Translated by Lauren Elkin
Review by Karen Langley
Simone de Beauvoir is probably best recognised nowadays for her ground-breaking feminist work The Second Sex, as well as her connections with Jean Paul Sartre and French 20th century existentialism. However, as well as producing a memorable sequence of autobiographical works, starting with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, she was also a fine writer of fiction. Her major novel The Mandarins is a roman-a-clef which explores the life and relationships of figures based on Sartre, Camus and others in France at the end of, and after, World War 2. Beauvoir regularly used events from her life in her fictions, and a newly-released rediscovered novella, never before published or translated, draws from her formative years and makes fascinating reading.
The Inseparables was written in 1954, when Beauvoir was in her 40s, and in it she looks back to a pivotal friendship in her young life. By this time, The Second Sex (published five years earlier) had brought her fame as well as notoriety, and she was also the author of three earlier novels. However, The Inseparables was reputedly dismissed by Beauvoir’s long-term companion Sartre as having no significance in a political sense and so remained unpublished during Beauvoir’s lifetime. However, Sartre is not necessarily the best person to judge a novel about the formative experiences in women’s lives, and fortunately The Inseparables has finally made it into print.
The book tells the stories of two young girls growing up in France in the early part of the 20th century. The narrator, Sylvie, meets Andrée when the latter joins her day school in Paris. Both are 9 years old, but very different girls. Sylvie’s family are strict and religious, and she’s an intelligent child, always top of her class. Andrée is the complete opposite; also bright, she’s rebellious, unconventional, almost aloof and has a magnetism which attracts others as well as Sylvie. The girls become extremely close, although the conventions of the time limit their contact. Additionally, social divisions are still strongly in place, and as the fortunes of Sylvie’s family diminish it becomes even harder for the girls to maintain contact.
Nevertheless, the two do manage to retain their friendship, although this seems stronger perhaps on Sylvie’s part. As they grow up and move towards further education, Sylvie has more choices than her friend thanks to her family’s lack of money; she is able to plan to work for a living, whereas families of Andrée’s class are simply looking to marry off their daughters to suitable men (and indeed one of Andrée’s elder sisters is given an ultimatum of accepting the proposal of a forty year old widower with two children or being left ‘on the shelf’). Both girls struggle with faith and belief, fighting as much as they can against the limitations society places on them; but the story will not have a happy resolution…
Beauvoir was keenly aware of societal pressures on women, assumptions made about how they should behave and restrictions they faced; because of circumstances, she was able to break through these (as does Sylvie), but her friend ‘Zaza’ Lacoin, upon whom Andrée is based, was not. As you read through The Inseparables, it’s quite shocking to see how little personal freedom young women had at the time; the book is a reminder of how much has changed, and how much the freedoms we now have need to be defended.
Would Andrée have been sad if we had been prevented from seeing each other? Less than I would have been, to be sure. They called us the inseparables, and she preferred my company to that of the other girls. But it seemed to me that her love for her mother made her other attachments pale by comparison. Her family was enormously important to her.
It’s clear that Beauvoir was deeply affected by Zaza’s fate, as the story of their friendship turns up again in the first volume of her autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. And as well as the intense friendship between the two girls, The Inseparables also contrasts the two families involved, particularly in the relationship between mother and daughter. Andrée and her mother have a much closer relationship than the one between Sylvie and hers, which is much more distant. However, despite this, Andrée is in many ways trapped in that familial atmosphere and the smothering presence of her mother, finding it harder to break away; whereas Beauvoir’s less close family setting makes it easier for her to strike out on her own. The influence of Catholic religion has much to do with shaping (and often warping) the lives of these girls and young women, and both Sylvie and Andrée struggled with this in different ways. Interestingly, while exploring Andrée’s past, Sylvie stumbles across family photos which give an insight into the life of the former’s mother, and it does seem as if women have always been denied control of their destiny.
As well as the novella itself, the book also features an introduction by Deborah Levy and an afterword by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Simone’s adopted daughter and executor who discusses the story behind the publication. The translation by Lauren Elkin reads beautifully, and the book has a moving section of photos of Zaza and Simone in their younger years, plus images of letters and manuscripts. The Inseparables is not just a vividly rendered portrait of female friendship nearly 100 years ago, it’s also a wonderful memorial of Beauvoir’s friend, a damning indictment of the society of the time and a stirring reminder of how important our freedoms are. Thank goodness The Inseparables has finally seen the light of day!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and loves exploring a lost classic.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Inseparables (Vintage, 2021). 978-1784877002 148pp, hardback.