A Dangerous Liaison, by Carole Seymour-Jones

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The Independent Culture

Creative partnerships fascinate, perhaps because they are rarely free of destructive tensions. Yet for almost half a century that legendary pair, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, achieved such twinship that each could finish the other's sentences. In the eyes of many they seemed the model couple. They famously claimed that because their love was "essential", each could engage in "contingent loves", all managed with complete transparency. Marriage and bourgeois convention were to be abhorred, because they distorted behaviour and denied freedom. In the post-war era, this was heady stuff.

Since the death of Sartre in 1980, there has been a steady seepage of revelations. It began with Beauvoir's publication of his letters to her. After her death in 1986, her correspondence was released, unabridged. The cruel glee with which Sartre bedded virgins caused dismay. Voyeuristic descriptions of his love-making were sent to Beauvoir, who retaliated with accounts of her lesbian seductions. Her formula, Carole Seymour-Jones suggests, was Kant and kisses, for her lovers at this stage were pupils in her philosophy class.

Once introduced to Sartre, they became his mistresses. Most were too vulnerable to enjoy being merely "contingent", suffered crises and remained dependents, the couple forming around them a "family" based on polygamous relationships. Like a bedroom farce, much depended on split-timing. After delivering a torrent of lies down the phone to a young woman, Sartre admitted to a friend who had overheard: "It was necessary, in some cases, to adopt a provisional morality".

Seymour-Jones is fascinated by subterfuge. Her previous book exposed the nightmare within TS Eliot's first marriage. But she is not the first to investigate the dynamics between Beauvoir and Sartre. Hazel Rowley's Tête-à-Tête recounted their lives and loves with a light touch and less censure. The two are complementary, for many vignettes in Rowley's narrative, such as Sartre's piano playing, flesh out this new book which is tougher and grittier, less inclined to pass over murky arrangements.

Seymour-Jones's book draws on some new material and much knowledge of political history, and is more ambitious in scope. Complicity and betrayal are recurrent themes. Many have likened the relationship to that of the scheming Viscount de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But it is not just the sexual manipulation that astonishes; it is also the extent of the gap between public legend and private lives.

The myth-making was begun by Beauvoir. "Why don't you put yourself into your writing?" So Sartre asked, adding that she was more interesting than her characters. She hesitated, but found her metier as an outstanding memoirist. Because she and Sartre were "not two but one", she not only wrote about herself but also became his Boswell. Seymour-Jones notes that to construct their legend, Beauvoir had to tamper with the truth. She deletes her teenage longing to become a wife, as it did not tally with the scorn she poured on marriage.

The most insightful section is the period dealing with the Occupation of 1940-1944 and what Sartre called the "Reign of Evil". Imprisoned in the Drancy camp, he obtains release by means of faked medical papers. He is shocked to learn that Beauvoir had been buying tea on the black market. But in a defeated country, clear principles are hard to maintain. Cultural life flourished in Vichy France, which suggests to Seymour-Jones that the complicity of French intellectuals was similar to that of la collaboration horizontale.

Sartre, she points out, offered to write a column for a collaborationist magazine. He never penned a line to oppose the laws of Vichy. He stepped into the shoes at the Lycée Condorcet of a Jewish teacher who had been sacked. And, though he played no effective part in the Resistance, he had the gall to become its principal spokes-person after the Liberation.

Further revisionism accompanies the assessment of the pair's intellectual development. Reading the manuscript of L'Invitée, Sartre realised that Beauvoir was not his inferior. He gained from her ideas, which fed his Existentialist landmark Being and Nothingness. Seymour-Jones points out that, aside from the dedication to Beauvoir, nowhere in this book does he acknowledge his debt.

To Beauvoir, this did not matter as she regarded their ideas as shared. Both criticised each other's work before publication. Seymour-Jones overturns the legend of Beauvoir as Sartre's disciple, repositioning him as "the conduit for their shared endeavour". The controversies this book invites will be its justification. As Beauvoir insists in The Ethics of Ambiguity, "morality resides in the painfulness of indefinite questioning".

Frances Spalding's 'Vanessa Bell' is published by The History Press

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