The jacket of Letters to Sartre boasts, “Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre formed one of the most famous literary couples of the twentieth century,” but rest assured this is merely a sub-plot that acts as the thread to hold the rest of it together. In part of their lives (World War II and others), Sartre and de Beauvoir were separated for extended periods of time. They wrote each other almost daily. In this volume, we see only her letters to him. In 1983, Simone de Beauvoir published Sartre’s letters to her and when asked why she didn’t include her letters she could only state that they had been lost. After her death, her niece found the collection and sent them for publication.
This is not an easy book to review. The author’s intent was not for it to be a book. She wasn’t knowingly building characters, defining plots and sub plots, she was writing to her love while they were separated. Don’t be fooled, this book is hardly a collection of love letters, desperate phrases of longing and steamy passages of desire. The letters are love letters, but to read them as love letters would only skim the surface and miss all that is buried beneath.
The majority of the letters tell of the life of Simone de Beauvoir. The letters detail her daily writing and reading habits, feelings about war, politics, books and movies. It is in places a detailed outline of her finances, her troubles, her stresses and favorite restaurants and foods. It is also a tale of her never-ending parade and sordid affairs with male and female lovers. A description of quiet moments and argumentative episodes to Sartre, her great love, who was also caught up in many of them himself. Sartre and de Beauvoir shared a non-traditional union, as they never officially married and it was a relationship which allowed contingent loves. The letters were recants of stories, deceitful plans and manipulative plots of who knew of the affairs and whom to tell lies.
The voice is de Beauvoir’s and hers alone throughout. Everything is felt and experienced by a single character without any input from any other. Her voice can be tiring and difficult to continue with. I took many days breaks away from the collection, but something always brought me back in and I continued to read her accounts. In places, it feels odd to be so close to her, reading her deepest emotions, thoughts and dreams. She’s very open to him while seemingly not with any other in her life. At time it seems these letters (and the journal she also kept, mirroring much of the content of the letters) seemed to be the only way she kept everything in order.
Part-time fiction writer, Alisha Churbe lives in Portland, Oregon. In the rare instances when you can pry her away from books, Alisha can be found travelling in foreign countries, cooking, or hiking with her husband Michael and dog Euro.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Arcade Publishing. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received