This short novel is a fictionalized autobiography of the famous French feminist and political philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who died in 1986. Inseparable was not published in English until 2021. (Amazon has caught up with this, but NOT Wikipedia! A rare delay…)
Beauvoir’s highly influential book The Second Sex was published in 1949, the year I was born. I read it around 1972, but made no effort to read her other work, which includes several novels about which I now feel curious.
Beauvoir’s autobiography Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958) covers the same time period as Inseparable. I just reserved it at my local library.
I was totally surprised to encounter this unfamiliar work. The first thing I noticed was its brisk, casual and somehow modern tone. The book, set among the upper class in post-World War 1 France, recounts the friendship of two girls from age 9 to early adulthood. Sylvie narrates, Andree is her adored friend. Their relationship is one of “passionate friendship”, a concept not recognized in contemporary America. They receive a challenging and impressively intellectual education that they take very seriously.
Translations always make me curious. Sometimes I look at a sentence and wonder how it might come across if the translator chose different words or expressions. For example, early in Inseparable, Sylvie describes Andree as having “character”. But the context makes me wonder if “sensitivity” might be what Beauvoir really meant. I looked up Sandra Smith, the translator of Inseparable. This led me to unfamiliar authors and works I look forward to reading.
The book ends with Andree’s death. She and Sylvie had taken differing paths in the face of religious quandaries and social pressures. My initial reaction was that fading in the grip of an undiagnosed fever was a poor plot device in a novel. Then I reflected on the ailments that now afflict American girls and young women, like anorexia and cutting, and it makes sense. Young women lose themselves in the battle with a social environment filled with contradictions and nonsense.
This book’s introduction by Margaret Atwood is a delight! She admits to having been “terrified” of Simone de Beauvoir. Well, I was/am terrified of Atwood. The author of The Handmaid’s Tale must be dangerous, right? Do I really want to read The Edible Woman, Atwood’s first published novel? Anyway, Atwood writes compellingly about Beauvoir and her friend Elisabeth (Zaza) Locoin and trashes existentialist Jean Paul Sartre. Thanks, Ms. Atwood!