Book Review: Letters To Sartre

Letters To Sartre, by Simone De Beauvoir, translated and edited by Quintin Hoare

I am perhaps the wrong person to be reading a book like this.  Generally speaking, one reads the letters of others when one has an interest in them or their lives.  I am, at best, deeply ambivalent to hostile towards the thinking of the author, and I am not that much more fond of Sartre outside of his excellent plays.  As a result, this book is not as enjoyable as it was when I was reading the letters of Jane Austen [1].  Nevertheless, I am in general a fan of letter-writing, even if mine has been frequently disastrous in its result, and these letters are certainly at least interesting from a personal perspective.  If one wants to find out about the personal lives of the author and the recipient of her letters and how they were able to keep up their long-term open relationship, these letters have a lot to say.  Admittedly, though, what these letters have to say is not always very interesting, nor is it very edifying.  The jealousy and unhappiness faced by the author demonstrates in many ways the natural result of her decision to live in such an unconventional and immoral manner, and I’m not the most sympathetic person to her continual carping and whining.

This sprawling volume of more than 500 pages consists of letters from the author to Sartre during six periods of time when the two of them were apart.  The first set of letters, barely 30 pages, consists of her writing to him before World War II from January 1930 to July 1939.  The majority of the letters, almost 300 pages, then take place between September 1939 and March 1940.  In these letters the author engages in a great deal of venting about overly demanding lovers (in one particularly droll example, the author explains how she tried to smooth over the feelings of someone who complained about being fifth place in her affections) and whining about the safety of her second place lover, who like Sartre was called up to the French army.  The third part of the book, and the most poignant, consists of more than fifty pages of letters–it is specified that they cannot be long–that the author wrote to Sartre while he was a German prisoner of war after the debacle of the French defeat in 1940.  After that there are some letters written before and just after liberation between July 1943 and February 1946.  There are still more letters written when De Bouvoir was in America with a couple of her other lovers and dealing with leftist politics as well as publishing issues, before the book closes with some of the later periods of separation between them between 1953 and 1963.

Although in general this book was pretty cringy, it is not as if it is a volume without value at all.  The author signed her letters (usually) as “Your Charming Beaver,” which is mildly amusing and makes one wonder if the word beaver has the same sort of double meaning in French as in English, which would make sense given the content of the letters.  The author whines a lot in these pages, going to the extreme of having Sartre (and one of her other lovers) mail letters to a different address so that her jealous roommates are unable to read the letters, as happens a few times to the author’s irritation and annoyance.  There is a great deal of deception that takes place here–deceiving lovers as to their importance, deceiving others as to the reasons for wanting to break up or not wanting to enjoy threesomes, deceiving others as to finances and where money is being spent.  At some points, the author seems to be a sexual predator with some of her students, which intriguingly enough was the charge that led her to be removed as a teacher during the Vichy period.  While I would admit that reading this book did not make me more sympathetic about the struggles of keeping a polyamorous relationship going, it does show that Sartre and the author cared a great deal about each other, that she fretted over his well-being as much as if she had been an actual wife, and that they shared a great deal in common when it came to business and philosophy and interest in books and movies.  There are marriages that have been made on worse grounds.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/01/book-review-the-letters-of-jane-austen/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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