“ONE is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Simone de Beauvoir’s most famous philosophical statement might readily be used as the epigraph for The Inseparables, her semi-autobiographical novella found among her papers after her death, and unpublished until now.
De Beauvoir’s exquisitely simple tale might also be said to parse her most famous line into another aphorism: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a friend.” For, at the heart of this often beguiling and moving novella is an intimate portrait of the constraints on femininity and the possibilities of female friendship in post-Great War France. The Inseparables is both a study in the human longing for connection as well as a fictionalised account of why de Beauvoir became such a fierce advocate for female liberation and equality.
The Inseparables focuses on the friendship between Sylvie and Andrée, from childhood through to young womanhood. They meet as nine-year-olds at a strict and stifling private Roman Catholic girls’ school during the Great War. Sylvie quickly realises that — at last! — she has met a girl with the brains and originality with whom she might find solidarity and hope. Sylvie becomes fascinated with Andrée — strange, a little distant, joining class late in the school year because of illness — and, over the coming years, they become confidantes.
Told from the perspective of Sylvie, the novella boldly captures the intensity of her love for Andrée: a love which makes most sexual desire seem banal, and which reminds me of that line of Hildegard of Bingen’s: “The soul is not in the body; the body is in the soul.”
De Beauvoir’s prose captures the way in which adolescence, and then adulthood, complicates the directness of childhood friendship. Sylvie comes to see an asymmetry in the friendship: first, Andrée’s life is driven by the expectations imposed on her by her elite Catholic family’s social status; second, for Andrée, unlike Sylvie, the friendship is never sufficient. Andrée falls in love with not one, but two young men, the second of whom, the serious and intellectual Pascal, might offer Andrée a route out of her stifling family life. Andrée’s mother, Madame Gallard, lours in the background, threatening to break Andree’s spirit, while simultaneously ruining Sylvie’s and Andrée’s friendship.
For some, The Inseparables will read as a slight tale, a kind of lightweight precursor to the beloved and richly detailed My Brilliant Friend sequence of Elena Ferrante. What adds undoubted salt and savour to The Inseparables is the fact that it is grounded in de Beauvoir’s life. Sylvie is a fictionalised version of herself, while Andrée is a version of her best friend, Elizabeth “Zaza” Lacoin, who died aged just 22. Pascal is a version of the great philosopher Marcel Merleau-Ponty, whom de Beauvoir and Zaza knew at the École Polytechnique.
Editions L’HerneZaza and Simone at Gangnepan, September 1928
The novella fascinatingly negotiates the permissions and limits of middle-class faith in a France where Catholicism hung in the air like cigarette smoke in a Parisian café. Sylvie loses her faith while she is a teenager in the very act of making her daily confession. Andrée remains a believer throughout. As the book draws towards its tragic conclusion, part of the pathos, as well as the quiet anger of de Beauvoir’s prose, lies in the tension between these perspectives.
One grows accustomed to Sylvie’s sharp-eyed assessment of the impact of the Catholic Church on women’s bodies, but it is Andrée — who feels the grip of God on her life — who serves up the most startling conclusions: “They teach you in catechism to respect your body. So selling your body in marriage must be as bad as selling it on the street.” Madame Gallard, who has submitted utterly to the Church’s expectations, is even clearer: “Join a convent or get a husband; remaining unmarried is not a vocation.”
Zaza’s death affected de Beauvoir enormously. The Inseparables is one of multiple attempts to write her friend back into life. Each time, in her own assessment, she felt that she had failed. She was unhappy even about The Inseparables; yet she did not destroy it. This novella shows how true friendship is so very difficult to write about honestly and without romantic inflation. Is it surprising, then, that The Inseparables does not read like an entirely finished work? It feels more like the sketch work of a genius artist, done in preparation for the masterpiece.
None the less, I am glad that we can now read it. De Beauvoir once said that, “for a long time, I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with [Zaza/Andrée’s] death.” This novella offers us a chance to interrogate that claim through the unique power of fiction. De Beauvoir also said in her first autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, “Be loved, be admired, be necessary, be somebody.”
This work of literary resurrection helps us to appreciate how someone like Andrée/Zaza — in the midst of the tragedy of her stifling upbringing and, ultimately, her death — can try to live out that dictum. Most of all, The Inseparables invites us to cherish friendship, and how it makes and breaks us in a precarious and cruel world.
Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Bury, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir is published by Vintage at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78487-718-7.
Listen to Rachel Mann in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.
Tickets are now on sale for this year’s Festival of Faith and Literature in February, at the University of Winchester and Winchester Cathedral.
THE INSEPARABLES — SOME QUESTIONS
- Andrée says, at 13, “There’s more to life than learning,” and Sylvie is shocked. What does this tell us about their personalities and their respective fates?
- “I could only conceive of one kind of love: the love I had for her” (Sylvie). What varieties of love are on display in The Inseparables? How would you describe Sylvie’s love for Andrée?
- “As I walked out of the confessional my head was spinning.” What are the factors which contribute to Sylvie’s loss of faith?
- Andrée suggests that “one can sin at any age and love isn’t an excuse for everything.” To what extent to do you agree?
- What does Madame Gallard’s behaviour reveal about social conditions for upper-middle-class Catholic women? Are you sympathetic to her attitudes?
- De Beauvoir’s adopted daughter has claimed that the model for Andrée, Zaza, “died because she tried to be herself, and because those around her believed it to be inherently bad”. To what extent does that pronouncement apply to Andrée’s fate?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 3 March, we will print extra information about our next book, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. It is published by Cornerstone at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-0-09-990860-9.
Published in 1940, Ernest Hemingway’s war novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is set in 1937, near Segovia, during the Spanish Civil War. The lead character, Robert Jordan, is a young American teacher who volunteers to help a group of guerrilla fighters blow up a bridge to stop the advance of Francisco Franco’s fascist forces. The drama evolves over three days at the cave hideout of the guerrilla fighters in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra. During that time, Robert Jordan falls in love with a Spanish girl, Maria. As tension mounts and death seems certain, the book’s title, derived from one of the metaphysical poet John Donne’s meditations takes resonance: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls It tolls for thee.”
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was an author and journalist, and is celebrated as one of the leading American 20th-century novelists. His short novel The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. As a young man he volunteered as an ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War. This experience influenced him to write his first novel, A Farewell to Arms. It was his later experience as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War which prompted the writing of his second war novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
April: The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
May: Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover