We live today in a far more conservative world than the world Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were striving for. These are censorious times; it would be harder today to publish the kind of things they wrote. These are puritanical times; we look askance at sexual adventuring. These are anti-intellectual times; the notion of the public intellectual has all but disappeared. These are shallow times; even the mainstream press stoops to sensationalism in its desperation to sell newspapers and magazines. In these times it is fashionable to trivialize Beauvoir and Sartre, to diminish their life and work, and denounce everything they stood for. I loved writing Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, which appeared in the United States in 2005. Never have I written a book in such white-heat intensity; never have I taken more pleasure in writing a book. The problems began when I finished it. The book met with censorship–from quarters where one would not normally expect to encounter censorship. The book met with reviews that trotted out the standard prejudices about Beauvoir and Sartre. I came to feel as if I had produced a wayward teenager who in no way reflected my aspirations as a parent.
I have tortured myself quite a bit as to whether I should have written the book differently–with a more ardent defense of a couple for whom I feel a strong admiration. In the end, I have concluded it would have made no difference at all. I believe that my post-book experience is not about me; it is about Sartre and Beauvoir in our times.
The publishing process is, of course, the writer’s first post-book experience–before the book reaches the public. If I tell you my personal story, it is because it raises questions about biography, copyright issues, and truthtelling that are relevant to all of us, as readers and writers.
Sartre and Beauvoir were vehemently opposed to censorship in any form. On several occasions, by speaking out and engaging in militant action, they risked arrest. In the early 1960s, at the end of the Algerian War, their militancy placed their lives in danger. As we also know, their belief in truthtelling extended to their own lives. To them (brought up at the tail end of the Victorian epoch), the notion of privacy was a relic of bourgeois hypocrisy. They both said they would like the public to know the truth about their personal lives. In addition to their autobiographical writing and numerous revealing interviews, neither of them destroyed any of their private correspondence and journals, even when it did not make them look good. “So much the better if this means I will be…transparent to posterity,” Sartre said.
Today, their heirs are by no means as open. When I started researching Tête-à-Tête, I was warned that Arlette Elkaïm Sartre, Sartre’s adopted daughter, heir, and literary executor, never sees scholars and virtually never gives permission to quote from unpublished material. She refused to see me. During my two-year stay in Paris to research this book, I ended up reading hundreds of letters by Sartre to various girlfriends–all unpublished. Arlette Elkaïm has never seen most of these, but she owns the copyright to every unpublished sentence Sartre ever penned. I knew I could not quote from these letters as I would have liked. But North American copyright law has a clause called “fair use,” which allows writers to quote a small amount–phrases here and there–without permission from the copyright holder. It’s minimal, but it’s something. And American copyright law allows paraphrase. I finished my manuscript and passed it in; the HarperCollins lawyer in New York went through it carefully, and the book went into production.
Meanwhile, publishers in France were looking at it. Both Gallimard and Grasset liked the book, and wanted to publish it in French. Gallimard, who published all Sartre and Beauvoir’s books in their day, has also published numerous books posthumously. The two literary executors are slowly releasing material to them from their personal archives. Ever since Sartre died, Gallimard has split Sartre’s royalties with Arlette Elkaïm. Not surprisingly, Gallimard told me they would first need to make sure the book would not offend the literary executors–Arlette Elkaïm Sartre nor Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. I knew what that meant, and I was right.
The two women were sent the manuscript to read. Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir approved it. Arlette Elkaïm Sartre told Gallimard that if they published this book she was finished with them. I expected that. What I did not expect was the letter she sent, through Gallimard’s lawyer, insisting that I make major cuts to the English original–all quotes from Sartre’s unpublished material, some paraphrase, and several passages from interviews. She also wanted almost everything about herself cut out of the book. It was then that I discovered major differences between the publishing laws in France and in North America. The French do not have “fair use” for unpublished material. Paraphrase has to be extremely loose. (There must be no echo of the original voice; the imagery and even the tone must be changed.) The French also have a law protecting “private life”–“la loi sur la vie privée”–which means that if you do not like what someone says about you, you can sue.
