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Gillian Tindall
A Dangerous Liaison
By Carole Seymour-Jones (Century 574pp £20)

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Let me put my cards on the table. On many occasions, both in France and in England, I have heard or read women of my own generation, the generation of the daughters that Simone de Beauvoir did not have, say what an important book her Le Deuxième Sexe was to them in youth, how it shaped their thinking. I listen uncomprehendingly. To me, this, Beauvoir's most famous work, is a baggy, old-fashioned French academic thesis, groaning under the weight of piled-up examples of all kinds and dates. Many of its assertions were already out-of-date in even mildly liberal circles long before it was written. Yet in spite of its over-copiousness it has huge gaps in coverage and central areas of obtuseness. To believe, as Beauvoir apparently did all her life, that 'a woman is not born but made' is already a substantial handicap. A worse one, however, was her complete inability, remarked upon even by her most sympathetic contemporaries, to understand maternity as anything but a stultifying trap.

So why do I bother with her - and what business have I reviewing this new and deeply subversive biography? Surely I am already a hostile witness? Well, no. For Les Mandarins, with which she won the Prix Goncourt in 1954, was one of the first novels I read in French, and I opened my heart and mind then to her classic talent for creating a world for the reader to enter, to her excellent ear for speech, and to her wonderfully assured style, both crisp and sensitive. Since then, I have read her other novels and stories, though not all with the same pleasure, and have absorbed into my heart and mind a number of passages from her memoirs which (it has become increasingly apparent) were to some extent fictional constructions too, just as her novels were versions of her own life. She has been badly served by English translation into a mid-Atlantic compromise idiom, which has no doubt further obscured the gifted novelist behind the feminist icon. It is my hope that in a future generation, when the variegated causes she and Sartre sought to espouse have become just part of the tapestry of history, and Sartre himself has been relegated to the semi-obscurity where he mostly belongs, that the best and truest of Beauvoir's writing will still raise a response in readers' breasts.

This book, however, will do nothing to rescue her reputation as a writer, nor does it set out to. Indeed it will do nothing for either her reputation or Sartre's in most quarters. Ever since their deaths in the 1980s, six years apart, there has been a seepage of disclosure and reappraisal. We have learnt the extent to which this equivocating pair were Communist fellow-travellers for a full decade after the revelations of Stalinist brutalities and the Hungarian uprising destroyed the myth for all but the most bigoted party members. We have learnt how they failed to play any significant part in wartime resistance, but managed to create a subsequent impression that they had been in on it all. Even more tellingly, we have become aware of a bubbling stew of resentment, accusations and conflicting interests and of the existence of adopted heirs (one his and one hers) squabbling over personal papers. There must, one felt, have been something amiss with the structure of their legendary and much-vaunted free union, and with their whole notion of 'contingent' attachments around the central one, if it all ended so squalidly - and so drenched in pills and alcohol.

Just how far the Sartre-Beauvoir compact became a travesty of all their claims to honesty and freedom now becomes clear in this excoriating study. Carole Seymour-Jones has gained the confidence of Beauvoir's 'daughter' and literary executor, and has had access to hitherto unknown letters that Beauvoir had declared to be lost; she has also got on the track of the Russian interpreter for whom the 56-year-old Sartre naïvely hoped to ditch Beauvoir, and of this woman's KGB handler. She has talked to the Jewish protégée whom Beauvoir abandoned during the war, and to others in the harem ('the family') of inadequate women that Sartre maintained to bolster his fragile self-esteem. She tracks Beauvoir's agonies of unreconstructed female jealousy through her letters and journals, agonies that of course she expunged from her published memoirs but which appear tellingly in her fiction. We also hear about the clandestine affair that Beauvoir maintained for many years with the pliable husband of Olga, another member of the 'family'. Seymour-Jones's account is indefatigably detailed and even-handed. She has mastered a great deal of French political life over many decades. She claims, in her introduction, still to admire her main subjects. One wonders how she manages to.

In this, Beauvoir's centenary year, some sections of literary Paris are already declaring that those who have been turned against the Sartre-Beauvoir circle by recent revelations are 'bourgeois' and 'sexually prudish'. Yet it is not the sexual promiscuity as such that shocks but the bad faith that evidently accompanied it, a classically 'bourgeois' snake-pit in which the vulnerable were exploited and cast aside while the exploiters continued to give themselves airs for their advanced ideas. There is a telling moment, halfway through the book, when the author describes her two central figures as 'glued together by their lies'. She is referring to their shifty repositioning of themselves in the years after the Occupation, but the phrase might stand equally as an epitaph for their entire life together.

The title, with its reference to Laclos's notorious eighteenth-century study of pimping in high society, tells it all. Sartre, for all his libertarianism, was sexually a cold fish, preferring the initiation of virgins or other exotic conquests to sex with a familiar equal. Beauvoir of course knew this, and developed a lifelong fear that their much-trumpeted union would not survive. Her solution was to provide him with girlfriends whom she could control. Several of them were young lycée pupils of hers, and on more than one occasion there were formal complaints from parents that Mlle de Beauvoir was a sinister influence and probably a lesbian. Of the half-dozen women annexed to 'the family' in this way, one later committed suicide, two became drug-addicts, and another was so permanently traumatised by betrayal and abandonment that Beauvoir, for once, felt pangs of guilt. The only one who came out on top was the last one, a mistress whom Sartre adopted as a daughter (the incestuous nature of the 'family' fantasy becomes fully apparent) and who then went to war with poor old Beauvoir over Sartre's literary legacy.

I would agree with the author that Beauvoir was not essentially a lesbian: the earth-moving nature of her much-publicised affair with the disagreeable Nelson Algren would indicate this. But the explicitly passionate relationships she developed throughout her life with other women do suggest a somewhat labile sexuality. She seems here, as in other aspects of her being, to have been stuck in a phase of adolescent revolt against 'bourgeois values' which she never outgrew. Nor, of course, did Sartre: the only difference between these two products of dysfunctional middle-class homes was that, while Beauvoir relished life in a series of Left Bank hotels deliberately chosen for their squalor, Sartre continued for years to have a home base and meals on demand in his widowed mother's comfortable flat. Neither of them, however, had any scruples about getting handouts of money for many years from relatives they openly despised.

The pair's glory years came when, as a distraction from their cosy relationship with the Soviet Union, they gained lasting public fame by speaking out against the war that France was waging in the 1950s and early 1960s, complete with torture, to retain Algeria as a French colony. I would like to think that, in this instance, the couple actually were clear-sighted and brave. But after reading this book I have an insidious suspicion that these moral pygmies were really against the Algerie française movement because of the kind of people who tapped that slogan out on their car horns in Parisian rallies. Here were, indubitably, members of the bourgeoisie, that windmill at which the Famous Two never tired of tilting.

Gillian Tindall's books include 'Celestine: Voices from a French Village' (Vintage) and 'The Journey of Martin Nadaud' (Pimlico).