Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre Review

Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
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Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre Review"Like Abelard and Heloise, they are buried in a joint grave, their names linked for eternity. They're one of the world's legendary couples. We can't think of one without thinking of the other." So begins Hazel Rowley's Tete-a-Tete, of which the author says, "This is not a biography of Sartre and Beauvoir. This is the story of a relationship."
And what a relationship it was! Although never married, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) lived together as "man and wife" for 51 years, dating from their meeting in 1929. Both were "free spirits" who contracted an "open marriage" in which other "contingent" sexual partners were welcomed, even encouraged. The only ground rule of their relationship was that they be honest with each other, and tell each other everything.
No other word describes Jean-Paul Sartre as well as the word "ugly." A short man (five-foot one), his atrocious eating habits soon led to a pot belly. When he was two years old, he went almost blind in his right eye, leaving him "wall-eyed." His face and neck were pock-marked and covered with blackheads. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, consumed vast quantities of alcohol, and gobbled amphetamines and barbiturates, especially corydrane, like candy. And yet, this guru of the existentialist movement attracted beautiful young women like honey attracts flies. Go figure!
"The story of a relationship" is actually the story of many relationships--of numerous sexual encounters and romantic attachments. Indeed, there are so many tempestuous liaisons and promiscuous affairs related in this book that one soon loses count of Sartre and Beauvoir's erotic adventures. The list of their amours is a long one: Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz, Bianca Bienenfeld, Nathalie Sorokine, Jacques-Laurent Bost; Delores Vanetti, Nelson Algren, Sally Swing, Michelle Vian, Claude Lanzmann, Evelyne Lanzmann (stage name, Evelyne Rey), Arlette Elkaim, Lena Zonina, Tomiko Asabuki, Sylvie Le Bon, Helene Lassithiotakis, and also various and sundry one-night stands.
As far as I can tell, Sartre was strictly heterosexual, a notorious womanizer whose real pleasure (so he claimed) was not in the sexual act itself, but in the thrill of the chase, in which he employed all the seductive stratagems of his intellectual arsenal. Beauvoir, on the other hand, was bisexual, and had affairs with many male and female lovers, the most famous of whom was the American novelist Nelson Algren, the "great passion" of her life.
Reading of Sartre's obsessive need to be loved by women, the image of a juggler comes readily to mind: How did he keep so many "ninepins" whirling through the air without a disastrous collision. When asked by an interviewer how he juggled so many women successfully, Sartre replied, "I lied to them all." "Even to the Beaver [Beauvoir]"? asked the interviewer. "Yes, I lied to the Beaver too," said Sartre.
The interminable series of Sartre and Beauvoir's sexual affairs strikes me as a tragicomic soap opera, and suggests the words spoken by Shakespeare's Puck, in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act III, sc. ii, line 115), "Lord, what fools these mortals be."
Hazel Rowley, who divides her time between New York and Paris, wrote her doctoral thesis on existentialism, and has closely studied the correspondence between Sartre and Beauvoir. Her academic career and intense research has qualified her to write authoritatively on her subjects. Although Tete-a-Tete doesn't go deeply into existential philosophy, it does contain enlightening pages that describe the kernel of this world view.
One is astonished that Sartre, an existentialist intellectual who gloried in the liberty and freedom of the individual, could have become a "fellow traveler" of communism. One can only surmise that, in his abhorrence of Western colonialism and imperialism, he allowed the pendulum of his thinking to swing so far toward the left. With the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, however, the scales finally fell from his blinded eyes.
Rowley also discusses the major works by Sartre--Nausea, Roads to Freedom (a trilogy), Being and Nothingness, Words (for which he won a Nobel Prize), Search for a Method, Critique of Dialectical Reason, and his plays (including "The Flies," "No Exit," "The Respectful Prostitute," "Dirty Hands," "The Devil and the Good Lord," and "The Condemned of Altona"--and by Beauvoir (The Second Sex, The Mandarins, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life, A Very Easy Death, All Said and Done, The Coming of Age, The Woman Destroyed, and Force of Circumstance).
If you think this book is not for you, think again. Hazel Rowley has written an intriguing book about philosophy and literature, sexual politics, the clash of world powers, the angst of the human condition, and, above all, the unconventional love story of a man and a woman. Beneath their "unfaithfulness" to each other, there was a bedrock of "faithfulness" between Beauvoir and Sartre that lasted half a century. Rowley has told their story well.
Hazel Rowely's previous books include Christina Stead: A Biography and Richard Wright: The Life and Times. She has been a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow and a Bunting Institute Fellow at Radcliffe College, and has taught at the University of Iowa and at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.
Roy E. Perry of Nolensville, Tennessee, is an advertising copywriter at a Nashville publishing house. [...]

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