For a week or so, the people at HarperCollins were intimidated. They did not want to be sued. This was Gallimard, the most establishment publishing house in France. This was Arlette, the wealthy heir of the Sartre estate. My editor and the lawyer at HarperCollins wanted me to swallow hard and make the cuts.
I pointed out that the book was within North American copyright law, and if we have a freer copyright law why don’t we take advantage of it, and why did we have to be gutless, and I didn’t want to cut any of the vitality out of the book, and if I had to make cuts, I would happily cut the French version.
I was lucky. HarperCollins agreed to this. During the next few weeks there were involved negotiations with a French copyright lawyer, and we produced what we called TAT II. In the end, the cuts were much less than Arlette Elkaim Sartre had wanted, but the whole thing involved new endnotes, new page numbers and a new index, which HarperCollins paid for. The North American edition is exactly as I passed it in, complete and unabridged. The British edition, from which the translations have been taken, is some four pages shorter.
Gallimard could not publish the book, of course, and Grasset courageously took it on. The book came out in France in October 2006. Lire magazine named it the best literary biography of the year. The French media still have serious book programs: on France Culture I was interviewed for 40 minutes; on TV 1 the interview lasted 20 minutes. I returned to New York feeling very relieved it was all over. Speaking on the French media had been the most nerve-wracking thing I had ever done in my life. The next day I had an email from Grasset. The journalist Claude Lanzmann had read the book and had sued Grasset for 75,000 Euros. He wanted various passages cut. Passages about him. He did not claim that the facts were wrong. But he did not like what I said about him.
The 15-page document from Lanzmann’s lawyer was faxed to me, and I went through it carefully. A few hours later, I phoned Olivier Nora, the head of Grasset. “He surely can’t win this case,” I said. “Everything Lanzmann objects to is either already in the public domain–in published books, in which case I have noted the sources in my endnotes–or else they are things he told me in interviews, and I can send you the tapes.”
Nora explained to me that the notion of the “public domain” does not exist in France. It does not matter if these same facts already appear in 17 different books, he said. Nor did it help that Lanzmann had consented to the interviews with me, and that I had the recordings. The French have their “private life” law. If Lanzmann does not like what I say about him, he can sue. (Indeed, Lanzmann is known for suing people.)
“You mean it does not matter whether the facts are right or wrong?”
“It is enough that he does not like what you say.”
“But…I don’t understand. How can biographers work under these conditions? If you do an interview and you have the subject’s written consent and what you are saying is true….”
“I know,” Nora said. “It’s why we don’t have much of a tradition of biography in France. Every time we publish a biography we take a risk. But people rarely sue; it draws attention to the book. But when it is Claude Lanzmann against Hazel Rowley, there’s no way we can win. He’s a French icon.”
“How could he do this?” I exploded. Lanzmann, an intimate friend of Beauvoir and Sartre who advocated transparency! Lanzmann, whose Holocaust documentaries are composed almost entirely of interviews! Lanzmann, the former journalist, who inherited Sartre and Beauvoir’s leftwing journal, Les Temps Modernes, where today he is the editor-in-chief! Surely if anyone understands the implications of censorship for writers, journalists, and filmmakers, it would be Claude Lanzmann!
But there was nothing we could do. Grasset decided to settle out of court, quietly, without any publicity. The book was recalled from the bookshops and pulped. The cuts Lanzmann wanted were made. This meant new endnotes, new page numbers, and a new index, which Grasset paid for. By now Grasset could see that the book was going to lose money, and reprinted only 1,000 copies–a token print run.
In France, a few weeks later, my book was nowhere to be seen.
There is an amusing corollary to this story. At the Beauvoir centenary colloquium in Paris last March, Claude Lanzmann told the audience that he wanted to publish the letters–hundreds of beautiful letters–that Beauvoir had written to him, but he had been denied permission. (Lanzmann and Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir have a long history of rivalrous antagonism. So she has blocked publication.) Lanzmann said he had thought of selling the letters to the Bibliothèque Nationale–they belong, after all, to French literary heritage, and the library already has some Beauvoir papers–but he knows that the copyright holder can put an embargo on them that might last decades, and the BN would agree to that, in order to keep in good standing with the copyright holder. (There is a pattern of this: the letters of his lover Lena Zonina to him were sold to the BN by Zonina’s daughter, but Arlette Elkaïm Sartre did not want scholars to see them, so the BN consented to a 40-year embargo.) Lanzmann would like scholars to be able to read these letters. And so–he told us with a pout–he is thinking he might sell them to Rotterdam, Alabama, or maybe Minnesota.
Ultimately, as we see, censorship backfires against the censors. And they wreak most havoc in their own country. Arlette Elkaïm Sartre’s censorship has not affected the North American edition of my book, and Lanzmann has not been able to have any effect on the 12 other translations.
Finally, if we are lucky and get past the publishing hurdles and lawsuits, a book floats out into the world. And then come the reviews. In the case of Tête-à-Tête, the reviews have been a very strange experience indeed.
I wrote about Sartre and Beauvoir as human beings, not icons. Their behavior toward others was not beyond reproach; they had their faults. But writing Tête-à-Tête did not lessen my admiration for them. As I show, they were courageous public intellectuals, passionate about life and ideas. They were committed to changing the world, and they did change the world.
But these are puritanical times; these are anti-intellectual times; these are shallow times. Many reviewers praised me for my lack of judgmentalism, and then proceeded to dance a furious little jig themselves, denouncing Sartre and Beauvoir as monstrous, immoral, and sexually depraved. These reviewers generally had no appreciation for the history, politics, and intellectual ideas in the book; they had eyes only for the sex. Observing this phenomenon (and it really is a phenomenon), one commentator, Rosemary Sorensen in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, observed: “I do wonder if some of the animosity is envy hiding behind prissy puritanism.”
Several critics painted Beauvoir as a victim of Sartre. They pointed out that she was often in tears, and they said she would have been much happier if she could have been married to Sartre. It is an attitude that was strongly present in the very first article on Tête-à-Tête, a long piece by Louis Menand in The New Yorker titled “Stand By Your Man.” His essay talked very little about the content of my book; instead, he gave us his views. His conclusion was completely opposed to my own:
Beauvoir was formidable, but she was not made of ice. Though her affairs, for the most part, were love affairs, it is plain from almost every page she wrote that would have given them all up if she could have had Sartre for herself alone.
I do not portray Beauvoir as a victim. I show that she was radical before she met Sartre, and she chose Sartre with open eyes. Yes, she sometimes cried. Beauvoir was a passionate woman, and tears were one of the many ways in which she expressed her emotions. To claim that she was unhappy because she would have liked to have been married to Sartre is sexist, patronizing, and patently false.
Beauvoir’s whole life was about courage, but of all the choices she made, the most courageous, in my opinion, was her relationship with Sartre. When, in the summer of 1929, at the age of twenty-one, she met a man who encouraged her to be free, she knew what that meant. Sartre did not offer marriage and respectability, but he offered what no other man she knew would be willing to do. Yes, he was insisting on his own freedom, but he was also insisting on hers.
Beauvoir never had the illusion that freedom would be easy. What she wanted was to lead a full, interesting and productive life–as free as any man’s. It is true that she was at first less keen than Sartre on the idea of freedom within their relationship, but in many ways, I believe, she was the one who benefited from it most. She was a sensuous woman; as she once told a friend: “Sartre…is a warm, lively man everywhere, but not in bed.” Fortunately for her, she had ardent relationships with other people. Her life, in which Sartre was a firm anchor, provided the subject matter for her writing. How could she have written novels like She Came to Stay and The Mandarins if she had not experienced love affairs, solitude, anguish, loneliness, longing, and jealousy? How could she have written The Second Sex without experiencing the conflicts involved in being an independent woman? And finally, she realized that her very best and most stirring story was her own life, her life with Sartre, the story of their relationship.
