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She Came to Stay is a novel written in 1943 by the French feminist and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir. Based on her relationship with the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, the book is hard going by most standards, exploring jealousy; the most basic of human emotions, and pushing the definition of personal freedom to the limits of acceptability.
As a 19 year old studying Camus for A level, I became infatuated with the lifestyle of French existentialists such as Camus, Sartre and de Beauvoir, and started to read all of their works, becoming more and more interested in the way they lived their lives and followed their own philosophy. This novel encapsulates it all for me - the struggle between human nature and intellectual aspiration. A real life story.
Pierre and Francoise embody the bohemian life of the pre war French intellectual, ruled by creativity, the theatre and philosophy, they are involved in an intense and loving partnership which has been strong for many years. Leading their life according to their personal beliefs, they have an open relationship and although they both have affaires, neither of them feels that this is a threat to the devotion and intellectual harmony that they share.
When the beautiful but unstable Xaviere comes into their lives, both of them take her under their wing as their protégé, eager to experience new sensations through Xaviere's naïveté and enthusiasm. Soon Pierre and Xaviere begin an affair, to the delight to Francoise who adores them both, but Xaviere is unable to accept their unorthodox philosophy and begins to drive a wedge between the two of them in her attempts to make Pierre's love for her unique.
The book examines the struggle that Francoise has in accepting her own anger and jealousy at this turn of events. With the backdrop of Paris on the brink of war and uncertainty, she soon finds her emotions have become out of control and that her ideas of freedom have to be sacrificed in order to fight the manipulative actions of Xaviere.
This is Simone de Beauvoir's first novel, and is a fictionalised account of the ménage a trios that de Beauvoir and Sartre (both in their 30s) had with de Beauvoir's protégé, the 17 year old Bianca Bienenfeld. This young and beautiful woman nearly broke the incredibly strong relationship between the two philosophers, and drove de Beauvoir to the limits of her endurance. The novel is often said to have written as an act of revenge.
I love this book for two reasons; firstly as an analysis of human emotion - few readers can fail to be whipped up and drawn in by the feelings of anger and jealousy that Xaviere conjures up through her actions, and this in turn makes the reader look into their own strengths and weaknesses. How would any of us react in such circumstances? Can principles and beliefs really override human emotion?
Secondly, I love the insight that the books gives me into the real life of de Beauvoir and Sartre; the descriptions of intellectual life in the theatre, late night smoky Parisian jazz clubs, everyday reactions to the approach of war. I have no doubt that the emotions that de Beauvoir describes so shockingly are the truth, written from the heart. By the end of the book, Francoise feels herself destroyed by her violent emotions, taking away the meaning of her life to an "abyss of nothingness". This, for me, is the fascination of the book - the truth behind the philosophy and the glamour of their lives.
The only edition of the book that I have ever been able to find is translated from the French by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse - and it is a truly awful translation! You really have to look past the clunky wording that takes all of the romance away from the story. My particular bugbear (although there are many) is the insistence on calling Croque Monsieur, Welsh Rarebit - "they strolled down the Champs d'Elysee and had a quick Welsh Rarebit" doesn't have the same ring somehow!
The novel is not as well written as some of de Beauvoir's later novels, but it is still one that I completely recommend. It is a hugely powerful piece of writing, and gives an insight into the lives of the intellectuals in a way that a straightforward biography cannot.
Bianca Bienenfeld was later known as Bianca Lamblin. Outraged at de Beauvoir's fictionalisation of their affair, she later wrote her own version - A Disgraceful Affair. Reading this, or finding out the basic information about the lives of the existentialists will really add to the enjoyment of She Came to Stay.
My edition of She Came to Stay was published in 1984 by Fontana Paperbacks, but it is currently available new from Norton for £5.99 (Amazon).
408pages - ISBN 0006540805