"WHAT WE HAVE ," Jean-Paul Sartre masterfully explained to Simone, ''is an essential love." But, he added prudently, ""it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs." Many an ordinary girl, even in France, might have missed the philosophical subtlety of this pronouncement and taken it for a brushoff.
But nobody has ever had cause to think of Simone de Beauvoir as ordinary.
At 21, she had just come to live and teach philosophy in Paris, ready to be aggressively free from the grim bourgeois straitjacket she so compellingly described in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Sartre, 24, the high-priest-to-be of existentialism, was a physically unprepossessing philosopher with an urge to write. The two plighted their troth in what was destined to become one of the strangest and most durable extracurricular alliances of modern times. The Prime of Life is Simone de Beauvoir's account of her own philosophical growth and self-inflicted torments from 1929 to 1944—the first 15 years of her life with Sartre.
Lo Fidelity, Hi Demands. Existential togetherness as practiced by Sartre and Simone made far higher demands than traditional domestic fidelity. They faced the fact that from time to time, in order to fulfill themselves, they might have to live separately. Above all, their allegiance, unlike matrimony, was never to degenerate into mere duty—or habit. Sartre once almost backslid on this. Faced with their first temporary separation (he was offered a teaching job in Le Havre; she had one in Marseille), he asked her to marry him for real. But Simone was strong enough for both of them. She refused.
Later, back in Paris, their relationship was to provide a fascinating experiment in literature and life. Simone had befriended a student of hers; the girl came to live with them and eventually caught Sartre's attention. The odd ménage a trois that resulted drove Simone frantic and offended their friends—not because it was irregular, but because they couldn't see what Sartre saw in the girl. Finally, to exorcise this succubus, Simone wrote her first successful novel, L'Invitée, which told how a young woman moved in on a sympathetic couple and so demoralized them that the wife eventually murdered her. Of this denouement. Authoress de Beauvoir says: "By killing Olga on paper I purged every twinge of resentment ... I felt for her ... Above all, by releasing [ the wife], through the agency of crime, from the dependent position in which her love for Pierre [i.e., Sartre] kept her. I regained my personal autonomy." The triangle collapsed.
Extended Adolescence. To find freedom for self-expression, Simone rejected everything else in society—not only children and capitalist conventions, but Communism—because it, too, was demanding and deterministic. Simone even resented her body.
World War II rescued Simone de Beauvoir from the limbo of intellectual narcissism. She and Sartre (who served at the front, and spent nine months in prison camp before escaping) were for the first time engaged in action. "I no longer pretended that I could escape my own human condition," she explains. "Instead I endeavored to bear it." The liberation of Paris (where the book ends) left Sartre and Simone full of plans to help rebuild France.
In retrospect, Authoress de Beauvoir is as critical of her extended adolescence as anybody could be. "We were like elves," she says, describing her and Sartre's lack of responsibility. In the end, a scrupulous, elfish self-examination is what she mainly has to offer.
But so great was her isolation that the book is neither a portrait of the times nor a study of an intellectual coterie. To the question "What is exciting and important?", every autobiographer must reply, "Anything that I do or say." In this case the reader may not necessarily agree.