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.