Authors: Simone De Beauvoir
imone de Beauvoir was a prolific writer, in a remarkable range of genres. She will always be associated with that twentieth-century landmark
The Second Sex,
and for her novel
depicting the political squabbles and love affairs of a group of French intellectuals in the postwar world. But without any doubt Simone de Beauvoir is most warmly remembered for her memoirs. In them she tells her best and most stirring story, the story of her own life.
Few writers have recorded their own experiences so compulsively. This first volume,
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
(1958), would be followed by three more:
The Prime of Life
Force of Circumstance
All Said and Done
(1972). But Beauvoir's autobiographical writings did not end there. Two of her novels,
She Came to Stay
were closely based on dramatic episodes in her own life. In
America Day by Day
she wrote about her four-month sojourn in the United States.
A Very Easy Death
is a tender memoir about the death of her mother;
Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre
is a wrenching account of her companion's last years.
We all know the photographs of Beauvoir and Sartre writing in Left Bank cafÃ©sâplaces that are now full of tourists who, while they sip their drinks, invariably make mention of the famous pair. Beauvoir, just like Sartre, was happiest writing with the hubbub of the world around herâin cafÃ©s, train stations, wherever she could get out her notebook and fountain
pen, and fill pages with the scrawling, scarcely decipherable handwriting her friends all complained about. Since her death, in 1986, her war journal and several volumes of love letters (to Sartre, Nelson Algren, and Jacques-Laurent Bost) have seen the light of day. With each new publication, readers find themselves freshly astounded. There seems to have been no limits to this woman's energy, her passion for life, her sparkling intelligence, her sheer
How did she fit so much into one lifetime?
Jean-Paul Sartre was a guiding force and moral support for Beauvoir, just as she was for him. He encouraged her, in the true sense of the word; he brought out her courage. During their long years of literary apprenticeshipâyears in which they both produced draft after draft that would end up, like their other manuscripts, relegated to a drawerâSartre saw that Beauvoir was at her best when she portrayed her own experience. “Look,” he told her one day, as they sat in a noisy, smoke-filled Paris cafÃ© discussing their work, “why don't you put
into your writing?” Beauvoir writes that she felt the blood rush to her cheeks. “I'd never dare to do that,” she said. “Screw up your courage,” Sartre said.
That conversation resulted in
She Came to Stay
(1943). Inspired by the amorous trio Beauvoir and Sartre had formed with a young woman, the novel skated so close to real life that it shocked even their friendsânot to speak of the French Catholic bourgeoisie. Beauvoir's very first book caused a frenzy of gossip, and seeded the Sartre-Beauvoir legend. From the beginning, and this would never change, the name Simone de Beauvoir carried a strong whiff of scandal.
No sooner had the war. ended than Sartre and Beauvoir found themselves in the glare of fame. It happened almost overnight. Existentialism became a craze, the new intellectual
fashion. Sartre's philosophy struck a chord, particularly with young people who, having experienced the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, no longer believed in the old myth of eternal progress and were tired of feeling powerless. Existentialism acknowledged the absurdity of the human condition, while at the same time insisting on individual freedom and choice.
Sartre and Beauvoir often discussed the extent to which their friends were free, or not free, to choose their lives. What interested them was to understand a person's
social class, family dynamics, physical constitution, self-image, and so onâwhile scrutinizing, as if under a microscope, any signs of rebellion or moments of compliance. They saw these as defining moments, which reflected fundamental choices. Since, according to these two existentialists, choices were demonstrated by
(it is not interesting to
to write a book: you have to actually write one), people's actions cast light on their “original project.”
It was 1946 when Beauvoir first thought of writing her childhood memoirs. She was keen to consider her own childhood and adolescence through an existential framework. What had made her decide to be a writer? Which were the turning points in her life, when she had chosen the person she had become? Sartre made the comment that she would need to think carefully about what it had meant to be a woman, how it had affected her upbringing, her aspirations and choices. Beauvoir saidâprobably with a touch of impatienceâthat she didn't think it had affected her much at all. She had never felt inferior because she was a woman, and her education placed her among the privileged few. She and Sartre had not married, they did not have children, they did not live under the same roof, they each had other lovers: she felt freer than most of the men she knew. “All the same.” Sartre insisted, “you weren't
brought up in the same way as a boy would have been; you should look into it further.”
Convinced she could dispense with the subject quickly, Beauvoir went to the BibliothÃ¨que Nationale and looked up everything she could find about women and the myths of femininity. After some weeks, she felt as if her head had been turned inside out. “It was a revelation,” she would write. “This world was a masculine world, my childhood had been nourished by myths forged by men, and I hadn't reacted to them in at all the same way I should have done if I had been a boy.”
She temporarily put aside her memoir project, and wrote
The Second Sex.
The book would cause an outcry when it appeared in France in 1949. Beauvoir had broached so many taboo subjects: women's sexuality, lesbianism, abortion, and the horror of aging. Not for the first timeânor would it be the lastâshe was accused of exhibitionism, impropriety, vulgarity, godlessness, and even ridiculing the French male.
Beauvoir did not return to her childhood memoirs for ten years. In the meantime her life had changed dramatically.
The Second Sex
had been highly acclaimed in the United States, with none of the sour resentment that had greeted the book in France. She had written about her travels in the United States and in China. In 1954
won the most prestigious literary prize in France, proving that Beauvoir was far more than a brilliant polemicist; she was also a first-rate fiction writer. The novel was dedicated to the Chicago writer, Nelson Algren, and Beauvoir made no secret of the fact that the “American love story” was closely based on their affair. By the time Beauvoir sat down to write her memoirs, she was regarded throughout the world as an outstanding example of that rather dubious phenomenon: the independent woman. She would now look back upon her past through a rather different prism.
