A Breakup Letter from Simone de Beauvoir
“I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me.”
By Maria Popova
As a lover of letters, especially exquisite love letters, I find myself enamored with Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library) by Anna Holmes — a moving, rigorously researched collection of breakup letters from women across ten centuries, known and unknown, including favorites like Anaïs Nin and Sylvia Plath, and divided thematically — the tell-offs, the “just friends,” the marriage refusals, the unsent letters, and more. (Bonus points: The foreword is by none other than Francine Prose.)
One of the most stirring letters in the anthology comes from French writer, feminist, intellectual, and existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, author of the cult-classic treatise The Second Sex. In 1947, while visiting Chicago, she began an affair with Nelson Algren, best-known for The Man with the Golden Arm, and the two sustained a long-distance relationship across the Atlantic for a number years. But the strain of separation eventually took its toll on Algren and, in 1950, he became withdrawn from the relationship, wanting someone permanent in his life. (He eventually remarried his ex-wife, Amanda Kontowicz, in 1953.)
This letter, which de Beauvoir penned in September of 1950 en route back to Paris after visiting a withdrawn Algren in Chicago, is saturated with the palpable tension between the urgency of her longing and the ease which she tries to create for this man she still loves. To give space when what one most yearns for is closeness, that is both the great test and great tragedy of love.
I am better at dry sadness than at cold anger, for I remained dry eyed until now, as dry as smoked fish, but my heart is a kind of dirty soft custard inside.
I am not sad. Rather stunned, very far away fro myself, not really believing you are now so far, so far, you so near. I want to tell you only two things before leaving, and then I’ll not speak about it any more, I promise. First, I hope so much, I want and need so much to see you again, some day. But, remember, please, I shall never more ask to see you — not from any pride since I have none with you, as you know, but our meeting will mean something only when you wish it. So, I’ll wait. When you’ll wish it, just tell. I shall not assume that you love me anew, not even that you have to sleep with me, and we have not to stay together such a long time — just as you feel, and when you feel. But know that i’ll always long for your asking me. No, I cannot think that I shall not see you again. I have lost your love and it was (it is) painful, but shall not lose you. Anyhow, you gave me so much, Nelson, what you gave me meant so much, that you could never take it back. And then your tenderness and friendship were so precious to me that I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me. I do hope this tenderness and friendship will never, never desert me. As for me, it is baffling to say so and I feel ashamed, but it is the only true truth: I just love as much as I did when I landed into your disappointed arms, that means with my whole self and all my dirty heart; I cannot do less. But that will not bother you, honey, and don’t make writing letters of any kind a duty, just write when you feel like it, knowing every time it will make me very happy.
Well, all words seem silly. You seem so near, so near, let me come near to you, too. And let me, as in the past times, let me be in my own heart forever.
Your own Simone
Hell Hath No Fury is a trove of literary breakup zingers in its entirety. Complement it with Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler’s illustrated anatomy of a breakup, then revisit Sartre’s love letters to Simone de Beauvoir.
Published September 10, 2012