The Inseparables â read an extract from the newly discovered novel by Simone de Beauvoir
When I was nine years old I was a good little girl, though this hadnât always been the case. As a small child the adultsâ tyranny caused me to throw such tantrums that one of my aunts declared, quite seriously: âSylvie is possessed by a demon.â War and religion tamed me. Right away I demonstrated perfect patriotism by stomping all over my doll because she was made in Germany, though I didnât really care for her to begin with. I was taught that God would only protect France if I were obedient and pious: there was no escaping it. The other girls and I would walk through the basilica of SacrÃ©-CÅur, waving banners and singing. I began to pray frequently, and I developed a real taste for it. AbbÃ© Dominique, the chaplain at the CollÃ¨ge AdelaÃ¯de where we went to school, encouraged my ardour. Dressed all in tulle, with a bonnet made of Irish lace, I made my First Communion, and from that day forward, I set a perfect example for my little sisters. Heaven heard my prayers, and my father was appointed to a desk job at the Ministry of War because of his heart trouble.Lauren Elkin: âI felt like I was in De Beauvoirâs bodyâ Read more
That morning I was especially excited because it was the first day of school. I couldnât wait to get back to the classroom, solemn as a Mass; the silence in the hallways; the softened smiles of the teachers, in their long skirts and their high-necked blouses, who were often dressed as nurses since the school had been partially turned into a hospital. Under their white veils with red stains, they resembled saints, and I was overcome when they pressed me to their bosoms. I wolfed down the soup and grey bread which had replaced the hot chocolate and brioches from the prewar days, and impatiently waited for my mother to finish dressing my sisters. All three of us wore sky-blue coats, made of real officerâs serge and cut exactly like military greatcoats. âLook! thereâs even a little martingale at the back,â my mother would show her friends, who were admiring, or taken aback. My mother held my sistersâ hands as we left the building. We walked with sadness past CafÃ© La Rotonde, which had just opened noisily beneath our window, and which was, Papa said, a hangout for defeatists. I found the word intriguing. âDefeatists are people who believe that France will lose the war,â Papa explained. âThey should all be shot.â I didnât understand. We donât believe what we believe on purpose; can you really be punished for the things you think? The spies who handed out poisoned sweets to children, or pricked Frenchwomen with needles full of venom in the metro â obviously they deserved to die, but the defeatists baffled me. I didnât bother asking Maman; she always said the same thing as Papa.
My little sisters walked slowly; the wrought-iron grill of the Luxembourg Gardens seemed to go on for ever. Finally I arrived at the school gate and climbed the front stairs, joyfully trundling my satchel overflowing with new books. I recognised the faint odour of illness, mingled with the smell of wax on the freshly polished floors. The teachers kissed me. In the cloakroom I was reunited with my schoolmates from last year; I didnât have any particular attachments among them, but I liked the noise we all made together. I dawdled in the main hall, looking at the display cases full of old dead things that came here to die a second time â the feathers fell from the stuffed birds, the dried plants turned to dust, the shells lost their shine. When the bell rang, I entered the classroom they called Sainte-Marguerite. All the rooms looked the same; the students sat around an oval table covered in black moleskin, which would be presided over by our teacher; our mothers sat behind us and kept watch while knitting balaclavas. I went over to my stool and saw the one next to it was occupied by a hollow-cheeked little girl with brown hair, whom I didnât recognise. She looked very young; her serious, shining eyes focused on me with intensity.Simone de Beauvoir in 1945. Photograph: Roger Viollet Collection/via Getty Images
âSo youâre the best student in the class?â
âIâm Sylvie Lepage,â I said. âWhatâs your name?â
âAndrÃ©e Gallard. Iâm nine. If I look younger itâs because I got burned alive and didnât grow much after that. I had to stop studying for a year but Maman wants me to catch up on what I missed. Can you lend me your notebooks from last year?â
âYes,â I said. AndrÃ©eâs confidence and rapid, precise speech unnerved me. She looked me over warily.
âThat girl said youâre the best student in the class,â she said, tilting her head a little at Lisette. âIs that true?â
âI often come in first,â I said, modest. I stared at AndrÃ©e, with her dark hair falling straight down around her face, and an ink spot on her chin. Itâs not every day that you meet a little girl whoâs been burned alive.
This is an extract from Simone de Beauvoirâs novel The Inseparables, translated by Lauren Elkin, which is published on 2 September by Vintage Classics (Â£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over Â£15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of Â£1.99