Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘lost’ novella Les inséparables is one of four known novelistic attempts to tell the tragic story of the life and death of her fiercely beloved friend Elisabeth Lacoin, who died in 1929, when both she and Beauvoir were twenty-one. Lacoin – better known to literary history as ‘Zaza’ – features centrally in Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), which concludes with a raw confession of survivor’s guilt: ‘for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.’
From the late 1920s to the late 1950s, Zaza was resurrected in unpublished novels, in the short-story collection When Things of the Spirit Come First and in a deleted section of the Prix Goncourt-winning The Mandarins. (She also appears ‘anonymised’ in passages of The Second Sex.) Most of these works were met with a lukewarm reception in Beauvoir’s lifetime. In the 1930s, both Gallimard and Grasset rejected Beauvoir’s short stories; a rejection letter from Henry Müller claimed that her descriptions of interwar bourgeois women were good, but that she was not optimistic or uplifting enough: ‘You are content to describe a disintegrating world, and then to abandon your readers on the very threshold of the new order, without giving any precise indication of what its benefits will be.’ When Sartre read a draft of The Inseparables in 1954, he thought it stank (or at any rate, as Beauvoir tells it in Force of Circumstance, ‘he held his nose’).
The Inseparables, which has been elegantly translated into English by Lauren Elkin, is a novella about the discovery of friendship and the deepening of a life-shaping love. It is not optimistic – but it does not stink. Its opening passages mimic the simplicity of childhood. The narrator, Sylvie (based on Beauvoir), evokes the primacy of the sensory, and chronicles how losing herself in the scents of country flora and old houses gives way to idealisation and self-consciousness. At times it verges on melodrama, the narrative voice teetering between the perspicacity and lack of perspective that can accompany adolescence and early adulthood – as well as unresolved grief.
It is also a novella about faith, hypocrisy and two women wrestling with questions of human and divine will. For Sylvie’s devout Catholic friend Andrée (a fictionalised version of Zaza), the problem of evil is a very intimate one: she believes she is ‘unlovable’ and thinks that God is against her. She wants to do what God wants of her but what God wants isn’t very clear. She struggles with Jansenism, and to separate divine justice from the wishes of her mother and her milieu. Wealthy Catholic bourgeoises of her background were not supposed to say, ‘I am I.’ As Blaise Pascal put it in the Pensées, ‘The I is hateful.’ To pursue one’s own desires – be they physical, intellectual or social – was to flirt dangerously with disobedience, to turn towards the path of sin. To entertain the thought that it mattered to love one’s fiancé before marriage was to doubt that God’s grace would provide all the love a woman might need.
The Inseparables is deeply theological. If this book were by or about men it might be called Dostoevskian. Its author was an atheist, but there is no triumphalism in the juxtaposition of Sylvie’s loss of faith with Andrée’s loss of self and, eventually, life. Neither is there a simplistic feminist rejection of religion or Catholicism. Instead of the sins of the fathers, which so troubled the atheist Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, here we see the legacy of the sins of the women’s mothers. Andrée’s grandmother forced her mother to marry against her will. Andrée’s mother polices her time, so as not to allow her opportunities to yield to temptation – to friendship with the wrong kind of people or to reading the wrong kinds of books. Even the celebrated Catholic novelists of the 1920s – Claudel, Bernanos, Mauriac – are considered suspect. When her intellect wanders too far from safe terrain, her mother tells her to read the Church Fathers.
When Andrée meets Pascal Blondel (based on the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty), she begins to hope that she will not have to sacrifice herself on the altars of piety and propriety, that her future might bring the reconciliation of her passions instead of their renunciation. As with the Karamazovs – whose name means ‘the black-stained ones’ – Beauvoir’s naming here is significant. The name ‘Pascal’ might be a reference to St Paschal Baylón or to Blaise Pascal, who features frequently in Beauvoir’s philosophical works. Whichever it is, both Catholic figures were known for pursuing a religion of ‘the heart’, not the intellect. In The Inseparables, Pascal Blondel is the kind of man who sees ‘something to love in everyone’; everyone ‘felt lovable when he looked at them’.
These theological nuances matter because the English-language press has been quick to take up Paul B Preciado’s claim in Libération that The Inseparables is a ‘tragic lesbian love story’, despite Beauvoir’s adopted daughter and literary executor stating that it is not. In an age of identity politics and low religious literacy – and given the relative scarcity of literary representations of lesbian love – this is understandable. But Beauvoir did not believe in the fixity of any identity. She believed in the power of myth and mystification (religious and secular alike) to exclude women from meaningful domains of human experience, including friendship. In Michel de Montaigne’s ‘On Friendship’, for example, the essayist wrote that women are ‘not normally capable of responding to such familiarity and mutual confidence as sustain that holy bond of friendship’. A novel can be read in many ways; love can be seen in many lights.
In 1954 Beauvoir admitted that she agreed with Sartre’s assessment of The Inseparables; she claimed that it had no ‘inner necessity’ and wouldn’t hold the reader’s interest. Now we know from her memoirs that Beauvoir often downplayed her accomplishments and glossed over more complicated chapters of her past, we can see that The Inseparables is another case in point: it is a rich and rewarding novella. Reading it is like hearing variations on a theme; its similarities and dissimilarities to other depictions of Zaza will stimulate debates about how much of it is accurately biographical and whether Beauvoir should be classified as a writer of autofiction, metaphysical novels, Foucauldian parrhesia and more.
For newcomers, The Inseparables offers a window into a lost world and an exploration of timeless questions. How can there be a God when there is so much injustice in the world? How do you love someone who believes herself unlovable? What conditions enable a person to give and receive the love of friendship?