Menage a trois that will not lie down

A DISGRACEFUL AFFAIR Bianca Lamblin, trans. Julie Plovnick Northeastern University Press, $24.95

Lucy Hughes Hallet
Sunday 18 September 2011 03:50

This book would not have been written had its author been true to her own belief that "intimate relationships should be kept personal." Nor was there a need for it.

Bianca Lamblin wishes to have it known that in seducing her, allowing her to believe that they both loved her and subsequently abandoning her, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir behaved abominably. So much is already abundantly clear to anyone who has read their correspondence.

After spending a night with Bianca Bienenfeld (as she was then called) de Beauvoir wrote to Sartre "I felt quite sickened by passion ... like foie gras (de Beauvoir found all offal disgusting) and poor quality into the bargain." To the reader, half a century on, it is the writer's betrayal of trust that is sickening.

Bienenfeld was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when her teacher, de Beauvoir, took her up. They became 1overs, Bienenfeld having been made to understand that de Beauvoir's "essential" relationship was not with her but with Sartre. The next year she met the great man himself (de Beauvoir kept her life rigidly compartmentalised).

Sartre couldn't exactly be said to have seduced her. Her account of their first sex is the freshest and sharpest passage of this book. On taking her to his hotel room he remarked that he had had another girl's virginity there only the previous day. "I'll never understand why I didn't react to such boorishess" - quite. He then stripped briskly, washed his feet in the hand-basin and delivered a lecture on anatomy, while Bienenfeld, 17 to his 33, undressed blushingly behind a curtain. For reasons this account does little to illuminate but which are perhaps easily enough imagined (he was, after all, an acknowledged genius) she fell in love, thus completing a triangle within which (poor fool) she felt doubly beloved and uniquely secure. A year later she suffered a nervous breakdown, having been jilted by both of her lovers/mentors/surrogate parents. Fifty years on she had another one, when de Beauvoir's letters were posthumously published, and she discovered what the pair had really thought of her.

"You can't conceive how bored I am by these outpourings of affection on the part of Bienenfeld," wrote de Beauvoir to Sartre after what the poor girl probably thought was a rapturous evening. After a quarrel that had been successfully defused: "We just need to take a bit of trouble and that little person will succeed in being happy without bothering us too much."

The father and mother of Existentialism borrowed money from their teenage mistress, about which she does not complain. What does strike her as unforgivable is their apparent indifference not only to the pain they caused her, but also to the danger she was in as a Jew.

It was 1940. Bianca's grandfather and aunt were shortly to be deported to Auschwitz, yet de Beauvoir could write to Sartre: "She's prophesying doom like a Cassandra (what's new?) and hesitating between the concentration camp and suicide, with a preference for suicide." The flippancy is not only inexcusably callous. It is also stupid.

This book is not all about de Beauvoir and Sartre, but it mostly is, as, it appears, its author's life has been. She married, had two daughters and a career as a teacher but, the way she tells it here anyway, it was only after de Beauvoir's death that she felt free of her. In the 50s she was a committed and energetic campaigner against the Algerian War but even this was important to her chiefly because "Simone de Beauvoir and I had finally found common political ground."

Lamblin has done herself few favours in publishing this book. It is not well written, nor well translated, and it can only serve to attract more prurient attention her way. It will be welcomed, though, by literary gossips and future biographers. For the rest of us it contains one strikingly farcical vignette. Lamblin, concerned that one or other of her illustrious ex-lovers might put her in a novel, asked them to meet her on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. She was heavily pregnant at the time, a condition both Sartre and de Beauvoir found absolutely nauseating. "It was as if I were a slug or some other disgusting animal. They gazed nervously straight ahead." It's a mercy for Lamblin that at least they were both present, and so neither put their revulsion into writing. Such a letter might well have constituted yet another threat to her mental stability.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments