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Beauvoir, Simone.

LETTERS: Letters to her sister.


Simone de Beauvoir's Letters to her Sister
Beauvoir, Simone de. Letters to Hélène de Beauvoir. 1954-1957.
A remarkable collection of 14 letters in French from Beauvoir to her younger sister Hélène, written during the period when Beauvoir and her companion Jean-Paul Sartre were frequently traveling across Europe. The tone of the correspondence indicates the degree of intimacy of the sisters' relationship-Beauvoir repeatedly expresses her affection for her sister, whom she addresses as "dear little Dolly," and concern for the health of Hélène's husband, Lionel de Roulet. Many of the letters end with tender sentiments, such as this: "I embrace you with all my heart, and send a thousand thoughts of friendship to Lionel" (November 27, 1955).
In the correspondence, Beauvoir vividly recounts the various trips she took with Sartre. A lengthy letter dated August 28, 1955 includes a description of a recent sojourn to Spain, during which she and Sartre "saw 56 bulls killed and covered 8000 km of road." Beauvoir also includes this anecdote:
Finally in Madrid we met some charming Spaniards in a bar, simple little insurance agents who set out to show us the city, without ever wanting us to pay a cent, and who uncovered for us nooks and crannies I had never imagined. This time I liked Madrid immensely, even more than Barcelona. The two of you must return to Spain one time, and I promise you I will give you great tips.  
Beauvoir was less enthusiastic about her stay in Greece, which she describes in a letter dated September 4, 1956. Though "the landscapes and ruins are marvelous…the poverty is heart-wrenching; one eats terribly poorly…the roads too are awful." Despite these shortcomings, she did apparently learn how to swim on the trip.
In almost every letter, Beauvoir describes her current writing endeavors. In one of the earliest letters, dated 1954, Beauvoir reflects on the critical response to her novel about the post-World War II schism in French intellectual thought, The Mandarins:
I have been pleasantly shocked to see myself congratulated from the right as much as the left. I don't know what critiques you have seen? From the left there were Lettres Françaises and Liberation, both excellent. From the right, an excellent Henriot in Le Monde…Jacques Lauren, obviously, and the fascist newspaper Dimanche Matin, dragged me through the mud.
The Mandarins, considered one of Beauvoir's best works, was awarded the coveted Prix Goncourt for literature later that year. In a letter dated March 25, 1957, Beauvoir again mentions The Mandarins, though at this time, she was exploring the idea of adapting it into a play. She apologizes for not being able to visit Hélène in Milan as planned, because "a man is coming from America to discuss the possibility of making a play out of Mandarins." In a later letter, she expresses satisfaction with the progress of the project: "Things seem to be working out with the theater play. My adaptor is a Hungarian Jew, naturalized English, so not an average American. He really wants to respect the meaning of 'The Mandarins.'"
Several of the letters trace the development of Beauvoir's book on China, The Long March. Beauvoir got the idea to write about China after she and Sartre vacationed there in the fall of 1955. She writes:
I have in fact begun writing a book on China, and it must be done quickly, without that I would lose all opportunity; it would otherwise be overtaken with current events-and moreover, if I want to understand a little of what yesterday's China was, which is indispensible to understanding what it is today, I have an enormous task ahead.
(December 15, 1955)
In subsequent letters, Beauvoir mentions the book at other stages, referring to it as "China" before the title of The Long March was chosen. Her goal in writing the book was "to tell how a trip to China really is" and she suspected that her straightforward approach might hinder the book's sales. However, The Long March is still highly regarded today for its accurate depiction of the political and social unrest in 1950s communist China.
The letters in which she discusses her work on Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter were probably of particular interest to Hélène, given the personal subject matter. Beauvoir first mentions her plan to write memoirs on March 8, 1957:
…so passionate I am now by the idea of writing my memories of childhood and youth! We will have to discuss that together at length…Looking at letters from "childhood and youth" I came across many memories that were very moving-it's marvelous, that story about the letter you wrote to me and that mother opened and read to your face! And to think that afterwards she had the nerve to write to me presenting herself as the victim! Anyway, we will talk about all of that next time. You were a very good sister and so you have remained.
Later, Beauvoir enlists Hélène's help with recovering memories of the past and also conveys some trepidation about writing about their parents. She writes:
Memories of childhood are haunting me, but I greatly need your help, I truly lack memories. I will pick your mind at length. The difficulty is knowing to what extent I plan to talk about Mother and Father without hurting them. I will say things in a very objective tone and of course there are things I will not say. I will send you the manuscript and you can give me advice: you can tell me if I have been too harsh or what. It's irritating to not really be free. (n.d. but ca. 1957)
Aside from her own writing, Beauvoir often includes updates on Sartre's health (in one letter, she reports that he has lost "7 kilos" which "suits him very well") and creative ventures. In a letter dated November 27, 1955, she writes that Sartre is "working on a film adaptation for 'The Crucible'…I believe this will be infinitely better than the play, which had already so many qualities." Critics, however, did not agree with Beauvoir's assessment; in a 1957 letter, she advises her sister to "not believe the newspapers. 'The Crucible' is a sensational film and marvelously acted." Beauvoir also tells Hélène about the rehearsals she observed of Sartre's play, Nékrassov, which was mounted in Paris in 1956. She describes the chaos leading up to opening night and the last minute replacement of one of the actors:
Here we are in the frenzy of the last rehearsals…There have been quite a lot of problems because this young Lefevre has absolutely no memory: he was coming from the Moscow Opera, the Folies Bergères, you see the type; in any event, he was not very good…All of other actors are good, the sets are pretty, the directing is good enough…But the press isn't putting down its weapons. (December 14, 1956)
Claude Lanzmann, with whom Sartre and Beauvoir collaborated on the publication of Les Temps Modernes, also figures prominently in this correspondence. Additionally, there are numerous references to the literati with whom Beauvoir and Sartre associated, such as Raymond Queneau, Claude Roy (whose 1955 book, Into China, Beauvoir detested) and Violette Leduc. Beauvoir's relationships with both Queneau and Leduc were strained at times. In a letter from 1955, she writes that Leduc is "in the process of becoming completely insane…I am sending her to a psychiatrist and I hope it will help her before she becomes another Renée Boullier." In another letter, Beauvoir informs her sister that "V. Leduc is still crazy, or at least unbearable to the point of craziness. I must transport her from her clinic to a boarding house, which doesn't amuse me" (n.d. but ca. 1957).  
Beauvoir describes her falling out with Queneau, who was working for the Parisian publishing house Gallimard during this period:
I have not seen Queneau again. The last exchanges I had with him were rather tense. He refuses all of the manuscripts that I recommend, even though I have come across a woman from Marseilles who has extraordinary talent. I think we are in a very bad way with Gallimard because of Sartre's political view. I will talk to him about 'Invitée' but I do not have the impression that they want to do a luxury edition for me. (n.d.)
'Invitée' is a reference to Beauvoir's novel known in English as She Came to Stay, which was first published in 1943.
A fascinating glimpse into Beauvoir's travels, work ethic, and personal life, as recounted to a beloved family member.

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