she seemed so alone while Sartre was either off at war or knee-deep in mistresses. Later on, I felt sorry for Sartre because he comes off as such an absurd figure. His blueprint for the relationship created a backlash for him -- to the end of his life, he supported a huge cast of past and present mistresses who were all jealous as hell of each other. He spent a lot of energy lying to them all. (I kept thinking of No Exit: "Hell is other people.") Beauvoir's style was to have one lover at a time for several years, although she would drop everything for Sartre, no matter who she was involved with. She comes across more serious-minded, more dedicated to the relationship. The narrative is strong, but there are many letters in the book, most of them from Beauvoir. Sartre's literary executor, (a young woman he bonked and then later "adopted) is not being extremely cooperative with biographers, whereas the young woman Beauvoir adopted (and maybe bonked) was the soul of generosity to Rowley.

Jennie: Is this a serious scholarly work? Or just gossip?

I would never call Tete A Tete a scholarly work, but it's not exactly low tabloid fodder, either, although most of the terrific photos are of Sartre and Beauvoir and their lovers. There's a great shot of Beauvoir standing naked in a bathroom at the sink. She was gorgeous. No pics of Sartre naked, though. Rowley describes him as short, pudgy and wall-eyed. Perhaps it's just as well.


Care said...

I enjoyed this review!

Bookfool said...

Yeah, that would bug me, thanks for the warning. I've had the book on my wish list for a while. I'll take it off and just try to get to Sartre's letters to de Beauvoir. Have you read that?

Anonymous said...

Served Sartre right. Hell actually is other people but he asked for it.

I think it might not be the best choice for me either but that reminds me, I've really got to read my copy of The Second Sex.

Bookfool said...

That would be Simone's letters to Jean Paul, not the other way around. Sigh. It's not like it hasn't been in plain view for eons.