Show caption ‘Our relationship was not at all mother and daughter’: Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. Photograph: Philip provily/Bridgeman Images Simone de Beauvoir ‘My intimacy with Simone de Beauvoir was unique… it was love’ As an autobiographical novel by the writer is published for the first time in English, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir – the adopted daughter with whom Simone shared the last 26 years of her life – talks about their bond Kim Willsher Sun 3 Oct 2021 10.00 BST Share on Facebook
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“Simone de Beauvoir was haunted by the death of her childhood friend Zaza… I think she spent the rest of her life looking for the intimacy they’d had,” says Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. “For a long time she didn’t succeed, but I believe she found it with me.”
For all but the most ardent followers of the 20th-century feminist and author of The Second Sex this statement may come as a surprise. De Beauvoir is most famously linked to fellow writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she enjoyed – and at times endured – a 50-year open relationship.
Now The Inseparables, an autobiographical De Beauvoir novel written in 1954 but just published for the first time in English, has thrown light on two relationships with women that bookended the writer’s life: the first, her intense coming-of-age friendship with classmate Elisabeth “Zaza” Lacoin; the last, with Le Bon de Beauvoir, who was her companion for more than 25 years and whom De Beauvoir adopted to pass on her literary legacy.
As De Beauvoir told a biographer: “You can explain my feeling for Sylvie by comparing it to my friendship with Zaza. I have kept my nostalgia for that my whole life.”
The Inseparables – as Le Bon de Beauvoir has named it in the absence of a title on the original manuscript – is a short, intimate account of De Beauvoir’s ultimately doomed relationship with Zaza, who died suddenly of viral encephalitis aged 21, and was written after she won the prestigious Goncourt literary prize in 1954.
The story was never published in De Beauvoir’s lifetime, not, Le Bon de Beauvoir insists, because it was “too intimate” – as was suggested when it came out in France last year – or even because Sartre was sniffy and dismissive of it, but because the writer wanted to move away from fiction to concentrate on her memoirs.
“She wasn’t happy with it because it wasn’t what she wanted to do at the time. She wanted to write an autobiography, not another novel. But she kept it, which suggests a certain judgment of it, because she destroyed the works she didn’t want to keep,” Le Bon de Beauvoir says. “I knew the manuscript existed because she had spoken about it, but after she died there were other works that I felt should be published first.”
Simone de Beauvoir, right, and Elisabeth ‘Zaza’ Lacoin, with whom the writer had an intense coming-of-age friendship, 1928. Photograph: Editions de L’Herne
At 80, Le Bon de Beauvoir, like De Beauvoir a former philosophy professor, is a strikingly elegant and discreet figure who in the 35 years since the writer’s death has rarely spoken at length or written about her love for De Beauvoir, partly, she suggests, to shield herself.
“I believe our relationship was very important in her life, but this is my life. I also have to protect myself,” she says.
The story of how the celebrated feminist thinker, then in her 50s, met and became attached to a young philosophy undergraduate from Rennes 33 years her junior is in itself worthy of a novel. Le Bon was 17 and still at high school when she wrote to De Beauvoir, expressing her admiration and asking if they could meet. Later, after she moved to Paris to study, De Beauvoir invited her to her home, a two-floor artists’ studio in an art deco building in Rue Victor Schoelcher, in Paris’s 14th arrondissement.
“Lots of people wrote to her, especially young women and especially philosophy students like me, and she always replied,” she says.
In the fourth volume of her memoirs, dedicated “To Sylvie”, De Beauvoir writes that at the time she believed “nothing important could happen to me from then on, except unhappiness”. Le Bon’s appearance in her life was, she wrote, “a stroke of luck”, even if her guest seemed “very intimidated” and so nervous “she twisted her fingers and spoke with a strangulated voice”.
“I was very intimidated, but she succeeded in putting me at ease and asked me about my studies and my family. I was very moved by her interest and I remember very well that first rendezvous,” Le Bon de Beauvoir says.
The death of De Beauvoir’s mother, Françoise, three years later brought the two women even closer. “Something happened between us that, like love, is not explicable. She let me into her life and presented me to her friends in her entourage including Sartre. And then we began travelling together in the summers.”
She adds: “I was also nervous at first when I met Sartre, but that quickly passed because he was so very cheerful, open and generous. He paid a lot of attention to what you said, if you spoke about a book or a record, he would afterwards offer it to you. There was great kindness in Sartre.”
What made it complicated is that neither one of us was prepared, especially me, to love someone who was a woman
Before she died, in April 1986 – the day before the sixth anniversary of Sartre’s death – De Beauvoir, who never married or had children, formally adopted Le Bon to allow her to inherit her collection of unpublished correspondence, notebooks and manuscripts. Le Bon de Beauvoir, as she has since been known, says the adoption was a legal, not filial move.
“Our relationship was not at all mother and daughter,” she says. “She adopted me so I could manage her work after she died but this and the fact she was so much older prompted people to talk of her as my ‘mother’. At the beginning that annoyed me, but now I accept it. It’s not that important.
“I was very close to her for 26 years and she trusted me; despite the age difference we were friends, equal friends. There was love, a very strong love, and obviously for my part there was also huge admiration for her.”
De Beauvoir told her American biographer, Deirdre Bair, that Le Bon was “the ideal companion of my adult life” and said she had “elevated Sylvie to a separate plane” within her life, “one parallel if not equal to Sartre’s”. Le Bon de Beauvoir herself told Bair: “What made it complicated is that neither one of us was prepared, especially me, to love someone who was a woman. But that’s what it was, love, that’s all.”
Simone de Beauvoir (and Jean-Paul Sartre in Copacabana, Rio. Photograph: STF/AFP
In France, some have seen Les inséparables as an account of a nascent lesbian affair and proof of De Beauvoir’s bisexuality, which she had always denied. French Vanity Fair described De Beauvoir and Zaza’s relationship as “ambiguous” while the newspaper Libération pulled no punches, suggesting it was De Beauvoir’s “first lesbian love story” under the headline “Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sexuality”.
While De Beauvoir’s relationships with women were opaque and scandalous at the time – as a philosophy professor she was accused of seducing young female students – she never spoke publicly of her sexuality, which Le Bon de Beauvoir says “wasn’t important to her”. Lauren Elkin, who translated the UK edition from French, said: “It’s definitely a queer love story in the sense that it’s ambiguous in the context of what the De Beauvoir character’s feelings are for Zaza. It’s something more than a crush, more than just a platonic friendship.”
Le Bon de Beauvoir, however, disagrees. “It’s absurd to speak about a lesbian relationship [in the novel] when desire and the body are not involved. It was love. We can say that Simone loved Zaza but it is what we call a flamme, an ardour, the sort of sentiment in childhood that is so terribly important and marks the entry into adulthood,” she says. “Simone’s love for Zaza was nothing to do with sex. Nothing at all. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t intense.”
The relationship clearly haunted De Beauvoir, who attempted to resurrect Zaza in her writing, returning to her story on four occasions, most notably in the first volume of her four-part autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. But it is in The Inseparables that we see the full intensity and passion.
“Simone viewed it as an assassination, that Zaza had been murdered by her milieu,” says Le Bon de Beauvoir. “She was extremely shocked and revolted by Zaza’s death, which opened her eyes to the oppression of women in the bourgeoisie and this was a determining factor that led her to write The Second Sex. For her, this wasn’t just a story; there was a message to be drawn from Zaza’s life that touched the female condition, that spoke of how they [women] were prevented from becoming entire human beings.”
De Beauvoir was still living at the apartment in Rue Victor Schoelcher, near Montparnasse – where she first met Le Bon, who says she visited the writer almost every day towards the end – when she died in 1986 aged 78.
“It was the end of everything for me. I loved her and my whole world collapsed,” she says. “What saved me was that she had left me her oeuvre, her legacy, and it was this responsibility that saved me because it gave me work, and that work was marvellous because it enabled me to find her again through her manuscripts. But the first year was terrible and it took me some time to get back on my feet.
Simone de Beauvoir, centre, alongside Sylvie Le Bon at a demonstration for women’s abortion rights in Paris, c1972. Photograph: Sipa Press
“As a person, Simone was warm and happy, it was instantly clear she was someone who loved life and was enormously interested in other people. This wasn’t at all a pretext to talk about herself. She was genuinely interested in you and this was very stimulating and creative. She really was the most open, adorable, radiant person and to listen to her, to be with her, was a source of inspiration.”
I ask if Le Bon de Beauvoir is tempted to write her own version of their relationship. “Perhaps I will write about her one day – I have always kept notebooks so maybe I’ll do it in a different way. Because you have asked, I will think about it.” Does she have a young protege, a “Sylvie” in her own life?
“Non, non, non,” she says emphatically. “History doesn’t repeat itself like that. The relationship I had with Simone was unique. It cannot be reproduced.”
• The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir is published by Vintage (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply