A never-before-published novel by Simone De Beauvoir explores the question of what limits a woman in her quest for individuality and independence
Female friendships remain shrouded in mystery. There is always a sense of poignancy underlying them. From little girls deciding best friends to teenage intimacy over shared secrets to the blossoming of young adulthood shaped by the discovery of love to womanhood where the silence says much more than any conversation, they are simply put, the essence of one’s life and how it is lived. These friendships influence and shape lifelong perspectives, opinions, thoughts and identities.
So it is no surprise that Simone De Beauvoir’s life and work were shaped by her own friendships, particularly with Zaza Lacoin, her childhood friend. The Inseparables is Beauvoir’s ‘lost novel’ that was discovered and published by her adopted daughter Sylvie Le Bon in 2020. Lauren Elkin translated it into English in 2021. Written in 1904, discouraged by Jean Paul Sartre’s feedback, she put it aside. What could he have said for her to discard a book that is clearly written with so much emotion?
The story is about two schoolgirls, Andree and Sylvie, living in Paris during the inter-war period. Told through Sylvie’s lens, we see Andree slowly suffocating under the weight of family and societal obligations, the root being her beloved mother who states: “Being single is not a vocation”.
What seems to be an innocent friendship is actually a portrayal of two starkly different human beings, who despite evolving in opposing forms remain loyal to what lies between them. An unspoken understanding, a recognition of the other, an identification of what the other represents; and, more, a reflection of what the other does not want to be. What attracts one to the other ultimately begins to be the foundation for the development for two very opposite personalities, one sacrificial, the other a feminist. One representing what society asks a female to be, the other, holding the society to account. The question then arises, who decides what a female becomes?
The dynamics of the relationship are complex as Sylvie’s admiration for Andree is greater than anything else. Yet she is also a witness to how her friend is slowly chipped away and yet consistently rises as the bigger person, a friend that Sylvie looks up to till the end, even as it forms her own opposing thoughts. “Secretly, I thought that Andree was surely one of those incredible children whose life would later be recounted in books.” Prophetic words, but do they justify the end?
Sylvie who displays a puppy-like love for Andree is slowly revealed to be the more thoughtful child unlike Andree whose devotion based on pureness is the sacrificial lamb. But does one shape the other? Does one influence the other? Or was this a pure friendship where the two form a whole, reducing ideas of gender and societal role to mere social constructs?
A one sided infatuation on Sylvie’s path – “life without her would be death” – leads her down a path of self-exploration where she forms an identity that is the opposite of Andree’s. Actions on Sylvie’s part including a handcrafted purse, a letter and a verbal expression of love can be interpreted as acts of weakness in the face of Andree’s strict discipline but the question arises: is there more strength in vulnerability?
At times it feels like the girls are both victims of a society that causes them to have see-saw-like moments in life, neither one fully able to enjoy what they have without the conversations slowly coming to stilted words and expressions of love and desperation and finally the burden of the unspoken realities. One girl sees the suffering of the other and rises in the hope of living not just for herself but also for her friend; the other sees the flame of desire in her friend and tries to strive harder to enable her to live and that too in a way that society does not dim her light.
The driving force behind all this is religion. The constant questioning of it through Sylvie’s thoughts and conversations, there is Andree’s fear which along with expectations drives her to delve deeper into it. It is almost as if while fearful of questioning, the fear of the unknown, she is desperate to find the promised utopia and yet the deeper she plunges, the more the desperation increases. With a friendship suffering under the weight of Life, she finds the need to hold onto God – Sylvie is repelled by it all and questions the need for it and its impact. How can something “so good” cause so much pain to her beloved?
This questioning of what limits a woman in her quest for individuality and independence is the heart of the story and it hurts. For Sylvie the renunciation of faith is an awakening: a delicious freedom where she is able to explore and be who she wants to be, free from the limits of the tool wielded menacingly by the society. But for Andree, in her weakness for love, her unconditional acceptance brings forth the counter argument that perhaps it takes that connection to appreciate the fragility of mortality. As Pascal, a friend of Sylvie’s, tells Andree: “God doesn’t want us to dull our wits; if He’s given us certain gifts, it’s because He wants us to make use of them.” Yet he also tells Sylvie: “Andree has a more developed sense of sin than I do.”
The tragedy is then how a society fuelled by religion insists on breaking down a friendship so profound and so innocent that it holds the purest form of love. Two schoolgirls, restricted to explore the potential of their friendship within chains of societal expectations, begin to form identities. The limitations on their speech, the duties plied on squashing dreams that may be known to friends who in turn work furiously to immortalise long suffering friends to deliver some form of justice… This is all too familiar even in the Global South and hits home. The female experience is no different anywhere else.
It is these internal and inter-divisions that form in the girls’ friendship not so much as a means to break it up as to lead to a devastating truth. A truth that we, as females, know only too well.
Author: Simone de Beauvoir
(translated by Lauren Elkin)
Publisher: Vintage Publishing, 2021
The reviewer is an author based in Lahore