Reviewers make a great fuss about the lies the couple told to third parties–particularly to Sartre’s young women. I have no desire to whitewash or justify this behavior (it was Sartre who said “Every word has consequences. Every silence, too”), but these lies were harmless enough deceptions. The fact is, the girlfriends could not accept the truth–that there were other women in Sartre’s life, but Beauvoir was the most important. As Sartre and Beauvoir knew better than most, it takes considerable strength and courage to assume one’s freedom, and it takes even more to assume the freedom of those we love. There are some people who are not up to the challenge. Wouldn’t we all agree that there are people to whom we tell the truth–and people to whom we tell fibs? If we sometimes tell fibs to some people, is it always our fault?
As public intellectuals, Sartre and Beauvoir told the truth more often than most of us care to do, or dare to do. They spoke out, they debunked myths, and they exposed the ideologies that deprive people of their freedom. They wrote books that said things no one had dared to say before. They were hated for their brilliance, their nonconformity, their questioning of social conventions, their resistance to social taboos. Sartre was hated because he turned down the Nobel Prize, which he felt would compromise his independence. Beauvoir was hated because she refused to conform to a bourgeois stereotype of femininity.
Beauvoir and Sartre have always been the enemy of the conservative elites. Today it is not just conservatives who despise and belittle them. Even people who like to think they are progressive judge them with condescending mockery. The press bonanza associated with Beauvoir’s birthday in January 2008 made this clear. In France, to celebrate the centenary of Simone de Beauvoir, we had the now famous Art Shay photograph of Beauvoir’s bare bottom on the cover of Le Nouvel Observateur, flashing at us from every street corner. Inside the magazine there was an embarrassingly shallow article by two young French women that began: “Sartre’s woman declared war on patriarchy but was also a victim of passion.” The singer and screen celebrity Arielle Dombasle wrote that “behind the harsh suits and austere turbans,” Beauvoir was “a ravishing woman” and a “great romantic.” Instead of discussing Beauvoir’s fine mind, her pioneering books and leftwing militantism, the press had a field day with “Simone la Scandaleuse.” There were innumerable articles about her relationship with Sartre, the American novelist Nelson Algren, and Lanzmann, with much emphasis on the jealousy and tears. Where does it come from, this need to trivialize a great woman, whose books were fiercely intelligent and whose life was spectacularly courageous?
No woman has influenced me more than Beauvoir. I wrote my PhD dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism; I interviewed her in 1976 in her apartment; her writings had a strong influence on my early adult life. In my middle life, I wanted to go back and look again–with a detachment and openness I did not have before–at her life and her relationship with Sartre. As I see it, Beauvoir and Sartre had the courage to invent a new relationship and the generosity to make it work. For me, still today, no couple better represents true equality between the sexes than these two.
As an adolescent, Beauvoir dreamed of making her life into a grand story that would inspire others. She writes in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: “There was no longer any God to love me, but I should have the undying love of millions of hearts. By writing a work based on my own experience I would re-create myself and justify my existence. At the same time I would be serving humanity. What more beautiful gift could I make it than the books I would write?”
This is the 50-year-old author smiling at her youthful dreams, but in fact she never lost them, and she was right not to. It’s impossible to read about Beauvoir’s life without thinking about your own. You find yourself wanting to live more courageously, with more commitment and passion. She makes you want to read more books, travel across the world, fall in love again, take stronger political stands, write more, work harder, play more intensely, and look more tenderly at the beauty of the natural world. That is indeed a beautiful gift.