‘Newly discovered novel’ can be a discouraging phrase. Sure, some writers leave works of extraordinary calibre lurking among their effects — Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, say. Other books, though, would have done as well to stay lost. Did the world really need to set eyes on Harper Lee’s first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird in the form of Go Set a Watchman? Probably not, although you can see why a publisher wouldn’t quibble with one more title from such a famous name.
Unpublished in Simone de Beauvoir’s lifetime, The Inseparables was written in 1954. The Second Sex (and her power- couple relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre) had made her a global intellectual celebrity as well as an icon of the women’s movement; her novel The Mandarins won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honour, securing her reputation as an author. Yet something about this novel gave her pause.
The Inseparables is based closely on de Beauvoir’s friendship with Elisabeth Lacoin (known as Zaza), which lasted from when they met as nine-year-old schoolgirls until Zaza’s sudden death in 1929, just before her 22nd birthday. In another writer you might point to the intensely personal nature of the source material to explain the reluctance to publish, but de Beauvoir rarely shied from revelation: her novels drew heavily (and sometimes contentiously) on her real-life experiences and intimates. Besides, she would go on to tell the story of Zaza in her autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.
That leaves the fear that de Beauvoir didn’t publish this novel because she didn’t think it worth reading. It is, happily, an unfounded fear. The Inseparables is slim, elegant, achingly tragic and unaffectedly lovely in its evocation of the closeness between girls — and the pressures that sunder them.
Much credit should go to Lauren Elkin’s beautifully accomplished translation. The prose feels like a living voice and not, as is too often the case with translation, like a heavy-footed performance of respect for an inaccessible original. A translator’s note and thoughtful footnotes explain some of the decisions she made, and it would be wonderful to see what Elkin could make of de Beauvoir’s other novels. (Her debut, She Came to Stay, remains trapped in a lumpy mid-20th-century rendering.)
The novel is narrated by Sylvie, who stands here for de Beauvoir; Zaza’s part is taken by Andrée, who appears in Sylvie’s class one day. She is immediately fascinating because she has suffered a ‘martyrdom’ — a severe burn inflicted when ‘my dress caught fire and my right thigh was grilled to the bone’, explains Andrée. ‘Nothing so interesting had ever happened to me,’ thinks Sylvie. ‘It seemed to me that nothing interesting had ever happened to me at all.’
And so she falls in love — this is the only word for it — with Andrée. It is not a physical closeness (they do not even kiss in greeting, and retain the schoolroom formality of referring to each other as ‘vous’), but it is an affection of unmistakable power. Andrée is as clever as Sylvie, with an intellectual independence forged during her recuperation. She is funny, a brilliant mimic, never a bore. They are twin rebels: ‘We had zero respect for our teachers’ opinions, and our parents’ ideas didn’t satisfy us either.’
It’s also an affection that Sylvie fears might be unreciprocated. When Andrée speaks of her daydreams, Sylvie thinks: ‘What would I have daydreamed about? I loved Andrée above all else, and she was right next to me.’ Andrée’s background is disconcertingly alien to Sylvie, who comes from a small family in straitened circumstances: Andrée’s family is large and wealthy, and her mother is determined that her children should retain and burnish that status.
However instinctively nonconformist Andrée is, she cannot disobey the force of maternal will. Sylvie is on a path towards education and self-reliance. Andrée’s destiny is marriage, and Sylvie watches helplessly as her friend succumbs to expectation: ‘I didn’t like seeing her so easily fulfil the role of the young society girl.’
That ease, though, is illusory. Andrée will be torn between the demands of her mother and her own desires. ‘Must I spend my life fighting against the people I love?’ she cries, a concisely devastating summary of the feminist dilemma: if the essence of being a good girl is self-sacrifice, eventually you must break yourself or break someone’s heart.
The Inseparables is not quite perfect — its conclusion feels a little rushed, as though de Beauvoir found it too painful to linger over losing her friend a second time — but it’s close enough that it thoroughly deserves to be found.
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