The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

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My daughter Nicola bought me a couple of books for Christmas, one of which was a novella by Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), The Inseparables. Described as a ‘newly discovered novel’ from the great French writer and written in 1954, it inevitably makes one wonder if a book that has remained unpublished for so long is any good. Well, I’m pleased to tell you that it’s a book I found wonderful: moving, passionate, tragic and beautifully written, having been well translated by Lauren Elkin. It was published in 2021.

The Inseparables is based on a real life friendship that de Beauvoir had as a child, from the age of nine, with a girl in her school class, Elisabeth Lacoin, known as Zaza. In the book Simone becomes ‘Sylvie’ while Zaza is ‘Andrée’. My instinct as I began reading was to immediately think of Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend that also follows the close friendship of two girls. I’ve never got on with Ferrante’s novels; she seems to be, as we say in UK, a ‘Marmite’ person – you love her or hate her. Maybe ‘hate’ is a bit strong but I’ve never enjoyed her writing. Happily, this first connection made in my head was soon dispelled and I was almost immediately drawn into this intimate portrait of a friendship and de Beauvoir’s glorious writing. It’s one of those books where there are such beautifully crafted sentences, you want to sometimes stop and savour them.

Sylvie comes from a bourgeois family whose circumstances become very challenged when her father loses his job as a result of the fallout from the First World War. Andrée’s family, however, is very well off. These financial differences are almost outside the girls’ friendship but what they signify is what each can expect in life and from their families. Andrée, who has recently recovered from a terrible accident, is intellectually very bright and amusing but the prospect of using her intelligence is limited by her family’s expectations that she will either make a suitable marriage or enter a convent. Sylvie, however, also very clever, looks to finding a career and earning a living. A big bond between the girls is their conversations: ‘We could lose ourselves for hours in discussions of property, justice and equality.’ But Sylvie also feels inferior in some way; boring in comparison. Her feeling for Andrée is a kind of love; at one stage she says she couldn’t live without her. The feeling isn’t so much sexual but a more a kind of awe that she doesn’t expect to be reciprocated in the same way.

At the beginning, both girls are religious but then Sylvie loses her faith. During a confession she suddenly realises: ‘I don’t believe in God!’ And rather than any feelings of guilt, Sylvie becomes rebellious but also begins to recognise how Andrée’s deep faith is a form of torture to her and limits her being true to herself.

At the beginning, Sylvie was jealous of Andrée’s close relationship with her mother – who doesn’t approve of Sylvie. But as the girls grow older, she sees that her mother’s control and demands are suffocating Andrée. Andrée starts to do dangerous, even self-destructive, things to avoid family situations she doesn’t want to take part in. One time she stabs her foot with an axe so she can’t go to stay with a family she dislikes. As more ‘social duties’ are imposed on her friend, Sylvie worries more and more about her troubled mental state: ‘She did not belong to herself. She had no private time … She was stifled.’

The girls eventually go to the Sorbonne to study. Here love enters Andrée’s life. There had been a fairly innocent love with a cousin early on, and then a friend of Sylvie’s at the Sorbonne, Pascal, with whom Andrée falls deeply in love. The interference and demands of Andrée’s family, particularly her mother’s, lead to tragedy. And it is apparently this tragedy that leads de Beauvoir to carry guilt throughout her life, partly answering the question of why this novella wasn’t published earlier.

It is a very short book with interesting and enlightening introductions by novelist Deborah Levy, the translator Lauren Elkin and an Afterword by de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir.