Les Inseparables, or The Inseparables is a novel that was never published in Simone de Beauvoir’s lifetime. The story goes she showed it to Jean-Paul Sartre and he held his nose. It tells of the intense childhood friendship between Sylvie and Andrée, who were Beauvoir’s fictional models for herself and her real-life friend Zaza Lacoin. As if that wasn’t enough the translation is by Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse, and the book comes with an introduction by Deborah Levy, and an afterword by Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir, plus a captivating selection of letters and photographs from the Beauvoir archive.
For this episode Kate was joined by Australian books podcaster Anna Baillie-Karas, in town taking short break from her own podcast Books on the Go. The perfect excuse, then, to read and discuss this powerful short book. But what did we make of it? Should you add it to your reading pile? And would it be a good one for book club? Listen in and find out.
Unusually for us this episode does contains spoilers, so if you don’t know anything about Simone de Beauvoir and want to come to this fresh bookmark this episode for later and come back to it when you’ve read the novel.
We also have four book recommendations inspired by The Inseparables we think you will love.
Listen here or in your preferred podcast player using this link.
Drop us a line in the comments section and let us know your thoughts on this episode or book recommendations, we love to hear from you.
Petronille by Amélie Northomb, translated by Alison Anderson ‘Employing wry humor and a deceptively simple style, Amélie Nothomb, the author of over twenty-three bestselling novels (over exactly twenty-three years!) writes about twin abiding passions: one for champagne, and the other for a riotous friendship between her protagonist and Pétronille Fanto, a woman who refuses to drink alone. This is a funny, moving, “exotic” novel about travel, France, Champagne, and, above all, about women’s friendship. The on-again/off-again friendship between Petronille and the main character in the book, a writer by the name of Amélie Nothomb, gives the story it verve and the novel its heart. This is literary Thelma & Louise, with a little bit of French panache and a whole lot of champagne thrown into the mix.’ Anna loved this and recommends as a more upbeat parallel to The Inseparables.
At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell ‘Paris, near the turn of 1932-3. Three young friends meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their friend Raymond Aron, who opens their eyes to a radical new way of thinking …’. ‘It’s not often that you miss your bus stop because you’re so engrossed in reading a book about existentialism, but I did exactly that …. The story of Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger et al is strange, fun and compelling reading.’ Independent on Sunday‘ ‘Bakewell shows how fascinating were some of the existentialists’ ideas and how fascinating, often frightful, were their lives. Vivid, humorous anecdotes are interwoven with a lucid and unpatronising exposition of their complex philosophy …. Tender, incisive and fair’ Daily Telegraph Kate reports back that this made for a brilliant book club read.
Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich, translated by Howard Curtis ‘In the late 1960s, Leo Gazzara leads a precarious life in Rome. He spends his time in an alcoholic haze, bouncing between hotels, bars, uninspiring jobs, romantic entanglements and the homes of his rich friends. Leo drifts, aimless and alone. But on the evening of his thirtieth birthday, he meets Arianna. All night they drive the city in Leo’s run-down Alfa Romeo, talking and talking. They eat brioche for breakfast, drink through the dawn, drive to the sea and back. A whirlwind beginning. What follows is the story of the year Leo fell in love and lost everything.
Intense, romantic, witty and devastating, Last Summer in the City is a forgotten classic of Italian literature which offers an intoxicating portrait of two lonely people, pushing and pulling each other away and back again.’ Anna suggests this as the perfect follow-on from The Inseparables.
Parisian Lives by Deidre Bair ‘In 1971, Deirdre Bair, was a journalist and recently minted Ph.D. who managed to secure access to Nobel Prize winning author Samuel Beckett. He agreed that she could write his biography despite never having written – or even read – a biography herself. The next seven years of intimate conversations, inter-continental research, and peculiar cat-and-mouse games resulted in Samuel Beckett: A Biography, which went on to win the National Book Award and propel Deirdre to her next subject: Simone de Beauvoir. The catch? De Beauvoir and Beckett despised each other – and lived essentially on the same street. While quite literally dodging one subject or the other, and sometimes hiding out in the back rooms of the great cafés of Paris, Bair learned that what works in terms of process for one biography rarely applies to the next. Her seven-year relationship with the domineering and difficult de Beauvoir required a radical change in approach, yielding another groundbreaking literary profile.’ Kate loved this absorbing memoir.
Hello, and welcome to the Book Club Review. I’m Kate. And this is the podcast about book clubs and the books that get you talk. It’s a special episode today, a minisode, if you will, as I’m joined not by Laura, but by friend and fellow podcaster Anna Baillie-Karas, whose podcast Books on the Go is regularly on rotation for me. Anna, it’s so lovely to have you here in the shed.
Anna Baillie-Karas 0:30
Lovely to be here.
You’re a brief visit to the UK from your home in Adelaide, Australia. But you lived in London for a while didn’t you, is it nice to be back.
It is we’ve really missed it. And during the pandemic we couldn’t really travel. So it’s our first trip back for a couple of years.
So your show, Books on the Go, you do a podcast every week, you have a book of the week, you have a lot of reading to get through. And I was curious to know – I mean, it’s the cliche question, you know, how do you fit in the reading? But I do think it’s interesting. What are your reading habits? How much time do you have to spend to get through it? How do you read?
Anna Baillie-Karas 1:03
That’s such a good question. I do get asked a lot, how do I fit in reading and there are a couple of things. One, I probably watch less TV than I used to, as in I’ll read rather than watch TV unless there’s a good show, you know, a series that I’m really engrossed in. So that’s one thing so often in the evenings, if I have a chance, after the kids go to bed, I’ll prefer to read, I think the other thing I find is that if I’m not enjoying a book, I will stop reading it, I find if you’re enjoying a book, you will get through it quite quickly, because you want to go back to it. So you’ll make time over lunch or whenever it might be. Whereas if I’m not enjoying it, it will drag and it will just take me weeks to finish it because I just find I’ll read the paper instead or watch TV instead. Because I actually don’t want to pick it up. And so I’m quite ruthless now about bailing on books, and I have opinions about it. And I recommend to anybody do not keep reading, if you’re not enjoying it. I mean, maybe give it 20 or 50 pages, but you read a lot more if you can let go of books that you’re not enjoying, and you’ll be reading better books, or better for you. I think that’s the other secret.
Quite often when I listen to your show, I do find myself wishing that I was there. And I was able to have this chat with you and Amanda or Annie, your co-hosts and be there with you. And then here you are
Anna Baillie-Karas 2:18
– you have to come! You have to come to Australia.
Oh I’d love to. So I thought we could maybe do a mini Books on the Go London style. So if we were going to emulate your show, what would we need to start with?
Anna Baillie-Karas 2:40
Ah, we have book news.
Well, then when I thought, ‘oh gosh, they always start with book news, what book news?’ And I realised that I don’t really keep up with the news. I think I’m a bit slow on the book news circuit, it feels like industry stuff, which I don’t really pay that much attention to. So I suppose the thing here was the Costa Awards closing that was quite a dramatic … It’s a big award. I think what was nice about that award was I loved the way it flagged up lots of different kinds of books. You know, it wasn’t just the one category, there was YA and poetry and the debut novel and it was just really nice, broad range and then they would choose one that was the overall winner from all of that.
Anna Baillie-Karas 3:18
And they were always quite accessible books.
Anna Baillie-Karas 3:21
It pushed a book onto the radar that lots of lots of people could enjoy
… and yet so mysterious. I don’t think anyone really knows what happened. It feels like it must be some kind of sponsorship issue. But why wouldn’t another sponsor step in it seems crazy that there’s no organisation in the world who wants to sponsor a book prize. The news would be if I knew something about why that happened but I I don’t have any news.
Anna Baillie-Karas 3:44
Well, the other news we had recently was we talked about the Women’s Prize winner. Did you have any views about that Kate?
The time for the…
Anna Baillie-Karas 3:51
is it The Book of Form and Emptiness
The Book of Form and Emptiness! You see now my thoughts immediately go to her previous book, A Tale for the Time Being
Anna Baillie-Karas 4:00
Which I got a beautiful edition of, it was like a special edition they made and because I am book designer I can be quite taken, magpie like, you know, with lovely editions of things. I’m quite interested in the physical side of books. Anyway, I got this lovely book and started reading it I got about a third of the way through I really didn’t get on with it that much and ever since then it’s been used as a sort of decorative plant stand in my room.
Anna Baillie-Karas 4:23
It’s a nice object.
So when she won I really was just like, ‘oh gosh, I’m really gonna have to read a Ruth Ozeki novel now’. So I suppose my expectations are slightly low because I feel like I’ve tried her before I didn’t get on with her that well, but every book is different. I of all people should know that. I have to read it because we’re podcasting on it in a couple of weeks time.
Anna Baillie-Karas 4:27
Yes. So I am quite looking forward to it. Of course I’ve enjoyed some of the others on the shortlist, The Sentence by Louise Erdrich?
Anna Baillie-Karas 4:39
I loved The Sentence.
Isn’t that great?
Yeah, yeah. So predictably, of course, The Book of Form and Emptiness was the one that I had not read –
Kate: Yeah, me too
– from the shortlist and I’ve still don’t really plan to read it but I might tune into your episode and see you might change my mind.
Kate: If it turns out to be a must-read… I mean I’m really looking forward to discussing it. But yeah, that’s on my to do list that book. Thanks for bringing that up. Anyway, in the meantime, our book of the week –well, our book of Anna’s trip to London is The Inseparables, which is a lost novel or novella from Simone de Beauvoir, which was recently translated by Lauren Elkin, who readers might know wrote a wonderful book called Flâneuse. That’s how I know her, which is about women claimed the right to walk the streets and make a creative space for themselves at a time when this was something really that was only open to men – mustn’t let myself get too sidetracked by that book, which I love. So this is Simone de Beauvoir’s fictionalised account of a real life friendship between her and Zaza Lacoin.
They met as young girls at school and this intense friendship between them continued up until their early 20s when Zaza died unexpectedly of what may have been viral encephalitis, they still don’t really know. In the novel, Beauvoir becomes Sylvie and Zaza is Andreé. Its told from Sylvie’s perspective as she describes the everyday life of girls from affluent families and the expectations placed upon them. Andreé has a passionate and loving nature but she is also dutiful and accepts her mother’s expectation that her first priority will be to marry well. They’re also a religious family, Catholics and Andreé is tormented by her feelings of failure and guilt at her own lack of worthiness and what she perceives as sin. Meanwhile, Sylvie is luckier in that her family is less well off. Her father is a non believer and she is encouraged to pursue her education with the expectation that she will go out to work and earn her own living. The book was never published in Beauvoir’s lifetime.
Now, at this point, a slight aside I wasn’t sure if if you say ‘De Beauvoir’, or if you say ‘Beauvoir’, but Lauren Elkin appeared on the Literary Fiction podcast talking about this book, which is such a good episode I recommend anyone who’s interested do seek that out and she refers to her as ‘Beauvoir’, so I thought, okay, great. I’ve had it from the experts, she knows, so I’m going to do that too. And she tells the story of how Simone de Beauvoir showed the story to John Paul Sartre after she’d written it and he didn’t like it. He held his nose. So she put it away in a drawer. And it was never published in her lifetime. It was only after her death, when they made a collected edition of all her writings, which is something apparently they do in France for very celebrated authors. They do the special edition of their collected works. And this novella was included in that and so it was finally published.
Anna Baillie-Karas 7:37
He was bringing her down.
Yeah, partly that’s why, and I think she herself had doubts about it, perhaps, and he then confirmed that. But what’s really interesting is that the story of her friendship with Zaza and this relationship between them, apparently is something that she just returned to again and again in her writing, and it became part of her memoirs and then she wrote this fictionalised account of it and she couldn’t leave it alone. And there’s something really interesting about that, why she couldn’t let it rest. The Daily Telegraph review says ‘this lost novel by a giant of 20th century letters read surprisingly like a French Elena Ferrante, Lauren Elkin’ss translation is on distractingly smooth. Anna, how did you find it?
Anna Baillie-Karas 8:14
I really enjoyed it. Thank you for recommending this. I did not know that a novel had been discovered by Simone de Beauvoir, I wouldn’t necessarily have heard about it, I think, if you hadn’t mentioned it, the first thing I want to say is my edition, which I can see is different to yours, but I don’t have mine with me, is a beautiful hardback. And it has this most gorgeous cover of you can only see their legs, but two ladies of their time. So the 1950s, black and white photograph, and you can just see that they’re drinking coffee at a cafe, presumably in Paris. So I was in from the cover alone, and it’s this beautiful object on mine on the back. It just says life without her would be death. It’s all that’s on the back, just that quote from the book. So it’s a really striking cover. And then I started reading it and I felt as if I was stepping into Paris. I hadn’t picked up on that Eleanor Ferrante reference, but of course it has those similarities of a intense friendship between two girls. But you do feel as if you’re there. And the translation, as I say is smoothly done. So you still have a sense of being in Paris at that time. It has a real sense of place and time, having her croissant and going down to school and you just feel like this is fantastic. I mean bearing in mind reading it in Australia. Now that’s opening up again, but it’s very much all about armchair travel up until now. So that’s always a delight.
But also these gorgeous countryside estates when she goes to visit. Yes, Andrée’s family home
Anna Baillie-Karas 9:51
It’s probably quite true to life because it does sound like it’s semi autobiographical. So yes, what’s not to love? I’m happy to go to the room. We were all French countryside with them on holidays. So it was really delightful read, but there is a darkness as well in the book, and I quite liked that combination. It’s not just a light story in a sense, do you agree?
II think for me, I felt in some ways, it was very straightforward. And there’s something about the pros even that’s just quite workman like, I almost thought it was a bit flat. But it’s more I think that it’s just quite simple and direct. And I like that. But it stopped me from really feeling immersed in it. And it’s interesting, you talk about the atmosphere, I did feel like the book generates an atmosphere, and I certainly yes, I love the descriptions of the houses and the countryside and the trees. And when she went out into the forest, and the natural world, I loved all of that. I like the way she almost recreates a child’s intensity of observation, noticing all these little things. But at the same time, I wasn’t carried away by it. And I think the seriousness comes from the philosophical underpinnings, there are these internal debates about the role of religion about sort of subservience and having to follow the moral code and dictates of Catholicism and the girls are brought up in this religion. And it’s quite strict, and they spend a lot of time praying, and they’re very preoccupied with what’s right. And then family, the sort of oppression of the parents generation and their expectations, which are quite restrictive, and how that affects the girls. So I feel like that’s where the seriousness comes in. And then of course, ultimately, the sadness of how it ends, which I knew because I’d listened to that podcast, it was going to be an unhappy ending. Even if I hadn’t I think the whole thing is written with this sense of foreboding, like, you know, things aren’t going to work out. You don’t know what’s going to go wrong, but you sort of sense…
Anna Baillie-Karas 11:49
That’s what I think. There’s a, I don’t know if melancholy is the right word, but there’s a suspense or tension. There’s a foreboding, as you say, I like that combination of a fairly light, and obviously recounting a childhood, so simplistic in that sense story at one level, but there’s that foreboding running through. That gives it the weight, I think, but it’s interesting, you found the prize, quite straightforward. I think that’s right. And maybe she was better at nonfiction. I haven’t read enough of her work to give that critique. But perhaps some of those issues, she really expressed herself best in nonfiction. But what I enjoyed about this was she didn’t overwrite it or overwork it, because it is a novella length story, I think, I think it’s a good length for this story that she wanted to tell. If she tried to blow it up into some sort of epic saga, you know, chunky novel, then I think it would have lost something along the way, whereas keeping it tight, it almost feels like she didn’t overthink it. And obviously, she was thinking about this constantly, because as you say, she has explored it in other work, but it doesn’t feel too laboured to me, which I enjoyed.
Yeah, I agree. I think the length is just perfect. There’s a tendency especially we have a lot to read. When you come across something short, you’re just sort of immediately grateful. Definitely. But I think you’re right. I think this feels like the perfect length and weight for this story that she wanted to tell. It’s interesting that Ferrante comparison, because I feel like yes, sure the intensity of female friendship is there. That’s the obvious parallel. But Elena Ferrante’s characters are so nuanced and real, you know, they’re vivid, they really spring to life and I didn’t feel Andrée or Sylvie really did that. You know, again, it was the slightly flat quality. I didn’t mind it. It’s just It’s where I think that comparison is unhelpful, because I think this is very different. It’s almost like the characters and the story is there. And you can tell that it’s all deeply felt.
Anna Baillie-Karas 13:53
It’s more cerebral or the different tone.
And because I think all the time she’s thinking about her own philosophical questioning and searching for answers and trying to rationalise it trying to come to her own internal logic for understanding what happened and what it means, which stops it travelling off into what I think it was real fiction. There’s too much truth in this, perhaps.
Anna Baillie-Karas 14:15
It’s so interesting. I think that is more Simone de Beauvoir, but imagine if Andrée was writing the story, the friend who was Zaza in real life, then we might have more of an Elena Ferrante type of book if she was the really impulsive, passionate one. Simone de Beauvoir is the real thinker, and more academic. I mean, maybe Sartre was right, maybe he was just saying, Look, stick with the non-fiction. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know.
I hate the fact that she showed it to a man and he said ‘it’s no good’ and she immediately put it in a drawer but at the same time, I confess to having had that thought, was Sartre right? I mean, I do think that this is worthwhile and interesting, and I’m happy to have read it. I think in a way, it almost for me really whetted my appetite to read her memoirs. I think I have Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter around somewhere, and I’ve never – it’s quite long, so I’ve never got into it, or the Second Sex indeed, you know. It’s funny because I sort of think of those works, that they’re going to be difficult and really important to read them. But there’s plenty of other brands, I’d rather read first kind of thing. You know,
Anna Baillie-Karas 15:21
When do you find the time.
This really made me interested in her.
Anna Baillie-Karas 15:24
This was so interesting about friendship, as you say, and that intense friendship between girls, and they write letters to each other. And that made me think, I’m of the generation where I used to write letters to friends, especially if we were travelling, or one of them moved interstate or something like that. But we wrote letters, whereas now I don’t think teenage girls now write letters and put them in the post. Or if anyone does, I don’t think anyone does so much now. They’re still communicating with that same intensity, but it’s lots on Snapchat or text messaging or something like that. But then that’s all so ephemeral, whereas Simone de Beauvoir has those letters, in my edition, probably in yours, there are extracts of the letters that the girls wrote to each other. And so you have that, for better or worse as a record, even after she passes away. Whereas what would you have of a famous author who grows up today who’s Snapchatting and texting with a close friend. You’ll never know what was communicated?
Yeah, and it’s a really slightly horrifying question about what’s going to happen to our, our culture, isn’t it when we have no record anymore? I love those photographs and letters at the back of the book and when I got to that, I really looked at them very intensely. I love this one, there’s a portrait of Zaza, 1928. And she not just look like someone you immediately would want to be friends with. She looks great. And that can’t have been – she died when she was 21 – so that must have been, you know, she’s probably 20 in that picture.
Anna Baillie-Karas 16:54
So we’re doing spoilers.
[Laughs] Yeah. Well, but then I feel like it’s out there. You know, it’s, I mean, you didn’t know but I certainly came to this knowing a bit about it already. It’s tricky with those books where the story is already quite well known.
Anna Baillie-Karas 17:09
And it’s got the Introduction by Deborah Levy and I didn’t read that because it said – which I appreciated – it said, because I’ve been caught up before with these introductions, ‘This introduction contains spoilers’. So immediately, I skipped it and just read the story. Then I went back to it later.
I think the other thing for me was the packaging up of this story with this introduction by Deborah Levy, a little foreword by Lauren Elkin. And then the afterward by Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir, who was Simone de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter. She is responsible for her papers and her archive. And so there’s an afterword by her where she talks in more detail about some of the philosophical ideas underpinning the book. When I read the afterword – she’s talking about how Andrée was so stifled by her bourgeois family. She wanted to escape but she couldn’t. She said ‘There was nothing worse or more scandalous for Simone de Beauvoir, and that is what she wants to explore in her novella, which we might think of as a philosophical scandal, because it is an attack on human rights themselves. Affirming the absolute value of subjectivity would remain at the centre of her thought and her work, not of the individual, just one of many others on a larger scale, but of unique individuality, which makes each of us the most irreplaceable of beings as Gide put it, the existence of that awareness here and now. Love that which you will never see twice. An unshakable original conviction, which philosophical reflection bears out, the absolute is played out here on Earth, during our one and only existence. Understood in this light, the stakes for Zaza could not be higher. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve read that and thought, huh? You know, I just found it all a bit abstract and difficult to grasp, but then Deborah Levy bless her, in the first line of her introduction suddenly made it feel relevant and something I could get my head around. She says, in every decade of my life since my 20s, I had been awed, confused, intrigued and inspired by Beauvoir’s attempt to live with meaning, pleasure and purpose. Be loved, be admired, be necessary, be somebody, she insisted in her autobiography Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.
Anna Baillie-Karas 19:19
You know, suddenly you’re right there.
Anna Baillie-Karas 19:23
Thank you, Deborah Levy. Yeah, she’s the queen.
But so I think framed by Levy, and then you get to read the story, and then you get to see these images at the back and the dedication, which then becomes impossibly moving, she just writes ‘For Zaza. If there are tears in my eyes tonight, is it because you are no longer alive? Or because I am. I should dedicate this story to you, but I know that you no longer exist anywhere and my writing to you like this is pure literary artifice. In any case, this isn’t really your story. Only one inspired by us. You are not Andreé, nor was I Sylvie who speaks my name.’ And you know, the sense that this dear friend who was so important to her, lives on in her writing and that she’s recreated her, she’s captured her. She’s there forevermore. That’s really moving.
Anna Baillie-Karas 20:13
Yeah, I was thinking there are a few things that you’ve touched on in the book. And one is that restrictions on women, but also restrictions that families placed on their children, and in this case, and so many others with religion involved and you could substitute the Catholic religion with many other religions that are oppressive in different ways and where the children can’t be who they want to be. The book also made me appreciate that Simone de Beauvoir, in that time and in that context, went on to further studies and found her tribe found her people that she could sit in cafes with discussing all the big issues that she was clearly born to do. She’s obviously such a lucid thinker, she was able to use her intellect and it made me realise there are so many women that we haven’t heard of, that didn’t become Simone de Beauvoir, but who might have done and I suppose Zaza in real life was one of those women, and it’s a way of bringing her back to life or keeping her alive. But also she represents all women who didn’t get to do that, for whatever reason, because there would have been so many examples.
Yeah. So on the one hand, it’s quite a tender book. But on the other hand, it’s got an angry book. And I love that about it. So yeah.
Anna Baillie-Karas 21:31
But is it a good book club book Kate?
Well, I think, again, I love that it’s short, which increasingly, I’ve come to think, even book clubs are grateful when things are short, but there’s a lot of weight to it. If you’ve never read her, which I never had, you know, I knew about her, but I’d never actually read anything by her. I didn’t really know that much about her life. So I love it as a taster and a way to whet your appetite for reading more. That’s how I felt about it.
Anna Baillie-Karas 21:54
Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I didn’t know if it would be a good book club book in the sense of really prompting strong opinions where people love or hate the characters, if there’s enough meat in it to really get stuck into a long discussion. But then again, we’ve found a lot of things to uncover haven’t we?
Yeah, well, there you go. listeners. It’s probably one of those ones where it’s about your book club and what your book club is going to bring to it. But I’m sure they will thank you for it being quite short.
Inspired by The Inseparables, here are some more books you might like to try. Anna:
Anna Baillie-Karas 22:33
I picked up on the Paris vibe and the female friendship theme. And it made me think of a book called Pétronille by Amélie Northomb and translated by Alison Anderson. Amélie Northomb I think is a Belgian writer, but this one is set in Paris. And I think she writes in French, correct me if I’m wrong.
Pétronille by Amélie Northomb, translated by Alison Anderson
Anna Baillie-Karas 22:55
The narrator really enjoys drinking champagne
My kind of girl!
Anna Baillie-Karas 22:59
Yeah, exactly. And she finds a friend, who also really appreciates champagne and when I say appreciates, she will not eat for hours before she has her first sip of champagne so that it really has the maximum effect if you like. So she meets his like minded friend and the book is about that friendship. And again, a bit like The Inseparables that has a lightness to it. And Amélie Northomb in some of her books is very, very funny. But there’s also a darkness to this book, which I won’t spoil, but again, a short novel. So we love that as well.
