The great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, is supposed to have told a friend that he loved to eat the most boring food — plain noodles — so he would not have to cease talking. One experiences a similar urge, an intense desire to communicate, both sublime and mundane, philosophical and pedestrian, literary and journalistic, in Sartre’s letters published after his death.
Edited by De Beauvoir, the letters contained in the book, Witness to My Life are written to Simon Jollivet, the first woman Sartre loved and whom he often addresses as “My dear little girl”. The majority of letters in the book, however, are addressed to Simon De Beauvoir whom he met in 1929. Her nick name Le Castor — the Beaver — was given to her by her boyfriend, and Sartre addressed her in most of his letters as “Darling little Beaver” or “My sweet Beaver” or “My Love”.
There are letters written to women, such as Olga Kosakiewicz and Bianca Bienenfeld. Both women were sexually involved with Sartre and De Beauvoir. Out of 440 pages, 260 pages belong to the year 1939, the year the WWII began. Simon De Beauvoir remains the central figure. Almost all of his letters are love letters in essence. The length ranges from half a page to more than twenty.
Very early on in their courtship the pair decided to have an open relationship, allowing the other to take up lovers, to experience love in its varied manifestations. They wrote to each other about their intimate time spent with their companions.
Sartre wrote letters to his other lovers discussing De Beauvoir, even Beauvoir’s sister Helene. In one of the letters to Olga, whom he addressed as Iaroslaw, he shares Helene’s description of an Italian city, Poupette, on the other hand, had found the city uninteresting: “Naples: just big, filthy houses. But filth alone is not enough. And the good Beaver and I honestly had to agree that, generally, speaking, filth is not enough… My dear Iaroslaw, I am afraid this letter may bore you just a bit… I am still going to describe, all in one go, those little streets that make up about three-fourths of Naples. I really want you to feel a little how the city looked all around us… Of course I should now tell you about the people in those streets… I suppose that now a days they go into hiding to make love: nowadays, under fascist authority, but twenty years ago, they must have done it on their doorsteps… How generous they seemed to us in their immodesty, the day we arrived, compared to the Romans. Alas, they are neither handsome nor….”
The letters are candid and full of yearning to be with the women in his life as they are equally full of life, packed with everyday detail, such as what he ate and where he went for walks, whom he met, what he read and what films he saw. The following excerpt from July 1938 spells it is quite succinctly:
“My darling Beaver
First, two little items of information: 1. I love you very much. 2. The schizophrenic is not dead. He is… I can’t picture at all where you are anymore, and that irritates me. I don’t know why, but I see you in an open field with you espadrilles sopping wet. I want you to know I found no movie fit for consumption yesterday, though I carefully checked La Semaine a Paris… I caught a cab and had myself dropped by the Opera… then went up the boulevards looking for the movie marquees.”
The tone of the letters changes once the war breaks out. Sartre is conscripted and had to join his battalion. The romantic and the comedian never left him though. Underneath the twin mask of romantic comedian is a sad face and only De Beauvoir could see it through the mask as is obvious from his remark, “My love, I can’t imagine how I could have seemed sad in my recent letters….”
But in one of his earliest letters to Simon Jollivet, Sartre chides her, “Never scorn Chaplinesque gestures. In trying to understand what Charlie Chaplin wants to be as “the little tramp,” learn the psychology of my “innate soul,” this sad soul that commits those follies I spoke of at the movies.”
Sartre’s politics, his melancholic moods, his philosophic outlook on life, all at display in his letters, were shaped by several factors: Two world wars, tragic childhood, and the acceptance of the fact that he had a plain-looking face.
By the time of his death, Sartre was a towering international figure. But the person who held the supreme position in his heart and mind was none other than Simon De Beauvoir.
Let me tell you about myself — you’ll understand why soon enough. You accused me of being neither simple nor true, but I want you to see whether that comes easily for me.
Basically, I’m a man of many sides.
On the one hand I’m extremely ambitious. But about what? When I think of glory I imagined a ballroom with gentlemen in evening clothes and ladies in low-cut dresses all raising their glasses to me. It’s true Epinal, of course, but ever since childhood I’ve had that image. It doesn’t tempt me, but glory does, because I want to be far above ordinary people, whom I scorn. But, more specifically, I have the ambition to create. I must construct, construct anything at all but construct. I’ve done some of everything, from philosophical systems to (idiotic of course, I was 16) to symphonies. I wrote my first novel when I was 8. I cannot look at a blank sheet of paper without wanting to write something on it. I get this feeling, it’s ridiculous, really — this enthusiasm — only in the presence of certain works, because I imagine that I could remake them, that I could create them on my own, and if I’m writing to you today it is because I have just read one such work and was immediately seized by the need to construct something this letter. The problem is, I don’t like anything I produce, I don’t have my own genre to write in, so to speak, I constantly change styles but without ever really pleasing myself….