There is plenty in this heavyweight and important book to interest not only students of French literature and philosophy but also those who struggle to understand the history of France in the last century and its attitude towards Jews.
But you will need a strong stomach. The author does not flinch from detailed descriptions of a wide variety of sexual activity and perversions, as well as serial betrayals, both moral and physical. As she explains; Beauvoir, a teacher, liked to break in her pupils through lesbian seduction before procuring them for Sartre, believing this would bind him more strongly to her, the older woman. According to the young Jewish schoolchild, Bianca Bienenfeld, about whom Beauvoir was once passionate and then abandoned during the Nazi occupation of Paris: She liked new adventures. Homosexuality was part of her bourgeois rebellion.
As a young teacher Simone de Beauvoir was asked what it meant to be a Jew. Nothing at all,she replied. There are no such thing as Jews. There are only human beings. But to anyone living in France in 1939 and after, it was impossible not to understand what it meant to be a Jew.
As a young teacher Simone de Beauvoir was asked what it meant to be a Jew. “Nothing at all,” she replied. “There are no such thing as Jews. There are only human beings.” But to anyone living in France in 1939 and after, it was impossible not to understand what it meant to be a Jew.
Bianca and her friend the actress Simone Signoret refused to wear their yellow stars. But that was unusual and highly dangerous. Beauvoir’s response to Bianca’s fear of the future as a Jewish woman in Paris was sneering. She described her former lover as “prophesying doom like a Cassandra (what’s new) and hesitating between the concentration camp and suicide, with a preference for suicide.”
Remarkably, Bianca survived (and spoke to Seymour- Jones for this book) although some of her family did not and Beauvoir was struck with remorse for her treatment of the girl.
Jean Paul Sartre, who had Jewish blood through his maternal line, claimed that he was a leader of the “Intellectual Resistance.” Yet Carole Seymour-Jones shows in this deeply researched and clear-eyed book detailing one of the most famous non-marriages in French history, that while both took many Jewish lovers throughout their lives, (These included for Beauvoir, Nelson Algren and Claude Lanzmann, later Sartre seduced Lanzmann’s sister) they also profited from Vichy anti-Semitic laws. Sartre positioned himself ideally for power and influence after the Liberation.
Seymour-Jones has been dogged in showing how both Sartre and Beauvoir continued to lead comfortable lives in Paris throughout the Occupation, even taking skiing holidays. Both continued to eat well – Sartre often at his mother’s elegant apartment, Beauvoir at restaurants or giving dinner parties thanks to the black market, which various among their friends and relatives were not shy of exploiting.
More seriously, Sartre accepted a new post at the Lycee Condorcet in October, 1941 which required stepping into the shoes of a sacked Jewish teacher, Henri Dreyfus Lefoyer, great nephew of the famous Dreyfus. Admittedly, they did not join the openly compromised salons frequented by Nazi officers but they could have made other choices.
Some intellectuals refused to write for certain publishing houses, keeping an honourable silence. Others left Paris altogether and worked on a resistance paper in London in an attempt to dedicate themselves to the struggle against the Nazis.
For many who have grown up believing Sartre possessed of a brilliant mind and Beauvoir a feminist heroine, this will be a profoundly shocking, if necessary, book. They stand accused.