Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it. (Simone de Beauvoir)
I’ve been browsing the blog for the Literary Cemetery, which catalogues (with photos) the death and burial information for literary personalities. As with all such things, it’s a work in progress (and I will admit to being disappointed that there was nothing for Lord Byron). However, a good cross-section of French writers are there, including Sartre, Camus, Victor Hugo, and others. I’ve made a list, so I can decide which cemetery(ies) to visit next year.
I just read a fascinating article posted in the New Yorker, by Mary Hawthorne, entitled LANGUAGE IS MUSIC. Most of the piece is a response (from various translators) regarding an editorial by Lawrence Summers in the NYT, which opined that, ‘English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.‘
Naturally, there was much disagreement over his points in numbered paragraph 5. Quite honestly, I do think that learning a second (or third) language is something that ought to be done. It needs to be taught properly at the lower grades, when learning of languages has been shown to be easier. There ought to be more opportunities for immersion, as well. Learning another language is learning a different way to think, a different way to view the world. And, as David Bellos states, ‘mastery of a foreign language is a prerequisite for understanding how to use your own.’
Am I biased? Yes, probably. I would have loved to have decent instruction in French when I was younger, but the teachers I had most years barely knew any more than their students, having (I’m guessing) drawn the short straw or had the free period needing filled. (And, alas, my parents chose not to put me in French immersion schooling, though I think I would have done well.) So now I plod along, working haphazardly to learn a bit more French. To be honest, properly learning a foreign language is a lot of work. With everything else that I do, I just don’t have time to devote hours every day to study.
Still, I’ll keep at it, though progress is slow. In the meantime, I’ll continue reading French works in translation, and maybe someday I’ll know enough French to read Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘L’Invitée’. I have a copy, and it’s waiting for that moment.
The University of Illinois Press has just released a new volume in their Simone de Beauvoir series! I can hardly wait to start reading her Political Writings, though they will have to wait until I have finished reading the biography written by Deirdre Bair.
I’ve already read her essay on the Marquis de Sade (and own it in paperback), but I am really looking forward to reading the transcription of the documentary film ‘A Walk Through the Land of Old Age’. I haven’t yet been able to manage to finish reading her book on Old Age, though it sits patiently waiting for me to pick it up again.
I’m really impressed with the University of Illinois for releasing the books in the Beauvoir series, and for the impressive scholarship and work put into the series by the main editor, Margaret A. Simons. I only wish I had such dedication.
I get excited over books. A new book by a favourite author? I’m dancing in the aisles of the bookstore (or tapping my fingers eagerly on the keys). So today, when the book has come in the mail (thank you Book Depository!), I can’t wait to get started.
What’s the book? Why, the latest in the Simone de Beauvoir series from the University of Illinois…
From the U of Illinois site:
“The Useless Mouths” and Other Literary Writings brings to English-language readers literary writings–several previously unknown–by Simone de Beauvoir. Culled from sources including various American university collections, the works span decades of Beauvoir’s career. Ranging from dramatic works and literary theory to radio broadcasts, they collectively reveal fresh insights into Beauvoir’s writing process, personal life, and the honing of her philosophy.
I’m especially looking forward to reading the radio broadcasts and some of the dramatic works. If I don’t finish it by Christmas, I know exactly what I’ll be doing with my days off…
By the way, if you’re looking for a bit of an introduction to some of Simone de Beauvoir’s work, pick up one of the earlier works from the Beauvoir series, entitled ‘Philosophical Writings.’ It has quite a few of her scholarly essays. If you’re more of a memoir type, snag her ‘Wartime Diary’ or her ‘Diary of a Philosophy Student, Vol 1’. (And if fiction is your thing, ‘The Mandarins’ or ‘She Came to Stay’ are worth every penny.)
I went to Paris in June of 2003, as a very generous birthday gift from my parents. My father was working there for six weeks. I hadn’t been working at all, having been diagnosed with a chronic illness, and without their generosity, I would never have been able to see the city that has since figured so prominently in my life and my writing.
I didn’t always have an interest in France. As I’ve written previously, about Simone de Beauvoir and about French authors, my abiding interest was sparked by a Philosophy of Literature class. I read Sartre’s La Nausée, and Edmond Jabès’s The Book of Questions, and Andre Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja.
So, though my French language classes in elementary, junior high and high school were lamentably poor, and my grasp of the language shy and shaky, I was off to see the City of Light with my own eyes.
I arrived on the 15th of June, having flown Calgary via Montreal to Paris, landing at eight-thirty in the morning. Yes, I remember…. because I wrote it down. A friend of my mother’s bought me a journal for my trip. Exhausted, my mother and I took the Air France bus into the centre of the city, alighting at the stop nearest the Arc de Triomphe and hefting our bags for the walk to the apartment just off the Avenue de Wagram.
Later that morning, I had my first café crème. Not the most exciting of things to report, but it was a revelation. I’d had coffee before, of course, including cappuccino, espresso and the like, but the taste of this café crème was like nothing else. It came in a white porcelain cup and saucer with a paper-wrapped lump of sugar on the side and a small spoon. It was delicious.
I remember the morning being pleasant, sunny with a light breeze. The café we’d stopped at had been crowded with the Sunday brunch crowd and our table still had dishes from the previous occupants cluttering it. Compared to at home, the service was slow, but it didn’t matter. Through my tired daze, I was already fascinated with this new city, so different from home.
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.
This post has been a long time in coming.
My love affair with all things French began unexpectedly. I enrolled in Philosophy 315 at the University of Calgary. (I took a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and I liked to fill my electives with usually English, Philosophy, or other humanities classes.) That session caught my interest because the subtitle was “Philosophy in Literature.” I’d done poorly at some of the 200-level philosophy courses as I couldn’t seem to formulate a concise argument during assignments and I really couldn’t have cared less about the debate over the existence of God, but I thought I’d do rather well in this one. Reading books? I’m in!
We read several books during the class, starting with Plato’s discourse “The Symposium”, Andre Breton’s “Nadia” (Nadja), Edmond Jabès’s “The Book of Questions: Volume One”, and finally, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nobel prize-winning novel, “Nausea” (La Nausée). While the other books were intriguing and thought-provoking (even though I found the Plato a bit dull), it really was Sartre’s novel that caught my interest.
The book is considered one of the essential works of existentialism, which Sartre is widely credited with bringing to popular public attention (along with his friend Albert Camus). His fiction often portrayed philosophical ideals in literary form, likely making them more comprehensible to those who couldn’t manage to get through his massive tome “Being and Nothingness”. (I have yet to finish that book and have given up. I also find it difficult to read some of his other philosophical essays, and have only managed to read the shortest ones.)
What fascinated me more was Sartre’s companion (and philosopher in her own right, though it’s taken years for that to be recognized) Simone de Beauvoir. She had only the barest mention in my class, but I was determined to seek out some of her books and find out what she wrote. Fortunately, one of my favourite used bookstores happened to have her entire 4-volume autobiography in paperback, and a copy of her first novel “She Came to Stay” (L’Invitée). It’s a fictional account of her relationship with Sartre and Olga Kosakiewicz. She and Sartre had a partnership, but they never married, and each had affairs. Sometimes their affairs meant bringing a third person into their relationship, which is what they did with Olga (and then her sister, Wanda).
Once I’d read She Came to Stay and worked my way through the first two volumes of her autobiography, I picked up some of her other works and started reading works by her contemporaries (Camus, Gide, Breton, etc.). That’s what started me off, and it hasn’t stopped since.
I’ll have to do a future post about Beauvoir specifically, as there’s much more I could discuss.