"They called us the Inseparables"
Lasting friendships that were formed in early childhood are a fascination for me. What is it that brings individuals together, keeps them together and makes them inseparable? And for me, as an avid Francophile, add to that the “mystery” of why a novel by French writer Simone de Beauvoir should come to light years after the celebrated author’s death then I’m hooked.
I had first learned of this book having spotted it on NetGalley, a site that sends pre-publication copies in eformat and sure enough I applied to read it and was duly sent a copy.
Of course I had been much aware of Simone de Beauvoir, her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre but I had been more used to reading about her rather than her work. I am so sorry that I didn't start sooner because I just loved this book.
I was grateful for the introduction by Deborah Levy who rightly pointed out that her foreword contained spoilers. I decided to stay with that however as it helped provide context and has prompted me to read some of de Beauvoir’s other works. Then on to the novel itself, translated from the French by Lauren Elkin, only confirming the intention to read more. The text was accompanied by helpful footnotes explaining this or that term or historical background. And what about that mystery? The afterword, written by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, explains how the work was found among de Beauvoir’s papers and came to publication. The afterword includes photographs of the people aliased in the book and some facsimiles of the original handwritten draft.
So in this small volume we get the story, the literary legacy and social context of the work. That impressed me and I liked it very much.
The book recounts the story of two young women, Sylvie and Andrée, who meet in primary school at a very young age. We learn from the opening dedication For Zaza that the story was inspired by the relationship between the young Simone in whose name Sylvie speaks and Elisabeth ‘Zaza’ Lacoin represented by Andrée. The two become friends and rail against the prevailing orthodoxies of the time; they discuss God, religion, philosophy and then ultimately face a final reckoning.
I was captivated by the language in the book. Yes there were all those discussions but they were essential to a sense of movement in the text; a dramatic tension drawing us to an anticipated but nonetheless abrupt conclusion that still leaves a sense of inseparability.
Looking back over the text, there are several places where I have highlighted phrases and sections that stopped me short and made me think. I love it when a book does that. I have had a longterm aversion to writing on books and one of the advantages of an ebook is the facility to highlight text and make notes, all of which can be easily removed. Anyway back to those highlights: This one for example stood out. Sylvie/Simone is describing one of the adults and writes “His silky hair and Christian virtue feminised him and lowered him in my estimation.” That from a central figure in Feminism? And from the socially engaged woman describing their respective freedoms, Sylvie writes that she ‘had often envied Andrée her independence, but suddenly she seemed much less free than I was’. A sense of foreboding comes in a section where there is a description of a sculpted wooden clock, ‘which held...all the darkness of time’. Foreboding reprised when ‘Andrée placed the violin in its little coffin’ after practising her music during which,’she seemed to be listening prayerfully to the voice of the instrument on her shoulder’. There are many such examples, skilfully inserted throughout the text.
Having read the ebook version I made two decisions. First, I felt that the book was one that I would definitely like to reread and therefore wanted a physical copy to keep on my bookshelf. I have done just that and am glad for it is a well made book, hardback and with dust jacket. An advantage of a physical book of course is that it can be presented as a gift. The ebook came with compliments of NetGalley, this physical one which has just arrived? Well that's a gift to myself.
And the second decision? Resolutions for the New Year really: to read the orignal in French and to read more of Simone de Beauvoir.
I have a feeling this author's works, new to me, will rapidly become inseparable.
The Inseparables - The newly discovered novel from Simone de Beauvoir
Published 2 September 2021 by Vintage.
Translated from the French by Lauren Elkin
with an introduction by Deborah Levy and
an afterword by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir
Also check out NetGalley to find this and other titles.