- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005


By Hazel Rowley

HarperCollins, $26.95, 416 pages, illus.


“Like Abelard and Heloise, they are buried in a joint grave, their names linked for eternity. They are one of the world’s legendary couples. We can’t think of one without thinking of the other: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.” So begins Hazel Rowley’s sprawling, informative, but disappointingly opaque study of the relationship between these two titanic figures.

De Beauvoir and Sartre were indeed one of the great love stories of the 20th century: unique, it was said, in the integrity of their devotion that had no need of a piece of paper from the city hall or any other institution. But it was their misfortune to live on into the age of deconstruction and when they died, six years apart in the 1980s, the gleeful destruction of the public edifice and private byways of their relationship was savage.

Nothing, it seemed, was nearly as pure or good or fine as it had appeared to be; infidelities, jealousies, betrayals, competitive manias were suddenly spotlighted. Even charges of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers of France or with their Vichyite puppets were not off-limits. It was hard to know from which direction came the more ferocious blows: from the right, which had always anathematized them, or from the left, of which they had so recently been icons-in-chief.

And indeed, Sartre and de Beauvoir were of the permanent left: They thought of themselves as leftists and to them this identification entailed more than the socialism which they certainly embraced. Their stance on most issues was antinomian and they were radical in their thinking on matters large and small, personal as well as societal.

What Sartre considered his defining moment on the world’s political stage came in 1964 when he made a point of declining both the Nobel and Lenin prizes, thumbing his nose at the communist and capitalist worlds alike. So striking an example of moral equivalency, combined with his militant anti-colonialism and strident opposition to the Vietnam War, make him seem to us in our post-communist age almost a caricature of the blinkered, clueless, unthinking, knee-jerk leftist. And even in his own time, the shining example of his contemporary and alternating friend and enemy, the great moral sage Albert Camus, made him look unworthy. Yet, as HazelRowley painstakingly and dispassionately lays out the twists and turns of Sartre’s political posturing and actions, it becomes evident that a more careful look at him reveals a figure of some integrity and moral value.

If Sartre was at times an apologist for the Soviet Union, it seems that he was really a fellow traveler for only a relatively brief period in the early 1950s, albeit long enough for him to earn the furious condemnation of Camus, among others. But in the end, his — and de Beauvoir’s — natural affinity for the victim and their deep-seated antipathy to authority had to make them critical of a system as brutal as that of the Soviet Union. From the time of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, he began to speak critically of the USSR; and after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, he condemned them as “war criminals” and he and de Beauvoir made a point of visiting Prague later that year to show solidarity with the victims.

They never again traveled to Russia, but it is notable that on his many visits there in the 1960s, he had gravitated naturally towards the beleaguered dissident writers whom he endeavored to support without wholesale condemnation of what he must have known by then was more than a flawed system. Ms. Rowley provides a crisp account of the contrast between Sartre and a young dissident writer, Lena Zonina, with whom he had maintained a long-running sexual and intellectual relationship: “…Sartre, for the first time since he had started coming to the USSR in 1962, made an intervention. He wrote to the president of the Supreme Soviet, asking for [Joseph] Brodsky to be pardoned. His letter was so courteous that it verged on sycophantic: ‘Mr. President, If I take the liberty of addressing you it is because I am a friend of your great country… . I know perfectly well that what the western enemies of peaceful coexistence are already calling “the Brodsky affair” is a regrettable exception.’

“Zonina was more forthright in the report she wrote the Soviet Writers Union about Sartre’s visit. ‘The arguments of [Brodsky’s] accusers are so absurd and incredible that the friends of the USSR, including Sartre, have trouble defending our country.’”

Sartre and de Beauvoir are notable for being among the very few leftists not to abandon the support of Zionism and the State of Israel which had once been a solidly entrenched part of left-wing thinking. Although both had some sympathy for the national aspirations of the Palestinians, their memory of what the Jews had suffered and their attachment to many friends and comrades in Israel made their concern for the survival of the Jewish state paramount when it came to considering the geopolitics of the Middle East. Ms. Rowley tells us that de Beauvoir in particular was “more sympathetic to Israel” than was Sartre, being “convinced that the Palestinian leaders would not be content until they had destroyed Israel.” (It is sad to reflect that all these years later, there is no reason to believe that there has been any shift in the devastating acuity of her judgment.)

Still, I think Ms. Rowley’s interpretation of Sartre’s stance on this question is skewed. From his championship of Zionist aspirations and methods in the 1940s right up until his death in 1980, Sartre was a dedicated supporter of Israel. It may well be true, as the author avers, that he was at times “dismayed by the policies of the Israeli government, who seemed determined to make negotiation with the Palestinians impossible.” But when she attributes the fact that a piece Sartre wrote in 1979, just a year before he died, was “totally uncritical of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians” to the influence of a Jewish protege, you feel the counterweight of fashionable opinion unfavorable to the Jewish state.

And this feeling is reinforced by her invoking, of all people, that apologist for (and indeed member of) the Palestinian leadership, Edward Said, as the ne plus ultra in evaluating Sartre’s words. There is a consistency to Sartre’s attitude towards Israel, which he had visited once again the year before writing this piece, that makes the opinions he expressed in 1979 believably his, a truth demonstrated often in Ms. Rowley’s own text, despite her late and unwise invocation of Said.

As a portrait of Sartre and de Beauvoir, “Tete a Tete” is curiously pallid. Part of this is due to the author’s inability to quote from Sartre because his executrix refused even to reply to her request to be able to do so. De Beauvoir’s, on the contrary, appears to have been most cooperative, allowing Ms. Rowley not only to quote from published sources but also to see some that had not yet appeared. Readers in the United States should probably consider ourselves lucky to read this material at all; objections by Sartre’s adopted daughter and heir have forced the publisher to omit it from European editions of this book.

Perhaps because of this imbalance, de Beauvoir dominates the book, the force of her character and intellect being in color, so to speak, while his are in sepia. And yet, perhaps because the author was trying to redress the imbalance forced upon her by not quoting from her writings too liberally just because she could, even the de Beauvoir we see here pales in comparison with the woman who spoke out so boldly from the texts of her remarkable books.

Which brings one to the real problem with “Tete a Tete.” After all, the reason anyone wants to write about, think about, read about these two is because of who they were. It is clear from Ms. Rowley’s introductory material that she does indeed value them, appreciate them for their signal achievements, but despite this, her book becomes much of the time little more than a lackluster litany of their peregrinations and the upheavals resulting from their complicated private lives. Reading about their comings and goings and their domestic dramas, it becomes too easy to forget that Sartre is after all the man who liberated French philosophy from its Cartesian prison and that de Beauvoir penned some of the most intelligent and analytical feminist texts of all time. These important writers with their strong, distinctive, penetrating voices are eclipsed in this pedestrian book; and in the end that is a fatal flaw for it, if certainly not for them.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide