THERE’S AN INTERVIEW from 1960 I love to revisit called “My Clothes and I, by Simone de Beauvoir.” Despite her claims to the contrary, it’s clear that Beauvoir was thoughtful about style and decor, and the connections she draws between the evolution of her attitude toward clothing and historical events of the first half of the 20th century paint a fascinating portrait of how material conditions affect one’s personal style. I’m not sure what it does for me to know that Beauvoir thought she looked best in yellow, but it’s the kind of detail that someone prone to overidentification with their favorite authors finds thrilling. In this interview, Beauvoir describes her youthful relationship to clothing: “I didn’t care at all about my appearance. Life was packed with other interests and my best friend at school, Elizabeth Mabille, whom I admired very much, didn’t care what she looked like, either.” I first stumbled upon this piece after watching a video of Beauvoir speaking and noticing that her nails were painted in a dark shade, which led me to wonder about her grooming habits; since the video is in black and white, I can’t discern the color she chose, but you can bet I’d love to know.
All this means I had to work harder than I expected to read Beauvoir’s newly released Inseparable as a novel rather than as an extension of her many volumes of autobiographical writing. Trying only half-successfully to view my reading subjects with dispassion neatly encapsulates my experience as an academic; my impulse is to treat them as foreign psyches whose peccadillos distract me from the discomfort of my own anxieties. First-person narratives work best, but really anything will do. Inseparable is a short novel Beauvoir wrote in 1954, which was published for the first time last fall in France by Beauvoir’s adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. The English translation by Lauren Elkin entitled The Inseparables came out this month in the United Kingdom, and Sandra Smith’s translation is now available in the United States from Ecco Press. The novel is mentioned in passing in Beauvoir’s memoir Force of Circumstance (1963), where she describes putting it aside after being discouraged by Sartre’s feedback. Instead, much of the material ended up in the first volume of Beauvoir’s autobiographical writings, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), but this new offering has an intensity, heightened by its concision, that is all its own, even if you have no particular interest in Beauvoir herself.
The subject of the novel is the relationship between Sylvie Lepage, the narrator, and Andrée Gallard, her volatile best friend, set against the backdrop of the Parisian bourgeoisie of the interwar period. Imagine an atmosphere composed of convent schools, large families, Action Française, an interminable social calendar, country homes, a lingering sense that God is against you. In this milieu, there are only two routes for proper young women — marriage or the convent — because, as Andrée’s mother says, “Being single is not a vocation.” The landscape of Inseparable is rather bleak in spite of the relative privilege of its protagonists, and from the start their friendship echoes the one chronicled in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (even if Ferrante’s girls are from a working-class background).
Indeed, the publication of Inseparable at this moment seems engineered to capitalize on the interest in female friendship in the wake of Ferrante’s wildly popular tetralogy. There are clear parallels between Beauvoir’s Andrée and Sylvie and Ferrante’s Lila and Lenù. Andrée and Lila have a ferocious brilliance limited by their families’ expectations and seem fated to be narrated rather than narrator; sometimes, their sharpness cuts their best friend, but more often they hurt themselves. Sylvie and Lenù, on the other hand, become professionally successful and thus somewhat escape the strictures imposed on them, all while believing that the true genius resides in their underachieving best friend. The combination of admiration and envy in Sylvie’s comment that, “[s]ecretly, I thought that Andrée was surely one of those incredible children whose life would later be recounted in books,” could be lifted from the pages of Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2011).
Like Lenù, Sylvie first meets Andrée at school when they are eight years old. Andrée, like Lila, is tiny, intelligent, and more than a bit menacing. She remained at home for a year following an accident that severely burned her right thigh. When Sylvie asks Andrée how this injury happened, she responds: “‘While cooking some potatoes over a campfire, my dress caught fire and my right thigh was scorched to the bone.’ Andrée made a small gesture of impatience; this old story bored her.” This brief scene tells us much about Andrée’s life — mainly, that she often does domestic labor despite her young age, and that she has difficulty talking about her feelings. In this scene, all she wants to do is fix a date to look through Sylvie’s school notebooks so she can catch up with her studies; she has no interest in discussing her past.
The ideas of domestic labor and physical injury come to define Andrée’s life through Sylvie’s eyes. Sylvie only works for a special purpose — such as the purse she painstakingly sews for Andrée’s birthday one year — but Andrée is perennially watching over her many siblings, cooking and baking, or running errands for her mother, and thus has no time to think, let alone write as she might wish to. The only time she wasn’t saddled with domestic activity was when she was recovering from her burn; since her convalescence, Andrée has loved literature but rarely has time to read or apply herself to her studies, and she’s only encouraged to play the piano and violin because this allows her to entertain her family and their guests. One summer, as Sylvie wanders the grounds of the Gallard country home at dawn, she hears Andrée playing the violin in the distance, giving in to her urge to play but dying not to be heard.
Andrée submits more easily to her familial obligations than Ferrante’s Lila does, but the two characters share a seeming desire for pain and destruction. Lila is certainly a victim of her husband’s abuse but, at least as Lenù perceives it, eventually seems to encourage Stefano to beat her by saying things she knows will provoke him. Lila is similarly abused by her father and brother, and while nothing in Inseparable is quite as viscerally horrifying as the image of Lila’s father throwing her out a window because she wanted to attend middle school or Lila’s description of the events of her wedding night, Madame Gallard does cause Andrée serious psychic and physical harm without ever lifting a finger against her. Andrée’s destructive streak manifests itself in a variety of ways but most notably when she hacks her foot open with an axe and makes it look like an accident so she can stay in bed and read for a few weeks. During her convalescence, Andrée tells Sylvie: “I told you that I would figure out how to have some time to myself, one way or another. […] The idea of the axe came to me this morning while I was gathering flowers.” Andrée manages to hurt herself sufficiently to get out of her myriad obligations but not enough to damage the bone or harm herself in an irreparable way. The mention of an injury that doesn’t reach the bone recalls the incident of her burned thigh, suggesting that also might have been a fortuitous accident.
Andrée’s feelings toward her mother are, despite everything, still positive. After Madame Gallard agrees to allow Andrée to study literature at the Sorbonne for three years, Sylvie writes, “To atone for her studies, her reading, our friendship, [Andrée] applied herself beyond reproach to fulfilling what Madame Gallard called her social duties. […] [S]he could just barely give her evenings to her studies, and even though they were easy for her, she did not sleep enough.” Madame Gallard is, in some ways, permissive, not censoring Andrée’s reading material and allowing small gestures of disrespect, but Sylvie comes to see this tendency as a trap, since it lures Andrée into wanting her mother to approve of her decisions rather than seeing the woman for the toxic force she is.
Of course, the pall hanging over the novel is whether Andrée will submit to marry a man she does not care for; marriage for love, as she tells Sylvie once she has a suitor she does love, is viewed with suspicion by her family. The events surrounding her older sister Malou’s engagement and nuptials create an atmosphere of dread for Sylvie, as she sees how Andrée will be forced into — and spiritually destroyed — by such an arrangement. Much like Beauvoir’s own situation, Sylvie’s family, though culturally bourgeois, is unable to give Sylvie or her sisters a dowry, since her father was insolvent: “I often congratulated myself, egotistically, that some combination of the Bolsheviks and the nastiness of life had ruined my father: I was obliged to work, and the problems that tormented Andrée did not plague me.” Ferrante’s Lila marries a comparatively wealthy man in order to provide for her family, while Andrée is expected to marry within her class in order to protect herself from her family, and particularly from her mother’s wrath.
