Laura Cumming

Too Soft on this Monster of Egotism

Simone De Beauvoir: A Life

By Deirdre Bair

Jonathan Cape 750pp £19.50 order from our bookshop

Five things you didn’t know about Simone de Beauvoir:

  1. ‘Over the moon’ was one of her favourite expressions.
  2. She kept a plaster cast of Sartre’s hands on the living roomtable.
  3. She referred to herself and Sartre as ‘the elves’.
  4. Lover Nelson Algren’s American phone number was listed under her name to tease the FBI.
  5. Forget fashion: she first wore the famous turban to conceal an ill-executed bob cut.

I was hoping to offer the customary twenty, but seven hundred and fifty pages of Deirdre Bair’s biography didn’t yield anymore, despite the clearly effortful labour of ten years’ research. The reader emerges from confinement etiolated, weary, possibly reluctant to read another word by or about Simone de Beauvoir and yet with no clearer impression of the woman than that supplied by Elliott Irwitt’s photograph on the jacket.

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