Mine is non-fiction. It’s At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. Do you know her? She wants wrote a book about Montaigne that I really loved.
Anna Baillie-Karas 23:43
I love her books. I loved At the Existentialist Café and it had a great cover involving apricots or some sort of fabulous drink. It just made me want to be one of those people that hangs out at cafes. She has a very engaging style. She obviously knows so much about all of those thinkers, but she’s able to communicate it in a way that’s fun, entertaining and still intellectually rigorous.
Absolutely. That is her genius. You feel like you’re there. It tells the story of modern existentialism, focusing on Jean-Paul Sartre Simone de Beauvoir and Heidegger, Husserl, Camus, Karl Jaspers and Merleau-Ponty, who was the one that I had never heard of before, who I think was the model for Pascal, the love interest in The Inseparables. And what’s funny about that is that he comes across very well in The Inseparables Yes. And I remember in the Existentialist Café, he was the one I liked, he sounded great. So it was the quiet sort of charismatic figure. Existentialism just in case anyone needs a reminder is the philosophy that existence in itself is meaningless and morality is a fiction, which – I always get a bit lost in all different concepts. But that’s that one
Anna Baillie-Karas 24:52
Food for thought. But Sarah Bakewell makes it really fun.
She does because she just makes it seem, yeah, as you say fun and interesting and you get caught up in the excitement of these ideas. And I think in the discussion and debate that was going on between them all the time, the Guardian said Bakewell’s book offered a fresh take on a discipline often deemed daft and pretentious, but I think that’s just a slightly snobbish English way of you know, oh the French, the existentialists, you know, with the black polar necks. Because it is really interesting and Bakewell absolutely brings it to life. And as you say, apricot cocktails. We did that for my book club and it was a great one actually, it was a good discussion book really fantastic.
Anna Baillie-Karas 25:30
I did have one other one but I haven’t read it. One for the TBR Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich with an afterword by André Aciman, and it’s translated by Howard Curtis. This is a book I picked up yesterday for Kate because it looks like a good companion read to The Inseparables. They’re calling it a forgotten classic. So again, like The Inseparables, written many years ago and rediscovered, set in the 1960s. And the main character Leo lives a precarious life in Rome. So I just thought, Kate if you feel like going to Rome or not Paris, but …
I’ve never been to Rome! It’s a real omission. How can I have got to the age that I am, and I’ve never been to Rome?
Anna Baillie-Karas 26:14
Well, coming from someone who lives in Australia, you could quite easily have done that.
I’ve been to Australia several times, though. I’ve never been to Rome
Anna Baillie-Karas 26:23
Time to go to Rome. And this again is a short novel, you can pack in the suitcase very easily or your carry-on indeed. Then he meets Ariana, and all night, they drive the city talking and talking. They eat brioche for breakfast, drink through the dawn, drive to the sea and back. So I just love the whole sound of that. I thought that sounded glorious
And it’s summer reading, very much the seaside. And then what follows is the year Leo fell in love and lost everything. So there’s obviously a devastating aspect to it. Le Figaro describes it as a masterpiece, Elle says ‘dazzling in every detail’. The New York Times Book Review says ‘a time capsule of love and existential drift in a lost Rome, ripe for rediscovery.’
That sounds like it will fit in absolutely perfectly.
Anna Baillie-Karas 27:12
Well, my last one is another memoir. This is one that I talked about on the podcast, I sort of discovered it I can’t remember now I think some little thing I saw online some tweet or something alerted me to the existence of this book. And I ordered it from the library. And it came and I absolutely loved it. It’s by an author called Dierdre Bair, who we probably wouldn’t be familiar with now. But there was a time when she was very well known and the thing that she was well known for was her biography of Samuel Beckett. And so this book is her memoir of writing that biography and she also then went on to write a biography of Simone de Beauvoir. Now Beckett and Beauvoir lived on the same street in Paris, and they hated each other for some reason I can’t remember now why they did like it. I mean, they were both quite peculiar. Beckett was Beckett – like very difficult with everybody and very strange, elusive man. And Beauvoir had her own things going on and was quite prickly and very concerned about who she would work with and how she wanted to appear and quite controlling in that way. So both of them actually were and so the reason I loved this is because the story Dedra bears really telling is her own story of setting out as a young female academic in this totally male-dominated academic world and trying to just do what she really wanted to do, which was to write these biographies. She felt really passionate about it. She was passionately interested in her subject. She had done enormous amounts of research and what really grips you is the way that she is treated by these men who denigrate her and tried to push it to the sidelines and refuse to accept her as a peer and it really makes you absolutely root for her.
And she’s quite funny as well just in quite a dry way, I wouldn’t say it’s an obviously funny book, but she’s quite wry about her experiences and the things that she had to go to to pin down these two extremely slippery but extremely important, fascinating characters. And obviously you do get quite a lot of Beauvoir is seen through the Deidre Bair’s eyes, her experiences meeting with her and working with her. I was really surprised by how much I loved it. And also sometimes it can be so enjoyable to read a book that really takes you somewhere and this is just very Paris in the 1970s.
It says ‘In 1971 Deidre Bair was a journalist and recently minted PhD who managed to secure access to Nobel Prize winning author Samuel Beckett. He agreed that she could be his biographer, despite her never having written or even read a biography before. The next seven years comprised of intimate conversations, intercontinental research and peculiar cat and mouse games battling an elusive Beckett and a string of jealous misogynistic male writers. Bair persevered. She wrote ‘Samuel Beckett: A Biography’ which went on to win the National Book Award and propelled Deidre to her next subject. Simone de Beauvoir. The catch? De Beauvoir despised each other and lived essentially on the same street. Bair learned that what works in terms of process for one biography rarely applies to the next. Her seven year relationship with a domineering and difficult De Beauvoir required a radical change in approach yielding another groundbreaking literary profile and influencing Bair’s own feminist beliefs.
Anna Baillie-Karas 30:18
It’s a little bit obscure, but I urge you to seek it out. I’m not sure it’s in print here in the UK. I think it’s still in print in America. But you can absolutely find secondhand copies very easily or your library. This kind of thing is what libraries are made for. Right. And it’s great. It’s absolutely riveting. It’s called Parisian Lives. To have a look for that. I loved it. After I finished it. I really wanted to read the Beckett biography, but of course I never got around to it. But I would be really interested to do that. But I think this story, the thing that really hooks your attention and makes it so engrossing is her own story. Anyway, yeah. So that’s my second pick.
Anna Baillie-Karas 30:52
I love books that work like they’re on two levels where you’re getting one story, but also an insight into the author’s story.
Absolutely. And she’s great. And you know, she had two children. So she was trying to juggle family life as well. And that’s quite interesting. you root for her all the way it’s great. But Anna, it has been so nice to have you here. It’s such an unexpected treat. Finally, I did get to sit down and do a Book on the Go with you, which I’ve loved. Thanks so much for joining me.
Anna Baillie-Karas 31:15
Thank you for having me.
That’s nearly it for this episode.
Books mentioned were: The Book of Form and Emptiness and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir, Petronille by Amélie Northomb, translated by Alison Anderson, At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell, Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich translated by Howard Curtis and Parisian Lives by Deidre Bair.
Next up on The Book Club Review we’ve got the 2022 Women’s Prize – if this is sounding like deja vu for you we’ve had a little trouble getting this one recorded but next week is the week and we can’t wait to bring it to you. We’ll be discussing The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, who in addition to being an author is also a zen buddhist priest. As zen philosophy embraces the idea of setting aside expectations we hope you’ll be able to do the same with the arrival date of this particular show and just know that it will appear at some point.
Have thoughts on The Inseparables? Want to recommend a book on the theme? You can do so anytime at the episode page over on our website where you’ll find full shownotes, a transcript and comments forum. Messages there go straight to our inboxes and we will read and respond so do drop us a line, we love to hear from you.
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Our episode #95 for a fuller discussion of Parisian Lives by Deidre Bair.
Listen to Lauren Elkin and Deborah Levy discuss The Inseparables for the London Review of Books
Listen to the Literary Friction podcast episode Kate mentioned, with Lauren Elkin
What did you think of The Inseparables? What does Simone de Beauvoir mean to you? What related book would you recommend? Comment below and let us know, we love to hear from you.