When I was nine, I was a good little girl, although that wasn’t always the case. As a child, the tyranny of adults made me have such fits that one of my aunts said, very seriously: “Sylvie is possessed by a demon. War and religion tamed me. I immediately showed perfect patriotism by stomping on my doll because it was made in Germany, even though I didn’t really care about it at first. I was taught that God would only protect France if I was obedient and pious: there was no escaping it. The other girls and I were walking in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart waving banners and singing. I started praying frequently and got a real taste for it. Father Dominique, the chaplain of Adelaide College where we went to school, encouraged my ardor. Dressed all in tulle, with an Irish lace cap, I made my First Communion, and from that day on, I set the perfect example for my little sisters. Heaven heard my prayers and my father was appointed to an office position in the War Ministry because of his heart problems.
That morning I was especially excited because it was the first day of school. I couldn’t wait to go back to class, as solemn as a mass; the silence in the corridors; the soft smiles of the teachers, in their long skirts and high-necked blouses, which were often dressed as nurses since the school had been partly transformed into a hospital. Under their white veils speckled with red, they looked like saints, and I was shocked when they pressed me to their breasts. I devoured the soup and gray bread that had replaced the pre-war hot chocolate and buns, and waited impatiently for my mother to finish dressing my sisters. The three of us wore sky-blue coats, made of real officer serge and cut exactly like military coats. ‘See! there is even a small martingale at the bottom, ”my mother showed to her admiring or taken aback friends. My mother held my sisters’ hands as we left the building. We sadly passed the Café La Rotonde, which had just opened noisily under our window and which was, papa said, a den of defeatists. I found the word intriguing. “The defeatists are people who believe that France will lose the war,” explained Papa. “They should all be shot. I did not understand. We don’t believe what we believe on purpose; can you really be punished for the things you think about? The spies who handed out poisoned candy to children, or pricked French women with needles full of poison in the subway – obviously they deserved to die, but the naysayers baffled me. I didn’t bother to ask mom; she always said the same thing as dad.
My little sisters walked slowly; the wrought iron gate of the Luxembourg Gardens seemed to go on forever. Finally, I made it to the school door and walked up the front stairs, happily sliding my satchel overflowing with new books. I recognized the faint smell of disease, mingled with the smell of wax on the freshly waxed floors. The teachers kissed me. In the locker room, I found my classmates from last year; I didn’t have any particular attachment among them, but I liked the noise we all made together. I hung out in the main hall, looking at the display cases full of old dead things that have come here to die a second time – the feathers have fallen from the stuffed birds, the dried plants have turned to dust, the shells have lost their shine. When the bell rang, I entered the class they called Sainte-Marguerite. All the rooms looked alike; the students were seated around an oval table covered with black moleskin, which would be chaired by our teacher; our mothers sat behind us and stood guard, knitting balaclavas. I approached my stool and saw that the one next to it was occupied by a little girl with hollow cheeks and brown hair, whom I did not recognize. She looked very young; his serious, shining eyes focused on me with intensity.
“So are you the best student in the class?” “
– I am Sylvie Lepage, I say. ‘What is your name?’
‘Andrée Gallard. I am nine years old. If I look younger, it’s because I was burnt alive and didn’t grow much after that. I had to stop my studies for a year but mom wants me to make up for what I missed. Can you lend me your notebooks from last year?
– Yes, I say. Andrée’s self-confidence and her quick and precise speech got on my nerves. She looked at me suspiciously.
– That girl said you were the best student in the class, she said, tilting her head a little towards Lisette. ‘Is it true?’
– I often arrive first, I say modestly. I looked at Andrée, with her black hair falling straight down her face and an ink stain on her chin. It’s not every day that you meet a little girl who is burnt alive.
This is an excerpt from Simone de Beauvoir’s novel Les Inséparables, translated by Lauren Elkin, which is published on September 2 at Vintage Classics (£ 12.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK delivery from £ 15, online orders only. Min p & p phone orders £ 1.99