Without a properly long post on Simone de Beauvoir, I’d be neglecting one of the main reasons why I am so fond of all things French. (Okay, maybe not ALL things French – I could do without Sarkozy, for example.)
I admire her immensely for what she did with her life: becoming a writer, being financially independent at a time where women were still expected to marry and have families, and for living her life the way she wanted. She’s no saint, and certainly some of her views turned out to be poor choices (her support of Communist Russia, her poor treatment of some of her friends and lovers), but her body of work of approximately 20 published books, plus numerous articles is such that it ought to be given more prominence. Not just in philosophy (where until recently she had been neglected, considered Sartre’s pupil and not his equal), but also in fiction.
She won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, for her book ‘Les Mandarins’ in 1954, eleven years after the release of her first novel, ‘L’Invitée’. I read ‘L’Invitée’ (published in English as ‘She Came to Stay’) first, tackling the first two volumes of her autobiography straight afterward. I consider her non-fiction work the stronger of the two, perhaps because her novels are often apparent copies of her life.
Her book ‘America Day by Day’ is a fascinating travel diary of her time in the USA and has occasionally been compared to Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and contains her observations on the American way of life.
What makes daily life so agreeable in America is the good humor and friendliness of Americans. Of course, this quality has its reverse side. I’m irritated by those imperious invitations to “take life easy,” repeated in words and images throughout the day. On advertisements for Quaker Oats, Coca-Cola, and Lucky Strike, what displays of white teeth – the smile seems like tetanus. The constipated girl smiles a loving smile at the lemon juice that relieves her intestines. In the subway, in the streets, on magazine pages, these smiles pursue me like obsessions. I read on the sign in a drugstore, “Not to grin is a sin.” Everyone obeys the order, the system. “Cheer up! Take it easy.” Optimism is necessary for the country’s social peace and economic prosperity. (p. 23)
She wrote a travel diary for her journeys in China as well, and she was a dedicated diarist and letter writer at certain points of her life, most notably when she and Sartre were apart. Her letters to Nelson Algren, her American lover, were published in 1999, and her diary from the Second World War was published recently as a part of the Beauvoir series being released by the University of Illinois Press. (I own the three volumes currently released by the press and eagerly await the remaining four.)
So what is it about her in particular that I find so fascinating? She lived her life on her terms. She never married, but instead had a longterm companionship with Jean-Paul Sartre. They each had lovers and affairs, but stayed a partnership until Sartre’s death in 1980. She slept with men and women, though in public accounts she doesn’t seem to have come out as bisexual. In reading letters since released, she seems to downplay her affairs with women.
She supported herself as a writer. She earned enough income from writing (though until she quit her job as a teacher, she had that income also) that she was able to be financially independent. She and Sartre pooled their funds and not only supported themselves, but often other family members and lovers, friends, and those who asked them for assistance.
She supported the feminist cause. She wasn’t originally a supporter of women getting the vote (French women didn’t get the right to vote until 1944), but she did seem to come round to it eventually. She published the two volume treatise ‘The Second Sex’ (‘Le Deuxième Sexe’) in 1949, and it is considered to be one of the first books of modern feminism. The famous line “One is not born, but becomes a woman,” is from this text. In her treatise, she identifies women as The Other; that is, deviant from the norm (men). I won’t go into it here; the book deserves an entire post to itself.
Her range of books and her journals and letters evoke that period of French life. Though most of her letters were not published until after her death, their existence in the public sphere is invaluable. Letters and journals give the minutiae of a life, rather than just the public face. She was always aware of her public face, and it can be seen in the latter two volumes of her autobiography. The works are far more centered on her relationship with Sartre, and her use of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, and come across more as a proclamation of views and activities than an actual autobiography of her life. They were the official story and sometimes read as a place marker on her and Sartre’s role in public life. She put her support behind a variety of issues in her later years, including abortion rights, signing the Manifesto of the 343, women who claimed to have had an abortion when it was illegal. She edited the political journal ‘Les Temps Modernes’ along with Sartre.
She made sure her voice was heard.
If I had to recommend a book for the Beauvoir novice, I’d choose ‘Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter’ (the first volume of her autobiography) as a good place to start with her non-fiction works. And I’d also recommend ‘She Came to Stay,’ as a first choice for her fiction. Her selected bibliography can be found here. The Sunday Times has an excellent review of the new edition (2009) of The Second Sex.
If you’re in Paris, check out some of her favourite haunts: the Deux Magots and Café de Flore on the Boulevard St. Germain, the Dôme Café in Montparnasse, and her shared grave with Sartre in the cemetery at Montparnasse.