Interestingly, the novel’s title is invoked not to show how close the girls are but rather how little they understand each other and, by extension, how difficult it is to be known, even by someone you love and with whom you want to share yourself. Andrée explains that she realized how much Sylvie cared for her the day she gave her the handmade purse, a moment when Sylvie imagines that they would have hugged had their mothers not been present. Andrée goes on to say, “We have been inseparable for so many years, but I’ve realized that I don’t know you all that well. I judge people too quickly.” Andrée and Sylvie often surprise one another, though the novel renders only Andrée truly mysterious since it’s Sylvie who narrates their relationship. Narratives of female friendship often show how women can be imbricated with one another but also in conflict, misaligned despite their desire to overcome the disconnect. There’s something enigmatic about Andrée even at a young age, but it soon becomes clear that Sylvie is also somewhat impenetrable when Andrée says she could only see Sylvie caring about school and books and not about their friendship. It’s no surprise that this conversation happens late at night, while Andrée is making a cake for the family; her duties are perpetually whirring in the background of her intimate moments with Sylvie.
Andrée has two romantic relationships with men over the course of the novel. The second, with Sylvie’s university friend Pascal, helps precipitate her tragic end. The first, with a half-Jewish neighbor named Bernard at her family’s country home, happens entirely offstage. When the girls talk about it, Sylvie is alternately envious that Andrée did not share her feelings about Bernard with her as they were happening and saddened that Andrée has had an experience that she has not. Andrée says of her mother, “She asked me if we were kissing. Of course we were kissing! We love each other,” and Sylvie thinks, “her unhappiness was still foreign to me; a love where people kissed one another was not yet a reality for me.” Compare this with how, at the beginning of Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name (2012), Lenù, immediately after Lila’s wedding, runs off with her hapless boyfriend Antonio, unsuccessfully attempting to lose her virginity in order to mimic the experience she knows Lila is about to have. Sylvie’s feelings toward Andrée are less conflicted than Lenù’s toward Lila, but both evoke the legacy of patriarchal control over women’s sexuality. On the one hand, you want to be different from your friends; on the other, you want what they have simply because they have it, not because you necessarily desire it.
Another important misalignment between Andrée and Sylvie regards their religious faith. Catholicism is central to the girls’ childhood, since they meet at an elite convent school. Sylvie becomes an atheist as an adolescent and seems relatively unconflicted about this, while Andrée comes from a militantly Catholic family and continues to believe. Andrée’s faith, however, does not involve a desire to justify her prejudices or behavior, as it clearly does for many of the adults in the novel, but rather is an impulse toward something higher than the drudgery of her life. Conversely, however much she tries, Andrée cannot believe God isn’t against her. At the end of the first chapter, Andrée and Sylvie discuss their faith, or lack thereof:
“Sylvie, if you don’t believe in God, how can you bear to live?”
“Oh, I love living,” I said.
“I do, too. But actually: if I thought that the people I loved died completely, I would immediately kill myself.”
“I have no desire to kill myself,” I said.
Andrée is perpetually stuck between the ideal and the real, between being a dutiful daughter and her true desires, thus recalling the heroines of 18th-century sentimental novels. Like many such heroines, Andrée’s inability to reconcile her family’s wishes with her own desires ultimately kills her. And, like the trusted confidante of such sentimental heroines, Sylvie only learns of the circumstances that led to Andrée’s death secondhand, but she comes to know the details so well that they feel like her own memories. Similar to Andrée, Beauvoir’s beloved friend, Elisabeth “Zaza” Lacoin (called Elizabeth Mabille in Beauvoir’s memoirs), died suddenly of viral encephalitis in 1929, a month shy of her 22nd birthday, in the midst of a romantic turmoil. At the end of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Beauvoir writes that she feels as if she purchased her freedom with Lacoin’s life, so I knew what to expect from the ending of Inseparable. Still, the swiftness of Andrée’s death, over just a few pages, nauseated me. Had Sylvie died first, perhaps Andrée would have been soothed by the belief that they would meet again in the afterlife; without such comfort, all we can do is write, and in so doing try to become the gods of our own fictional worlds.