Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980. Then, in 1986, Simone de Beauvoir passed away. They’re buried in the same grave in Paris’ Montparnasse cemetery.
I was born in the year 1978. Which means that, for a very short time, I shared the world with two of the people who, much later in my life, I’d come to list amongst my personal heroes.
I consider this a great honour.
There’s something about a young mind and the word “freedom”. That simple word can be so alluring. When I first became curious about existentialism – the philosophy of complete freedom – I was nineteen. My crush quickly flourished into complete infatuation.
Like so many young loves, my obsession with existentialism dwindled away. Yet still, somewhere at the back of my thoughts, that spark remains. It’s the reason why, long ago, I chose Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay, to represent the year 1943 on my Book to the Future reading list.
It’s also the reason why you’re currently reading the fifth draft of this review. Every other draft has slowly morphed into an essay…
I’ve always been fascinated by the lifelong partnership of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. And yet, I’ve read Sartre’s fiction – even a few of his godawful plays – but, strangely, I’ve never read any of de Beauvoir’s fiction.
If anyone is still reading this, I apologise profusely for all the confusion. I’ll try and be as straightforward as I possibly can from here on in.
She Came to Stay
by Simone de Beauvoir
Published in 1943
He was, of course, totally wrong. There was nothing practical at all about Sartre’s thought. Sartre was white, middle class and male; of course he could stand up and confidently assert assert his total freedom. His thought always had a vague whiff of misogyny about it.
Simone de Beauvoir knew better. Her personal devotion to Sartre didn’t prevent her from criticising his work. De Beauvoir’s feminist/existentialist manifesto, The Second Sex, published in 1949, ushered in a new age of women’s consciousness. Now that’s practical philosophy.
Sartre and de Beauvoir shared a unique “open relationship” that lasted their entire lives. Although both had numerous dalliances, they always returned to each other.
But the thing with polyamory, much like existentialism, it that it’s hardly practical. Sure, it sounds like such a brilliant idea, but here in the real world, such relationships are often fraught with jealousy and misery. And these so-called “open relationships” always seem so much more open for men than women, don’t you think?
She Came to Stay, set in Paris at the very beginning of the Second World War, is the story of an unusual relationship.
Actor, Pierre and playwright, Françoise, have always been lovers, despite their occasional “affaires” with other people. Their relationship is built upon years of comfortable familiarity; their love for each other is the force that drives them. Or, at least, that’s what Françoise thinks as the novel opens. She considers her and Pierre as the same person, rather than two different people.
Almost from nowhere, Françoise produces Xavière, a young, ethereally beautiful woman who becomes her friend. When Pierre meets Xavière, the attraction between the two is instant. Despite her intolerable moodiness, Xavière’s fresh perspective alleviates the restlessness of Françoise and Pierre’s relationship.
At first, Françoise is delighted with the new arrangement. But as Pierre and Xavière become lovers, Françoise’s elation turns to intense jealousy. Suddenly she realises that the man she thought she knew so well has become a stranger; the relationship she thought would bring her freedom – that existentialist ideal – has become a cloying trap.
As Europe begins to fall apart, so too does Françoise. She invited Xavière into her life – will she ever be free from her influence again?
She Came to Stay is a chapter ripped straight from the pages of de Beauvoir’s own life. She wrote the novel to externalise her own feelings and finally exorcise the lingering spirit of Olga Kosakievicz, the woman who came between her and Sartre, nearly ending their relationship forever.
As much as Françoise detests Xavière, her fascination with the younger woman borders on love. De Beauvoir spends a ridiculous amount of time describing Xavière: her blonde hair, her slightly vacant expression, her eyes, her skin. Every facial expression, every outfit is lovingly catalogued by Françoise. When Xavière isn’t present, Françoise wonders where she is and what she’s doing. Pierre doesn’t get the same treatment. He’s rarely described in any detail. Pierre who?
Interestingly, She Came to Stay is dedicated not to Sartre, but to Olga.
She Came to Stay is a novel filled with eyes; staring eyes, glaring eyes, tired eyes. It’s Xavière’s gaze, and, in turn, their perspective on Xavière that lends Françoise and Pierre’s relationship its temporary new life. Relentlessly, de Beauvoir returns again and again to this familiar riff. Just one example of many such passages:
“…And Pierre? When he looked at her what did he see? She turned her eyes towards Pierre, but Pierre was not looking at her.
He was looking at Xavière. With lips parted, and lack-lustre eyes, Xaviere scarcely breathed; she no longer knew where she was (…) Françoise looked away, embarrassed (…)
‘Did you see Xavière’s face?’ said Pierre.
‘Yes,’ said Françoise.
He had spoken without taking his eyes off Xavière” (p. 146 and 147)
If reading page after page of this kind of description bothers you, chances are, you’re not going to enjoy She Came to Stay. De Beauvoir’s characters spend a lot of their time thinking; having circular conversations. Even though I enjoyed She Came to Stay intensely, I admit I did get a little tired of Françoise’s constant overthinking at a few points of the novel.
Reading She Came to Stay makes me wonder why I’ve waited so long to enjoy de Beauvoir’s fiction. Her writing is beautifully lucid. She has such a graceful way with words. In particular, the novel’s opening is particularly lush. Françoise sits outside an empty theatre in the early hours of the morning:
“She leaned back against the hard wood of the bench. A quick step echoed on the asphalt of the pavement. A motor lorry rumbled along the avenue. There was nothing but this passing sound, the sky, the quivering foliage of the trees, and the one rose-coloured window in a black facade. There was no Françoise any longer; no one existed any longer, anywhere” (p. 2)
De Beauvoir is at her best when she writes about Françoise’s emotions – her elation, despair, her illness, her seething jealousy. They’re described with such passion that you can’t help but feel Françoise’s agony as if it were your own. She Came to Stay is so acutely honest in its depiction of emotion that it rips the very breath from your lungs. There’s just something about Françoise’s voice that is so unforgettably clear; so irresistible and inviting.
I can’t possibly finish this review without mentioning the novel’s ending. She Came to Stay has the kind of ending that forces you to immediately call into question your reading of the entire novel. Is She Came to Stay a love letter to Sartre, or a spiteful act of revenge against Olga Kosakievicz…or perhaps a little of both?
She Came to Stay is a beautiful, emotional tale of a complex relationship. I chose to read it because I wanted to get to know Simone de Beauvoir a little better – and I wasn’t disappointed. She reveals her personality in a way I hadn’t anticipated. She is passionate, vulnerable, wildly intelligent…and unexpectedly fierce.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
(Four and a half stars if I were using a sensible rating system…)
Should you read it?
If you’ve read Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Outsider – both widely lauded as the masterworks of existentialist literature – then why shouldn’t you read She Came to Stay? De Beauvoir is perhaps the sole female voice of existentialism. She deserves to be just as widely read as her male counterparts.
In a word: