Simone: A Self-Portrait

Nonfiction / Anne K. Yoder

:: Simone: A Self-Portrait ::

We must tell each other everything. Stories lend our lives significance. What are our actions but small and ephemeral unless we record and extend them? This unraveling is a form of replication, like DNA helixes unwinding in order to be read. We take our chronology and adorn and embellish as we whisper into each other’s ears, and when we don’t whisper, we write. We read each other’s journals every night.

We must not live together.

We must not impinge on each other’s freedom.



She and Jean Paul work together even when they are not sleeping together. Simone does not want to play wife to anyone’s husband. Together they spread ideas about living and ways of being. They are making the most of traveling to far-off countries and continents. Caught up in their own making, it’s always one web or another.


In our thirties we are prolific. Or you are, at least. You write The Second Sex, you tour the States and come to Chicago, where you meet Nelson, who sears you. He shows you his squalid city, his hovel of a home sans bathroom but with a wood-burning stove.

I have too many novels and essays to write, still. Let’s not talk about those. I too came to Chicago by way of New York, and now I am looking with longing toward Paris. Steamy Chicago, seedy Chicago, so much flesh and land sprawling in comparison to the steely heights of New York intellectuals and architecture always striving to rise above. From my New York living room window I could see the lights of the Empire State Building, but now my gaze is grassy backyard plots and bougainvillea and children jumping and screaming, “We don’t want a nap!”



If you removed God from the picture, this could become one nation true to self-evident tenets. Pragmatists and intellectuals, housewives and bankers, politicians and cowboys pulling up their bootstraps, donning wigs and suits and lassos, forging futures, making what they can of this. There is little difference between believing in becoming and owning your choices except for purpose and belief in where it all ends.



Simone lives in rented hotel rooms; Jean Paul gives away every book. Thought thrives in open spaces.


Paris was threadbare and war-torn. Your men were sent off to service, and you remained in the city center filled with women. You taught and wrote novels and letters and kept company with female lovers. When Jean Paul told you to cross lines to visit him on the front, you dropped everything. You gathered your papers and books, faked illness for leave, forged a pass and boarded a train to meet him in a city whose name he’d spelled out cryptically. At the end of the war you wrote that you were old. Thirty-six and you’d seen the world in all of its impossibility, about to collapse into so many pieces: the Occupation of France, the Holocaust, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With the end of the war comes fame for Jean Paul, and for you by association. Existentialism, as explained through his Being and Nothingness, is one way to make sense of this. Personal freedom and choice exist in spite of absurdity and the awfulness of orchestrations beyond personal control. Jean Paul suggests that you write about what it means to be a woman. You ignore him at first, but then reconsider.


“In a small work on the female orgasm, a Dr. Gremillon taking issue with Stekel, declares that the normal fertile woman has no orgasm. He goes on to say that erotogenic-zones are artificial, not natural, they are signs of degeneration; to create them is unhygenic and foolish, for women thus become insatiable, new and terrible creatures, capable of crime, and so on.”

Simone was never normal nor did she ever desire to be. Normal was married with child, normal was obligatory, contractual, modest, tedious. Normally, being normal, a woman would not have a career. Normally, being normal, a woman would not travel alone from coast to coast. Nelson tempts her with contentment; with his embraces come sleepless nights.



One woman possesses two loves, many lovers, and multiple desires. She like any woman has obligations pitted between desires. In France a woman is a woman without taking a husband to prove that she is. In America, a woman isn’t a woman until she has a husband. But a man is a man, and once a man always a man.

Marriage is a contract, an agreement, an act of diplomacy, an absurdity, a commitment that’s nearly impossible to annul. Everyone who is married marries for a reason. But how is this advantageous now, to us?


The independent woman “must have access to the other,” you write. At this age we know too well what it means to be a woman. You’ve lived as a woman and have made something of yourself in spite of your femininity and the expectations that come with this. In writing about women you grapple with the other as well as the self. A woman is not born a woman but instead becomes one. You strike masculine poses by disparaging lady lovers in letters to Jean Paul. Such a bother they are, with their demands, their snoring that keeps you from sleep, and yet you indulge them with kisses before leaving to work.

Writing, I am constantly writing. I work wherever I go.

We were raised to take care of ourselves. From the outset we were groomed to be our own grooms, to become breadwinners, self-sufficient. Not ready to take up an iron and oven mitt and yet we still had appetites. We pursued the intimacy of ideas, we and Jean Paul. Trysts were heated arguments that impelled us to think further.

Our fathers, our Georges, thought little of what we’d made of ourselves, our lack of official papers, decrees and degrees, the ways we flouted the church and “careers,” the ways we made so much of our bodies without signing on dotted lines.



In Sweden, she sees the cameras first. Photographers stand in line and click click click when Jean Paul and Simone descend from the plane. France spits while Sweden beckons and embraces and brings with it exquisite days of announcements and “important” people, dinner invitations, and radio conversations. Jean Paul introduces: this is the king’s son, this is the castle, here in the newspaper, look at our faces. Flashbulbs and bright futures leave luminescent traces. Jean Paul is known for thinking and writing and his many mistresses; so is Simone. Simone’s work is her work, and his work is also her work. But her work is never his.



Engines shudder at the whirl of the world left in the wake. Nothing is as exhilarating as accelerating over Paris at night, aiming blindly into the sky. They angle toward Newfoundland, New York, Chicago. One day suspended between Paris and Chicago, one day waits between Frog and Nelson, her Crocodile. In the air, drinks bring a semblance of sanity and social mores. Simone takes whiskey while traveling. Whiskey calms, buries, soothes.



Oh dear, I spilt the sugar, but you don’t mind. My aim has been off lately, missing either bag or bowl or both; I blame distracted kisses, although this is preferable to repetition and old recipes. You lick the batter from the bowl with no thought to salmonella. I mix and measure and bake and we dance before I begin to wonder and worry what happened to the quick-thinking girl?


We disparage ourselves, too. Simone calls us ancillary and intellectual parasites, as if a woman could become herself by herself, gestating within her own womb. Whatever she does in becoming herself, she should refuse man’s rib, his thoughts, his story.

But no, not really. Would Simone be Simone without Sartre, I mean Jean Paul? Why do I write Sartre to Simone? Why does a woman’s success still so often depend on a man’s achievements? Why bake cookies to satisfy the public appetite, to prove that a husband’s shirts will be ironed, his desk dusted, and his daughter fed?

A First Lady always comes second, if not third or fourth. Simone was always second in her mind, even in agregation, even though her quality of mind was matched if not better than. The press only confirmed Simone as the acolyte to Jean Paul’s master.



Little man with the big brain, Beaver sends her love from the United States. Beaver is Frog to Nelson, her Crocodile, who she sweetly takes in the dark night. Soon after, she sends a note to the little man she adores. She writes to him, and to him, and sometimes to her. Does a heart ever belong to any one? Miss you dearly, kiss kiss. She writes now in reverse, this time to Crocodile as she travels with Jean Paul. Absence is dear.



Oh, my Crocodile, I will be your Wabansia wife.

The stairs at the Palmer House are slick with rain. I almost slipped and fell after I ran past the old lady at the door who monitors comings and goings into the night. The hotel is a labyrinth, a little town. A stairway going up does not necessarily come down. I could say the same about my affections. I attempted to descend the stairs only to find myself five floors above where I began. I am looking for an out, a way back to the street.

Not all walls are straight nor do halls lead where they seem.



Simone cannot forget herself when she tries, even when new love takes root. Paris is waiting, Paris is bigger than, she has work to do. Paris at night is intellect, energy, and out until 3 a.m. Too much champagne is never enough. Simone would stay in Chicago, she would give up Paris and elegant toasts, if only. She entertains ideas of wifely habits, of scrubbing floors and making rum cake. She knows, however, that she would never.


I would like to erase Jean Paul, at least for a while.



We steep beneath the sheets, warm flesh, tender kisses, kettle warm. Pillows mutilated on a stiff mattress, and your voice from the kitchen as I wait. You place candles and light matches and wonder how to make time last. Cake crumbles when my fork stabs. I am a pile of crumbs.

“Just now I do not see exactly why anybody should ever write again. Just now I do not see exactly why anybody should ever write anything.”

She is at a loss for words except for the ones she showers upon her lover. In Paris, she has standing appointments with important men. They plan actions and discuss ideas; they disperse thoughts and intents. Amid all of this Simone sends caresses via messenger from one continent to another. She is not content. Chicago and her Crocodile make promises in spite of his indigence, her impossibility. He makes offers; she can’t commit. Her work is her life and her work is in Paris. Nelson is a man and his work is his work and he is Chicago through and through.


The ways that we followed, Simone. Your lifelong attachment flouts convention but also clings to it in spite of yourself. I would like to liberate you. I would like to remove Jean Paul from your picture. You were so thankful for his role in your becoming. He challenged you. Mental jousting kept your minds sharp; meticulous thinking prodded you to see yourself beyond yourself. With his inheritance you quit teaching. But how could you see yourself as separate when you depended so much? Should I blame you?

I do.

You couldn’t see yourself beyond a world with a Jean-Paul center.

I imagine you would find fault with me, too, for frivolous thinking, for this conflation, for speaking so intimately with you. You were always vous, never tu, even to Jean Paul. Vous, formal and firey, engaged but removed. Perhaps you always knew that fidelity to philosophy is more constant than fidelity to flesh. You witnessed your father’s late night homecomings and your mother’s constant crying. Why demand promises that won’t be kept?



Nelson doesn’t learn French, and he doesn’t think philosophically even when Simone asks, even when she chides. He reads what he reads, and this means books written by friends. This means books written by men, American gamblers and drinkers who stay out to see what happens when darkness casts a strange light. Most of his friends are riffraff and wandering and sleep in halfway houses.



There’s a lull to the day, quietness as the wind washes over the water and sends me into a deep malaise. My focus and fire are smoldering in this molasses of water, silt, and slow-moving cars. We are sleeping in separate bedrooms, and I wonder if there always must be an ocean between. Aren’t bodies distance enough? We kiss by the counter, he lifts and undresses me, and I want to crawl into his skin. How quickly we drift from work and mindful things to touch and skin, and I realize how flesh can assuage and appease.


I wonder how we put up with so much.

Slurs were leveraged:

“You’ll never amount to more than a worm’s whore.”

“Do you want to live in a garret for the rest of your life?” “You won’t become a Sartre overnight.”

You were always royal, a queen, but a queen at times gives more to her subjects than they deserve or will ever return. I was never very good at chess, but I know that pawns move one square at a time in a forward direction. They are interchangeable, subservient, at the bottom of the chain of command. Your protégé lovers became your pawns; certainly Jean Paul possessed his own, and at times he treated you as one, too. And all the while, you and Jean Paul supported them like kept women, like incestuous children, like they were performing themselves for you.



Simone loses her voice, or she worries she will. She halfheartedly resists as love tips the scales toward mounting stupidity. She mourns the words that do not come but for Nelson, dear, lazy Nelson who won’t learn. Simone writes New York and remembers Chicago. She is always turning back to, looking forward to, but is never present except in Nelson’s presence. She remembers while recounting and accounting for. She follows in the tradition of Tocqueville. She is anxious about mixing duty and desire. She finds meaning in work and work is her life and her life is in France where her work has meaning. Nelson is a fantasy, a fixer-upper, he is stolid and strong in his filthy little room off a poorly lit street, but when unhinged energy ignites, she is consumed.



Chicago’s sweetness is savory, putrid and kindly offensive, an acquired taste. Empty lots overgrown conceal wounds and corpses and casings. The sidewalks beyond, where brawls tumble, where plainclothes policemen lend a kind of semblance, lead to dimly lit rooms where drunks and dwarves and dice girls play. No one notices the poster blondes’ white teeth, freckles, and full cheeks grown on American wheat; no one notices these wall(flower)s, their obscene smiles staring with raw wonder at the fulsome filth.


You settled for seconds. Your seconds surpass most firsts, but even so you trailed behind Jean-Paul. Was there flattery in this mimicry? Did he help clear the path for you? I must interrogate this following, your parallel American trips and your parallel American trysts.

Jean Paul travels to the States on a sponsored trip, where he falls in love with Dolores, his New York guide, and extends his stay. There is discussion of divorce (hers) and an offer of a professorship (his), but he returns to France, lovelorn, love torn. This is 1945.



There have been so many other lovers, and there will be so many more, but Dolores is the only one who makes Jean Paul swoon. Blonde Dolores, American Dolores, with her worldly ways, her haughty laugh, and pending divorce, her New York. Dolores is a centripetal force drawing Jean Paul in, with his satellite Simone making anxious revolutions around his absence. Jean Paul says he will stay for Dolores, he will promise Dolores, he would marry Dolores. He leaves me stranded, searching, scrambling, cut loose.



Simone would rather forget about Jean Paul traveling in North Africa with Dolores; she would rather forget his amorous elsewhere affections. Wherever he goes, Simone follows. She would like to forget this, too. Jean Paul comes before and always. Simone trails after. He has already spoken where she speaks and has been listened to where others now listen to her, often because of him. She would like to forget all of this knowing that her after depends on his before.


Simone sets off on an American tour in January, 1947. She arrives with a list of contacts from Jean Paul. She sees New York through Jean Paul’s eyes, and how could she not with him as her guide? Oceans apart and yet closer than ever, she writes. Chicago is a whirlwind with Nelson; he dizzies her with affinity and affection, and yet she leaves promptly for points west and south, California, New Orleans, and Florida. It isn’t until she returns to New York, en route to Paris, when she receives word from Jean Paul to stay put, to extend. He needs to smooth over Dolores. His thrust sends Simone back to Chicago where she kindles an American affair of her own.



We pass pagodas and a fortune cookie factory, smokestacks, a power plant, the Chicago Tribune presses, the Wheatfield Tube Company warehouses. Flat land dotted with flat houses, sprawl to a distant stadium. Down here it’s all power lines, highways, throughways, and thoroughfares, the conduits for passing through. The energy and the oxygen of this city are deposited here. This is the body, the true down town that provides the ways and means that make the city run. We talk of South Side goat tacos. Marianna’s, a good place to go if you want to fight, the only true one-star dive bar we can find. We are faux grifters, vicarious tourists traveling where even the flora falls closer to the land. Methane still bubbles up in a creek where carcasses were dumped a hundred years ago.


“Oh, I hate this country, and like the people who suffer from it, and would be appalled if I had to stay here—yet leaving it is having a strange impression on me. I’ve told you all this in a higgedly piggedly way.”

What is more appalling is the desire to stay, visions of cart- pushing and steak shopping at Piggly Wiggly, of exchanging intellect for wife. Chicago means no more dinners with Jean Paul, Koestler, and Camus; Chicago means losing influence, losing myself. Chicago is no Paris, it’s not even New York whose second-rate is over-inflated, the self-important always searching for opportunity.



The alleys and offices, bathrooms and bars proffer the same disgust. Scent of offal wafts from the warehouse where cows gather and low before moving on to where the blades draw blood. I insist we visit the slaughterhouse before saying, goodbye, Nelson, before, au revoir, Chicago. Nelson’s pleas offer a marital blow. I wander through stalls wondering what we must sacrifice.


What did Jean Paul have to do with my success? Too much, I fear. Was it a failure of imagination? What is success if it depends on a husband or lover, and does this make our choice more important, the strategic vertical climb made possible through horizontal thrusts? How else do we make something of ourselves? When will a woman be a woman and more than just a woman on her own terms? Has anything changed?

I am worried that I am not Simone and that I cannot be Simone, even for a short period of time. Simone prevails as my patron saint. I am falling short. I am also relieved.


From the writer

:: Account ::

I had moved to Chicago from Brooklyn six months before I started “Simone: A Self-Portrait.” I felt overwhelmed by the vastness of Chicago, the way it expanded seemingly with no end, like so many small villages set up one against another. I was struck by the Midwestern flatness, the wide roads, the novelty of having a back porch.

Split between cities, I soon fell in love in Chicago, but not with Chicago. I was divided, and it was wonderfully obscene. Simone de Beauvoir became my lodestar, my guru: author of the The Second Sex, advocate of open relationships, torn between Chicago and Paris, Algren and Sartre. And yet I became frustrated, too, that her recognition as a female thinker seemed dependent on her men.

The literary portrait comes straight from Gertrude Stein. I was steeped in Tender Buttons and her essays and lectures and portraits at the time of writing. In line with Stein, I wanted the portrait to depict de Beauvoir’s essence and energy as derived her books and essays and notebooks and letters: the rhythm of her words, her life. And this then evolved into the desire to conflate her energy and mine, a transference of sorts. Much like Rimbaud’s “je suis un autre,” inspired by David David Wojnarowicz’s series of portraits of friends and lovers wearing a mask of Rimbaud’s face, it’s at once a desire, mask, and revelation.


Anne K. Yoder’s writing has appeared in Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications. She is a staff writer for The Millions and a member of Meekling Press, a collective micropress based in Chicago. Currently she is working on a novel, The Enhancers, about coming of age in a in a techno-pharmaceutical society.