Before loving Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir loved Zaza

“You don’t meet a little girl who is burned alive every day,” Sylvie said to herself. From the start, Andrée warms up more than Sylvie, ...


“You don’t meet a little girl who is burned alive every day,” Sylvie said to herself. From the start, Andrée warms up more than Sylvie, she is more passionate, more sensitive.

Funny, brilliant, gifted musician, intimidated by the nuns who teach them, she seems to come from another world, one where the rules of female behavior required by their environment do not apply. The two girls compete for first place in the class, and Sylvie, the paddling pool, wins most of the time, but only because Andrée doesn’t bother to work as hard as she does.

But the freedom that Sylvie first admires in Andrée – whose coldly elegant mother does not scold her seven children when they knock over the furniture in the house, or bombard themselves with breadcrumbs at the table – turns out to be illusory. Andrée is caught in a vice whose grip tightens sharply later in her teenage years, as she approaches marriageable age. “Enter a convent or get married; celibacy is not a vocation ”, tells her mother, from a long line of well-to-do and militant Catholics, to Andrée’s sister, who is only a few years older than herself. A pious aunt believes in “love in the first sacrament” – the idea that the couple in an arranged marriage fall madly in love at the altar, as soon as they say their vows.

Sylvie, for her part, very early on loses her faith and is saved from the obligation to marry when her father, through a series of bad investments, can no longer provide her with a dowry. Instead, she studies for a living as a teacher, which allows her the independence she dreams of.

Beauvoir the novelist makes us feel the suffocating weight of an entire society in the photographs arranged on a library table in Andrée’s family estate, showing “men with sideburns and old men with beards; the ancestors of Andrée ”, or below, in the enormous cookware – “countless covered saucepans, frying pans, casseroles, casseroles, oven dishes, bowls, soup tureens, dishes, metal cups, colanders, meat grinders, mills, molds and mortars!” What a variety of bowls, cups, glasses, champagne flutes and couples, plates, saucers, gravy boats, jars, jugs, pitchers, decanters! (It should be noted that Beauvoir, for much of his adult life, lived in hotels and ate in restaurants.)

Most disturbing is the way in which Andrée, who remains fervent and devoted to her mother, internalizes the destructive impulses of a culture which consumes and constrains her. “Her mother entrusted her with household chores which she performed with penitent zeal,” notes Sylvie with regret.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Before loving Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir loved Zaza
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