There are things in the book world that will always create something of a frisson. Unearthed work from much-loved writers; a new novel from an author who has been quiet for a while; writing from someone whose influence lingers long after they have died. Every once in a while, all three collide. And so it is with The Inseparables, a little-known novel by Simone de Beauvoir that not only sheds fascinating light on what inspired the late French writer to define modern feminism, but is an excellent read.
Shunned by Sartre, and criticised by its own creator, The Inseparables comes to light now 34 years after de Beauvoir’s death and through the hands of Sylvie Le Bon-de Beauvoir, the author’s adopted daughter and literary executor. Le Bon-de Beauvoir found the full unpublished manuscript, finished in 1954, shortly after de Beauvoir’s death.
The novel’s plot is simple, and devastating in its simplicity. We are introduced to Andrée Gallard [Zaza] through the first-person narrative of Sylvie Lepage [de Beauvoir] when both girls are nine, and at school. Andrée is a “hollow-cheeked little girl with brown hair… her serious, shining eyes focused on me with intensity.”
This is the start of the friendship that fuels the whole book: Sylvie’s fascination with Andrée, their conversations – about god, and war, and justice and property – and how, as two girls from two different social backgrounds, they can achieve independence and education in a world that expects them only to marry. The Inseparables is dedicated to Zaza: “I should dedicate this story to you, but I know that you no longer exist anywhere, and my writing to you like this is pure literary artifice.”
Andrée, says the novel’s translator Lauren Elkin, is a remarkable novelistic character even if she wasn’t based on a real person. “She’s something of a doomed character, because she can’t renounceher society and she can’t function within it.”
As Le Bon-de Beauvoir notes in the novel’s afterward, The Inseparables was the fourth attempt de Beauvoir had made to capture her friendship with Elisabeth ‘Zaza’ Lacoin, a schoolfriend who “completely enthralled” her: “in the unpublished novels she wrote in her youth, in her story collection When Things of the Spirit Come First, and in a deleted passage from The Mandarins.” The Inseparables came next, but de Beauvoir continued – Zaza’s life and friendship is folded into the author’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.
Even as societal expectation pulls the pair apart, as Sylvie sits her exams and Andrée frets about the string of suitors her well-heeled parents consider for her, there is a gravity to their friendship that is rarely conveyed on the page. Female friendship – especially that between young women – is elevated to something vital and heart-wrecking, without an ounce of hysteria.
This is, in part, because their friendship was inherently rebellious even at the time. “The talking cure between Andrée and Sylvie is nothing less than a revolution at a time when girls and women were encouraged to keep their thoughts to themselves,” writes Deborah Levy in the novel’s introduction. “They were having long conversations about big topics at a time when girls weren’t valued for their intellect,” says Knight. “It lends an almost clandestine aspect to their friendship.”
Some have read the relationship between Andrée and Sylvie to be more than friendship; that de Beauvoir was expressing a kind of repressed lesbianism that appeared during her adult personal life. But it’s possibly more interesting that de Beauvoir wanted to pay tribute to the unique ferocity that can fuel and charge non-sexual relationships. “I read it with the lens of my own experiences of female friendship from being a teenager and how intense it is,” says Knight. “And the fact that it's a sort of unrequited platonic love, because Andrée isn’t free to commit to the friendship in the way that Sylvie would like.”
It’s this intellectual tether between them both, and the fact that Sylvie is desperate yet incapable of escaping it, that makes The Inseparables such illuminating reading with regards to the rest of de Beauvoir’s work. It’s a book that makes demands one question if De Beauvoir could have gone on to live so radically – to become the youngest person at the Sorbonne; to shun marriage for open relationships; to write The Second Sex – had she not met Zaza. “It’s like, how do you get to be Simone de Beauvoir?” posits Knight. “To me, it is almost like because of Zaza, there was an onus on Simone to go out and take the liberty that they had struggled to achieve for themselves while they were friends.”