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
would take Beauvoir eighteen months to write. Never had she enjoyed researching a book more. It was an excuse to peruse old journals and letters, to go back to the library and look at newspapers from her childhood, to reread the books that had influenced her as a girl, to swap memories with her sister, and her childhood friends. She worried that memoirs were a self-indulgent art form, but Sartre reminded her that the most deeply personal writing was also the most universal.
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
is a fascinating picture of a Victorian girlhood. Born into the French bourgeoisie in 1908, Simone de Beauvoir grew up at a time in which women did not vote. France's most elite educational institutions were for men only and in order to aspire to a socially desirable marriage, a young woman, however beautiful and cultivated, had to come with a substantial dowry. In Catholic circles, nobody minded if men went to church or not (Simone's father was an atheist), but women who did not believe in God were thought of as monsters. (When Simone stopped believing in God at the age of fifteen, she felt obliged, for several years, to keep her dark secret to herself.) Respectable women did not drink or smoke in public, and did not set foot in cafÃ©s, let alone in bars. Whereas bourgeois young men were encouraged to “sow their wild oats” in brothels or with servant girls, their female counterparts remained virgins until they were married. Woe betide those who remained “on the shelf,” an unmarried woman was an object of pity.
With her memoirs, Simone de Beauvoir found herself once again pushing against boundaries. As a “committed intellectual,” she considered that she had a responsibility to tell the truth, to debunk myths, to expose the ideologies that deprived people of their freedom. But how could she write openly about
her parents, their extended family and friends, and the nuns who had taught her at school? Her father had died during the war, but her mother was still alive, and she would be hurt and mortified by a book in which Simone exposed family secrets and conflicts. Beauvoir discussed these problems with Sartre. Did she dare write about her friend Zaza's family, and show how Zaza's parents had destroyed Zaza's life? What about the young men Simone had been in love with, before deciding that they did not measure up to Sartre? Even if she protected certain people by using pseudonyms, they would recognize themselves instantly, and so would anyone who knew them. In the weeks before the book came out, Beauvoir made nervous entries in her journal: “I do feel uneasyâalmost remorsefulâwhen I think of all the people I've brought into it and who'll be furious.”
Beauvoir looks back at her past with the precision of a historian, the detachment of a sociologist, the insight of a psychologist, and the dramatic flair of a novelist. As always, she is questioning, probing, and fiercely intelligent. The narrative is suffused with gentle humor (a quality that sadly becomes rare in her later memoirs), and she is often self-mocking. Those passages in which she describes her childhood summers in the countryside of Limousin are among her most lyrical writing ever.
We see young Simone in a stifling, repressive environment, painfully alone and often quite desperate. How was the future existentialist in any way free? At eighteen, she was still completely dependent on her parents, and did not dare disobey them or lie to them, but her mother often forbade her to do things that would have stretched her horizons. “I was choking with fury,” Beauvoir writes. “Not only had I been condemned to exile, but I was not even allowed the freedom to fight
against my barren lot; my actions, my gestures, my words were all rigidly controlled.”
What would save her from this wasteland of boredom and passivity?
In the opening pages of
All Said and Done,
Beauvoir muses more overtly and analytically about the factors that shape our destinies. “How is a life formed? How much of it is made up by circumstances, how much by necessity, how much by chance, and how much by the subject's own options and his personal initiatives?” She declares it a piece of good luck that her father lost his fortune at the end of World War I. It meant that she and her sister would not have a dowry, and could no longer aspire to what was considered a good marriage. As a consequence, her father encouraged Simone to become a secondary school teacher. In what way did Simone de Beauvoir herself choose her path? As she sees it, her “original project,” which she constantly pursued and strengthened, was “
savoir et exprimer
,” to know and to communicate. As a child, she already had a powerful curiosity, which she would never lose. Her reading broadened her horizons; her desire to learn opened doors. The decision to take the high-flying
led to what she terms “the most important event in my life.” her meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre.
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
carries a strong message: Have the courage to go toward freedom, however difficult this might be. If the book ends on a highly dramatic note, it's because Zaza, Simone de Beauvoir's closest childhood friend, felt unable to take this path. She remained a dutiful Catholic daughter, stifled and repressed, at the expense of her talent and desires. Beauvoir believes it was this inner conflict that killed Zaza, at the tender age of twenty-one. “For a long time,” Beauvoir writes, “I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.”
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
was published in 1958, readers loved it. The reception was so encouraging that Beauvoir decided to embark on a sequel, and then another. Her memoirs appeared during the sixties and seventies, those years of heady social upheaval, and countless young people took Sartre and Beauvoir's open relationship as their model.
With the advent of the women's movement in the late sixties, Beauvoir's star glittered more brightly than ever, while Sartre's faded somewhat. Some of the hotheaded young feminists had little time for Sartre, and for the deferential way in which Beauvoir, in her memoirs, insisted on seeing him as her superior. Beauvoir became defensive. She who had spent a lifetime railing against stultifying “roles,” now tended to project herself as the model independent woman in a model independent relationship. But life is never quite that simple. There were things Beauvoir could not say, things she did not want to say. Her memoirs paint a somewhat idealized picture of her relationship with Sartre.
Beauvoir plunged into life with indefatigable energy and curiosity, determined to live every moment to the fullest. For her, writing about it made the experience of living sharper. With this second tasting, she could reflect on her life, give it form and shape, and turn it into an adventure. Already as an adolescent, she had dreamed of making her life into a grand story that would inspire others. Writing would guarantee her an immortality that would make up for the loss of a heaven. “There was no longer any God to love me, but I should have the undying love of millions of hearts. By writing a work based on my own experience I would re-create myself and justify my existence. At the same time I would be serving humanity: What more beautiful gift could I make it than the books I would write?”