Review: A Dangerous Liaison

By Anne Sebba, May 8, 2008
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Were French intellectual beacons Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in fact a devious and disgraceful pair?

By Carole Seymour-Jones

Century, £20

There is plenty in this important, heavyweight book to interest not only students of French literature and philosophy but also those who struggle to understand the history of France in the last century and its attitude towards Jews. But you will need a strong stomach.

The author does not flinch from detailed descriptions of a wide variety of sexual activity and perversions, as well as serial betrayals moral and physical. As she explains, Simone de Beauvoir, a teacher, liked to break in her pupils through lesbian seduction before procuring them for Jean-Paul Sartre, believing this would bind him more strongly to her, the older woman. According to Jewish schoolgirl Bianca Bienenfeld, about whom beauvoir was passionate but whom she abandoned during the nazi occupation of Paris: “She liked new adventures. Homosexuality was part of her bourgeois rebellion.”

As a young teacher, Beauvoir was asked what she thought it would mean to be a Jew. “Nothing at all,” she replied. “There are no such thing as Jews. There are only human beings.” but to anyone living in France in 1939 and after, it was impossible not to understand what it meant to be a Jew. Bianca and her friend, the actress Simone Signoret, refused to wear their yellow stars.

But that was unusual and highly dangerous. Beauvoir’s response to bianca’s fear of the future as a Jewish woman in Paris was sneering. She described her former lover as “prophesying doom like a Cassandra (what’s new) and hesitating between the concentration camp and suicide, with a preference for suicide”.

Remarkably, Bianca survived (and spoke to Carole Seymour-Jones for this book) — although some of her family did not, and Beauvoir was struck with remorse for her treatment of the girl. Jean-Paul Sartre, who had Jewish blood through his maternal line, claimed that he was a leader of the “Intellectual Resistance”. Yet Seymour-Jones shows in this deeply researched and clear-eyed book, detailing one of the most famous non-marriages in French history, that, while both took many Jewish lovers throughout their lives (these included, for Beauvoir, American writer Nelson Algren and Claude Lanzmann, maker of the epic film, Shoah; later, Sartre seduced Lanzmann’s sister), they also profited from Vichy antisemitic laws.

Sartre positioned himself ideally for power and influence after the liberation. Seymour-Jones doggedly shows how both Sartre and beauvoir continued to lead comfortable lives in Paris throughout the occupation, even taking skiing holidays. both continued to eat well — Sartre often at his mother’s elegant apartment, beauvoir at restaurants or when giving dinner parties thanks to the black market.

More seriously, Sartre accepted a new post at the Lycée Condorcet in October 1941 which required stepping into the shoes of a sacked Jewish teacher, Henri Dreyfus Lefoyer, great nephew of the famous Dreyfus. Admittedly, they did not join the openly compromised salons frequented by Nazi officers, but they could have made other choices. Some intellectuals refused to write for certain publishing houses, keeping an honourable silence. Others left Paris and worked on a resistance paper in London in an attempt to dedicate themselves to the struggle against the Nazis. For many who have grown up believing Sartre to be possessed of a brilliant mind and regarding beauvoir as a feminist heroine, this will be a profoundly shocking book.

They stand accused.

Anne Sebba’s latest book is Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011