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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
A Dangerous Liaison
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on 7 September 2016
On the top of my head three elements of this biography put a huge doubt on its worth:
- in spite of the 50+ pages of notes at the end of the book, the sources for a lot of statements are not cited (how to know then if CSJ is not making things up?);
- I could have trusted CSJ nonetheless, wouldn't she had made gratuitous yet severe statements which hint at a strong bias (or search for sensationalism) on her part, a huge one being at p165 when she suggests de Beauvoir raped Olga Kosakiewicz;
- also, the numerous mistakes in her retranscription of French quotes show how sloppy the work was done.

That apart the biography reads easily and, citing a lot of sources, can not be altogether false; but I find it very hard to trust the content and separate the truth from the biased or sensational statements. I will have to check what I learnt there with other sources, such as Hazel Rowley's biography of the duo.
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on 22 February 2011
Though the book started off a bit slow for me, once the lives of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre became intertwined at the time of their introduction in 1929 (when both were students at the École Normale Supérieure), I could hardly tear myself away. I set myself to reading 2 chapters a day.

I was surprised to discover how apolitical the 2 were during the 1930s. Both were then firmly set on establishing careers for themselves and having sexual relationships with impressionable young women. Many of these women like the Kosackiewicz sisters, Natalie Sorokine, and Bianca Lamblin (nee Bienenfeld - a Jew whom both de Beauvoir and Sartre abandoned as the Germans tightened their grip on France in the late spring of 1940). De Beauvoir later felt guilty for how shabbily she and Sartre had treated Lamblin and after the war, she and Lamblin would take annual trips together. (Lamblin, Seymour-Jones reveals, wrote her own memoirs in which she spoke fully of her betrayal and the nervous breakdown she suffered after having fought with the Maquis in the Vecours against the Germans.)

Sartre (and de Beauvoir to some extent) greatly understated his Resistance activity during the Second World War. In truth, both felt that the German occupation was likely to last 20 years and, like most French, largely accomodated themselves to Hitler's New Order in France. In contrast to Albert Camus, a mutual friend, Sartre and de Beauvoir played almost no part in the Resistance.

Sartre shortly before the war had begun to make a name for himself as a writer and existentialist thinker through his first successful book, 'La Nausee'. For de Beauvoir, the war helped her to find her voice as a writer and thinker.

In the postwar world, both became politically active and in the 1950s and 1960s, dupes of the Soviet Union. Eventually, both became disillusioned with the USSR. De Beauvoir became more deeply engaged in feminist causes during the latter stages of her life. It was part of a calling that de Beauvoir had felt all her life and first cristallized in her famous book, "The Second Sex", in 1949. (Simone de Beauvoir's relationship with Nelson Algren, an American journalist/writer was, aside from her relationship with Sartre, the most loving and passionate that she had had with any man. Algren referred to her as his "little frog", while de Beauvoir called him her "sweet crocodile.")

I invite any reader with an interest in the lives of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre to read this book. It is indeed REVELATORY and shows the uniqueness of their 50 year "special relationship" as well as their strengths, shortcomings and all too human frailties.
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on 27 January 2010
Sartre and de Beauvoir have never been taken as seriously in the English-speaking world as they were in Europe and Latin America. Perhaps the traditional British and American disdain for "intellectuals" and abstract thought explains this. Unfortunately this joint biography does little to explain just why Sartre and de Beauvoir became such influential figures on the world stage and role models for several generations. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature (and turned it down) and de Beauvoir was hailed as a precursor of feminism.

Instead it concentrates on their unconventional (if not downright bizarre) personal relationship which lasted over 50 years and allowed them both to go their own ways while remaining pledged to each other. This unusual situation, which led to moral and ethical contradictions at a personal level which Sartre would have dismissed as "petty bourgeois", was matched by muddled thinking on political and social issues which led them both to become apologists for the Soviet and Chinese Communist regimes during the Cold War.

Sartre is portrayed as a hypocrite and a liar who inflated his own role in the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation. Not only he did betray his country by collaborating but he also treated many of his lovers and friends badly, according to the author.

de Beauvoir is treated more sympathetically although she is portrayed as a bisexual who specialized in seducing her young female pupils before sharing them with Sartre. She comes over as a more approachable person than Sartre. Her affair with the American writer, Nelson Algren, which lasted a number of years,is one of the most interesting parts of the book and could make an excellent film with the right treatment.

The book is quite well written but could have been edited better. At times, it is confusing and it is difficult to remember who is who. The endless list of bed-hopping and betrayals becomes tiring after a while and the author's habit of suddenly switching into the present tense to dramatize a particular moment is irritating.

Instead of scandal and tittle-tattle the author should have concentrated on more serious issues. For example, she dismisses a trip of two months they made to China in a couple of sentences.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 April 2008
This very readable book is about the relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and although the author is of course knowledgeable about their philosophies, her main interest is in the psychology of the pair, which is brought out with great perceptiveness.

From their adolescence onwards they had both rejected belief in God. This had two consequences in particular: the first and earliest was that `if God is dead, everything is permitted', and they certainly allowed themselves behaviour which, even by permissive standards, was often indefensible. On the other hand, they sought to fashion a morality which, in theory, was as demanding as any laid down by the churches: absolute honesty towards themselves and each other, a ruthless exposure and condemnation of mauvaise foi, the necessity to fashion a moral code for themselves and then an insistence on total commitment to it. These have made them the heroes of their followers and of many thoughtful people who have themselves wrestled with the moral problems raised by the absence of religious belief.

But they fell very far short of what they preached: they lied (what De Beauvoir wrote in her Memoirs is often belied by her diary; and Sartre lied about his behaviour during the Occupation); they seduced minors and casually wrecked other people's lives.

