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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
She Came to Stay
Matt and I broke up a dozen times before our grand finale, which ended with an admission impossible to move past: I told him I was gay.
It took me till my last semester in undergraduate school to find my way into a “women’s issues” course. The class, titled “Feminism and Philosophy,” was taught by a poet-scholar who possessed a cult following of students, most of who wore turquoise jewels in their noses, scuffed Doc Martens, and leather satchels around one shoulder. I sat in the back next to a student named AJ. She’d had the professor maybe four times already and was in the inner circle that got invited to “family” dinners at the poet’s house. AJ possessed an Amazonian stature, red hair, no makeup, and handcrafted notebooks bound with handmade paper. She rarely spoke, but whispered comments to herself so brilliant I took to jotting down her asides as if they were course notes. She was a handsome woman. By week three, I knew her profile by heart.
Each day AJ clunked a stack of obscure book titles onto her desk and nested into her chair. A naked breast was visible on the black background of a tattered paperback titled She Came to Stay. I’d heard of Simone de Beauvoir, but not as much as I pretended. AJ told me the novel came from the other more complex class she was taking by the poet. The title of the alternate course sounded almost entirely like the one we were in.
I read the summary on the back of She Came to Stay and took myself straight to the library.
This roman a clef takes up issues of freedom, The Other, dependency, and sexuality: all of which were inspired by the true life ménage a trios between Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and their mistress Olga Kosakiewicz–the woman responsible for almost breaking apart the famous couple’s lifelong romance. If reading is an act of voyeurism, encountering these pages is akin to wearing someone else’s skin. This novel of revenge, written to expose their mistress as manipulative and superficial, is dedicated to Olga and viewed as an attempt to reclaim the sordid love affair through the eyes of the author.
Set in Paris, with World War II brimming in the background, Beauvoir attends to the inner life of Francoise–and the dare I say existential crisis– that arises when third party Xavière gets introduced into Francoise’s open relationship with Pierre. Francoise and Pierre are writers of the theatre, living in Paris, indulging in breakdowns about their art, pursuing amorous flings with attractive others, and most importantly adoring each other. They are in love with their lifestyles and their companionship and their city. Francoise thinks Pierre is a genius and routinely consoles him through his fears of intellectual and artistic inadequacy.
When Francoise meets a nubile Xaviere who lives in the small town of Rouen, in the countryside outside of Paris, she falls into intrigue and insists that Xaviere, the Olga-based character, move to Paris. When Xaviere concedes and comes to stay with the couple, Pierre and Francoise attempt to nurse her into a fully formed and philosophically wise new consciousness. During her stay, the puerile young lady charms the couple, and the duo decides to incorporate a third party into their already established relationship. Together, the trio traipses around Montparnasse, frequents cafes, and imbibes into the night. At first, the newness of Xaviere is exhilarating and inspiring for Francoise and Pierre. However, as the three become more entwined, Pierre’s feelings for Xaviere grow into their own entity–an independent thing that excludes Francoise. Jealousy glares green-eyed from all as the bonds between the individuals become more realized, but are always flowing more completely in two directions and never equally between all three. Everyone wants everyone else’s object of desire.
The women: this was the most thrilling part for me. Xaviere and Francoise share a mutual infatuation. Their connection is as romantic as the competition they insight in each other. Reading Beauvoir’s portrayals of their Sapphic lusts and longings, even when embedded with envy, opened a door of possibility for me. My heart beat in my hips as I read particularly salty passages. I felt recognition in Beauvoir’s descriptions of yearning directed toward another woman, no matter how complicated the motives or twisted the reasons. I had never read anything so honest–or so lesbian.
Beauvoir created an emotional world that stirred something up at my core. She wrote toward the truth of feeling, the difficulty of desire. The more I read Beauvoir, attended my feminist studies class, and stared at AJ in the seat beside me, the more separate I felt from Matt. Our fights ambled on. I read him paragraphs from She Came to Stay aloud in bed, juicy ones. It was like dropping breadcrumbs toward my new awakening. It felt like I’d accepted a ride from a stranger, dressed as a famous philosopher from the 40’s, and now here I was careening down an unknown road, faster than I’d like, seeing new sights, unable exit. The doors were locked.
This is Beauvoir’s first novel, and it admittedly reads as such. The prose is precious at times, the ideas overtly philosophical, but her passion ushers energy onto the page. It’s as if she’s saying–this matters! Listen! And you invariably do, you can’t help it. She’s telling you her story–and it might be yours, too.
As a twentysomething, this book was essential to my becoming. In a great feat of metaphysical solipsism, Beauvoir expounds on notions of self and sexuality and what it means to love another person–or two for that matter. She confronts envy face first and exposes her belly through the façade of fiction.
“We wanted to build a real trio, a well-balanced life for three in which no one would be sacrificed,” says Pierre–the Sartre based character. “Perhaps it was taking a risk, but at least it was worth trying!”
I’m not certain Francoise–or Beauvoir–would agree the risk was worth it. But worth it or not, their behavior is written as inevitable: pursuing impulse and desire in hopes to discover truth.
First published in 1943, Beauvoir’s sentiments, sorrows, and entanglements echo into our current moment. Perhaps this is why it resonated with me coming of age in the two thousands. Give Francoise an iPad, let her keep wearing her black jacket, and the story could pass for today. She’s part of the polyamorous couple drinking oolong tea at the table next to you. She’s the lady hitting on your girlfriend at the bar. She’s the author of the book you’re reading. She’s the student getting better grades than you in class and having more sex at the same time.
Through reading She Came To Stay, I found the courage to admit truths about my sexuality to myself and to my partner. It gave me more than recognition; it provided permission. This novel did what great literature should and for that I won’t forget it–it forged connection through the craft of fiction. I’ve since read other work by Beauvoir, including the endless biographies written about her and Sartre. But none of it went down as smooth–and as memorably–as She Came to Stay, because there’s just nothing like the first time.
Genevieve Hudson earned her MFA from Portland State University, where she now teaches writing. Among other places, her work has appeared in Word Riot, The Collagist, Portland Monthly Magazine, The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle and HTML Giant. She was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant to work on a collection of fairy tale inspired short stories in the Netherlands.