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Monday, November 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

The People magazine approach to a literary supercouple

Special to The Seattle Times

"Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre"
by Hazel Rowley
HarperCollins, 416 pp., $26.95

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) and his lifelong friend, collaborator and sometime lover Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) were two of the most influential writers France, or any country, produced in the last century.

But author Hazel Rowley doesn't talk much at all about their work. Instead, Rowley (who's written biographies of Richard Wright and Australian novelist Christina Stead) treats Sartre and Beauvoir the way so many other biographers have treated George Sand, Jack Kerouac, Anais Nin and Ken Kesey — as colorful celebrities first and writers second.

You won't learn much in "Tête-à-Tête" about Beauvoir's breakthrough works ("The Second Sex," "The Mandarins"), or Sartre's ("No Exit," "Being and Nothingness"). You get only passing mentions about existentialism, the philosophical stance they popularized in the wake of World War II's dehumanizing terrors. You get even less about Beauvoir's massive influence on feminist thought.

You will learn much about, as Rowley describes it, "two people close up, in their most intimate moments," revealing their "courage and daring to flout convention." If you go into "Tête-à-Tête" knowing what to expect, you'll be rewarded by a fast-moving yet vast saga, spanning the bulk of the 20th century and much of the world.

The narrative starts as Beauvoir and Sartre first meet in 1929, via one of Sartre's college friends. From there, Rowley thoroughly describes their early years of low-paid teaching jobs and early novels. Through miracles and coincidences, they survived World War II, though several close friends had been carried away by Nazi and Vichy troops.

"No Exit" quietly premiered during the last weeks before the liberation of Paris. Sartre and Beauvoir quickly rose to fame among postwar France's new literary stars, a fame that soon spread to the U.S.

They allowed themselves to get caught up in political debates, and (particularly Sartre) had on-and-off flirtations with Communism. Beauvoir's own ideological crisis came when, in spite of her advocacy of women's self-reliance, she found herself between lovers, fearing her own aging and the thought of never again being loved.

Their declining years started with Sartre's onset of ill health in the early '60s, caused by a combination of overwork, addiction to uppers and downers and constant juggling of two or three lovers at once.

Rowley particularly covers their many open affairs over the decades (including Beauvoir's with the American author Nelson Algren and Sartre's with his future adopted daughter).

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In the end, does it matter that "Tête-à-Tête" covers Beauvoir's and Sartre's lives at the expense of largely ignoring their work and their ideas?

Perhaps not. Most of Beauvoir's best-known books were autobiographical (disguised or otherwise); Rowley's heavily researched book gives these works a handy context.

And Sartre once inferred that people's ideas derive from their life experiences, and that stories and plays that honestly depict these experiences can illuminate ideas as effectively as any theoretical tract.

Rowley aims to capture Beauvoir and Sartre's life experiences. She does this vividly and expertly.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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