A typical situation: De Beauvoir, aged 24, had a lesbian relationship with her 17 year old pupil Olga Kosackiewicz; suffers torments when Sartre makes a play for her which Olga encourages. When Olga denies him sex, in part because she has another male lover, Jacques Bost, the frustrated Sartre pursues Olga's younger sister Wanda (ultimately more successfully), while De Beauvoir has a passionate affaire with Bost, nine years her junior, which is being kept secret from Olga; and at the same time, now 29, De Beauvoir has started on a lesbian relationship with another of her pupils, the 16 year old Bianca Bienenfeld, whom Sartre, aged 33, promptly begins to woo and coldly deflowers. This was only the first of many other permutations and combinations. The rackety life led by most of these young women made them physical and mental wrecks in middle age: Sartre, who would maintain all of them financially, came to refer to them as his `patients'!

De Beauvoir's affaires are prompted by the powerful sensual demands of her body. Sartre is thrilled by the sheer act of possession, but he dislikes the sex-act itself and, at least with De Beauvoir, is perfunctory about it. So the relationship between them leaves her sexually frustrated. But she is terrified of losing him (for most of her life she is infinitely more dependent on Sartre than he is on her, and she suffers much more from their pact to allow each other sexual freedom), and Bianca becomes the first of her young lesbian lovers whom she encourages to satisfy Sartre's lust for conquest.

Both not only describe in detail to each other what they have done, but they also put their experiences into novels, which are all romans à clef, to which Seymour-Jones provides the keys.

In politics also they also showed mauvaise foi and betrayed their belief in freedom. It was only the Nazi occupation of France which made them political. Sartre did form a short-lived and ineffective resistance group of intellectuals; but he took over a prestigious teaching post from which his Jewish predecessor had been sacked, and contributed to a French collaborationist magazine. A collaborationist theatre director staged Sartre's Les Mouches - not understanding the hidden call to resistance which can be read into the play. De Beauvoir worked for the collaborationist radio. After the war, Sartre managed to persuade people that he had been a Resistance militant. He now became really famous.

De Beauvoir became famous and notorious in her own right, especially after the publication in 1949 of The Second Sex, in which she rebelled against the culture which gave women a subsidiary role - but her view of the female body (p.372) was as neurotic as Sartre's (p.373).

In 1952, at the height of Stalin's terror, Sartre threw in his lot with the Communist Party. It was not without a long inward struggle, but it was after all also an example of mauvais fois for a man who claimed to defend liberty. Later he was to confess that he had lied deliberately in his articles extolling freedom of speech in the Soviet Union. De Beauvoir initially stayed aloof from politics, but in 1955 she, too, became a recruit. Hungary in 1956 was too much for them; and they now dedicated themselves to the fight against colonialism, especially in Algeria. But by 1962 they were again visiting the Soviet Union. This time the Soviets entrap the now 57 year old goat with an attractive 39 year old interpreter, Lena Zonina: he again comes back proclaiming that Russian writers now really do have freedom - and he does nothing to speak for the dissident samizdat writers like Sinyavsky and Daniel who in 1966 were sentenced to seven years in the gulag. During those four years Sartre had returned to Moscow no fewer than eight times in order to be with Lena (in bedrooms bugged by the KGB). Only in 1968, when the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring, did Sartre once again break with his Soviet contacts. But he has new causes to support: Vietnam, and then the student revolt of 1968 and the Cultural Revolution.

The author writes in her preface that her admiration for them, which was the genesis of her book, had not been in any way eroded. What she admires them for, we learn, is the intellectual contribution they made to some of the major issues of our time. It can scarcely be for the actual lives they led.
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on 14 April 2011
That long, tangled, unreconciled relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre reminded me of another stormy couple - Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, two people who find it hard to live together but can't survive apart. Here, across five decades, Ms CSJ charts the lives, depressions, successes and failures of her two protagonists, all with a whiff of Gauloises and an air that's wonderfully French. Thoroughly entertaining and a must for Francophiles everywhere.
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on 8 July 2015
What a fascinating book, a brilliantly written , never boring, insight into the lives of Sartre and de Beauvoir. Nowdays they wouldn't be allowed to get away with half the stuff they did, but it makes for a great read, and portrays the intellectual life of Paris before WW2 through the occupation, the recriminations afterwards, and Satre's blinkered view on Communism, set in the background of their, to say the least, unusual personal lives. Sadly, the author Carole S-J recently died. I can't wait to read her other books.
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on 24 April 2008
A Dangerous Liaison is a phenonmenal book, reading like a novel; quick paced with lots of action, it's twists and turns acting out Simone de Beauvoir and Satre's life together like a play. Furthermore it educates the reader as a histrocial biography should, and exposes their inner secret's hidden like state secret's until now. All in all it is a great read and makes most books looks one dimensional in comparison.
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Carole Seymour-Jones has given us a gift.

My local reading group chose this unusual book as the subject for our latest review. I admit my heart sunk as I was handed this weighty book.
But I became completely absorbed by the dark truth that emerged as I continued to read. The author has obviously given much of herself up to Simone and her commitment to a man who could never bring her true joy.
I suffered along with Simone as I read and was able to report back to my reading group that they had finally chosen us a title that deserved respect.
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on 28 May 2013
I got about a quarter of the way through this and gave up - I found the writing unrivetting to say the least. It should have been a good read given the interesting subject matter. I had previously enjoyed the author's book on Vivienne Eliot, "Painted Shadow".
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on 30 July 2009
This book certainly covers the lives of de Beauvoir and Sartre, digging up every seedy and unpleasant detail, making them thoroughly unlikeable. However it does not seem to me to be a pure biography, there were too many sentences like "he shifted uncomfortably in his chair" or "she looked up", which made me uneasy, as if the author had got too carried away. It did not always seem like a bonafide biography.
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