The first 100 or so pages of this book almost made me give up, so saccharine is the description of the childhoods of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, with even a reference to the latter’s ‘dear diary’. I am glad I persisted. Mills and Boon duly evolves into Kraft-Ebbing. Carole Seymour-Jones may assert that she continues to admire this pair, but she has laid the foundations of a demolition job from which they should not recover.
The relationship between these two goes back to a compact in 1929 whereby they decided to have a union but not a marriage. In practice, conflating love with sexual freedom, they deceived themselves, preyed upon their innocent victims, and persuaded many people in the wider world that their nihilism was really a philosophy for the times. Private distress thus engendered public monstrosity.
An enormous amount of material, including diaries and correspondence, has been published concerning Sartre and Beauvoir, and Seymour-Jones relies on it for the dark and complex story she has to tell. Beauvoir was in the habit of picking young and often underage girls, usually her pupils, seducing them and passing them on to Sartre. Seymour-Jones does not think she was a lesbian, but has no hesitation in calling her a procurer and pimp. Whether out of perversity or to make Sartre jealous, Beauvoir was also going to bed with a whole range of male lovers. The pair evidently had fantasies and unfulfillments in common. Seymour-Jones cannot quite decide which of the two was dominating the other, but there is no doubting the unhappiness they generated and spread.
In the war, Sartre made no attempt to be soldierly or minimally patriotic. His career came first. I once interviewed Gerhard Heller, the German censor in occupied Paris, and he described to me how Sartre used to sit chatting in his office, stressing his debt to German culture.