Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Les Deux Magots

In The New Yorker, "The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoir," by Louis Menand. "He liked to drink and talk all night, and so did she."

The first time I saw Paris, I had 52 hours from debarkation to boarding for home again. Very little time was spent sleeping. Drinking, dining, dancing, but mostly walking, breathing, walking.

It wasn't exactly a pilgrimage, and I'm not entirely sure what my inspiration was, but for all the glorious things to see and do in Paris, it was for some reason a priority for me to visit, of all things, not the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, not even the touristy gravesides of the inhabitants of Père Lachaise cemetery, but the site of the remains of Jean-Paul and Simone in Montparnasse, stopping to have a drink in their honour at Les Deux Magots.

I'd studied philosophy, but by then I'd pretty much given it up as dead. I realized I was more interested in literature as a derivative of philosophical though (and interested in pursuing neither as a career). I'd been through a phase, reading all of their fiction I could get my hands on. I'd also read The Second Sex.

I enjoyed the novels, not least because of the obviousness of de Beauvoir's romans a clef. Not anything they wrote or said had the impact on me of the example of how they lived their life, particularly their emotional, romantic, sexual life. Together. Apart but still together. Buried together.

In many ways, then, in my early twenties, I likened myself to de Beauvoir; I embarked on experiments rather than relationships, exercising seuxual politics, looking for an intellectual and emotional equal (equally average, that is), looking for my Sartre. I came close, I think, a couple times.

With the publication of "Letters to Sartre," it was clear that, privately, he and Beauvoir held most of the people in their lives in varying degrees of contempt. They enjoyed, especially, recounting to each other the lies they were telling.

(I'm considering revisiting some of those novels I read. Reading Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook this summer jarred me into some kind of new consciousness — though, no, I can't bring myself to write about it just yet — of my place as a consequence of the experiences, primarily emotional, that formed me, not least drinking and talking all night. This recollection is part of that. My bed is very different from what I once thought it would be.)

But it is clear now that Sartre and Beauvoir did not simply have a long-term relationship supplemented by independent affairs with other people. The affairs with other people formed the very basis of their relationship. The swapping and the sharing and the mimicking, the memoir- and novel-writing, right down to the interviews and the published letters and the duelling estates, was the stuff and substance of their "marriage." This was how they slept with each other after they stopped sleeping with each other.

It still fascinates: Apart but still together. Buried together.

The Second Sex (English translation).
Simone de Beauvoir, portrait.


Anonymous said...

I remember when I was a teenager that I thought their relationship was so sophisticated, so 'above it all'. But from my vantage point of 42 years, I can't help but think that in many ways how they lived was petty, self-absorbed, sad, really.

That's just my perspective, of course. When I was younger I thought that that was the ideal kind of relationship, but I guess in the end I am provincial when it comes to my views on love and marriage.

That stuff still makes interesting reading, though.

Anonymous said...

It's funny. I read Being and Nothingness but couldn't be bothered to read anything biographical about Sartre/Beauvoir back in the mid-90s. At this point in my life, I'd be more interested in the biographical, I think.