The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 4: Simone de Beauvoir

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.

Beauvoir / Sartre Grave (Montparnasse)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.

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13 Responses to The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 4: Simone de Beauvoir

  1. Ben Wiebe says:

    I love when you write about your passions. Also, this reminds me that I need to pick up where I left off in America Day By Day. There have been so many other distracting books taking up vying for my attention.

    • I don’t think this post even does justice to how much Beauvoir has influenced my life, but I had to try!

      I want to re-read The Mandarins, but I really would like to have it as an ebook so I don’t have to carry around the paperback. I would be lost without my Kindle these days…

  2. Oh, Alyssa, you are so…literate! I tell you what…you read everything about S dB and let me know the highlights, and I’ll read People Magazine and keep you up to date. Heck, I’ll even throw in Vanity Fair as part of my contribution…

  3. Alyssa,

    I really enjoyed this series of posts. I’ve been a reader of Sartre and Beauvoir for many years. And in a similar way, they formed the basis for a deeper interest in the French language, its literature, the culture, etc.

    Curious to know whether you’ve traveled to France, or written about it on the blog.

    Just discovered your blog, and look forward to reading more.

    • Hi Robert,
      Thanks so much for stopping by, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts! I need to write some more ‘Unabashed Francophile’ posts, as I’ve been slacking in that department lately.

      I have traveled to Paris (in 2003), and maybe that can form some of my next posts.

      When did you start reading Sartre & Beauvoir, and how did you get into their books? I was introduced to Sartre during a Philosophy of Literature class, and the professor only briefly mentioned Beauvoir, but I was intrigued enough to look her up.

  4. Alyssa,

    I began reading Sartre in my last year of high school, in 1989. In March of that year, I went on a school trip to the Soviet Union, with a couple of days in Paris on the way back. Russia was memorable and profound in many ways, but the encounter with Paris was something else altogether.

    I remember it being unseasonably warm when we arrived, which felt great after the freezing weather we endured in Moscow. We stayed out all night wandering the city, and then toured some of it the next day. We caught a glimpse of the Cafe de Flore and other a few other of Sartre and Beauvoir’s favourite places. The whole brief experience was a like a dream I would revisit every day for several years thereafter.

    I spent much of my undergrad, in Ontario, reading Sartre, Beauvoir (mostly her memoir and non-fiction — can’t believe I still haven’t read the Mandarins), and many other canonical works of French lit. (Intrigued to see that you’re reading Violet Leduc, by the way…)

    I would eventually return to Paris by third year, and then a few times since — but not nearly as often as I’d like. Each time I do, I’m always overwhelmed with how beautiful it is. I kind of assume at the back of my mind that I will live there at some point. That I belong there. I’m just temporarily on leave.

    O.k., sorry, getting sidetracked. I will be a lifelong reader of S and B, and many other French authors. So, I’m delighted to see that they’re still being discovered. And I love the title “unabashed Francophile”. (Is that even allowed in Alberta!?!!!)

    • Violet’s on rest until I finish Ulysses… for now. 🙂 I did at least read SdB’s introduction though.

      I’ve only been to Paris once, and that was several years ago (as you’ll see in my upcoming entries). I’d love very much to go back.

      Not too many French-speakers here in AB… at least, not that I know personally. I’d like to meet some so I could practice my French and not be completely useless. I have met very few people who have read either Sartre or Beauvoir; usually I’m the one pushing a copy of She Came to Stay into someone’s hands. I sent a friend of mine a copy of America Day by Day, and he liked it. It’s a fantastic travel diary. Though some of it is rather dated, it’s enlightening to see American culture through the eyes of a foreigner.

  5. I find it hard to keep up with French culture out here in Vancouver. Radio Canada is about the extent of it.

    I have read both S and B’s journalism and reflections on their American travels, and it’s fascinating to get their take on North American culture. I’m also intrigued by B’s relationship with Algren and the whole strange mix of relations between S+B and their many lovers. Which raises the point that I seem to have spent more time in recent years reading about these authors than reading them directly…

    Looking forward to your ‘Paris Day by Day’…

    • A Transatlantic Love Affair was a fascinating book. There’s something about reading someone else’s letters that can really just bring them alive. SdB’s English (‘I put your underwears into a little coffin’ or somesuch) makes me smile.

      What biographies and such would you recommend? I’ve read Hazel Rowley’s book, and a few others. Wondering if Toril Moi’s bio is worth getting.

      1st installment of Paris Day by Day is up tomorrow 🙂

  6. I haven’t read either the Rowley or the Moi bios, but I’ve heard them speak and they both have interesting things to say (especially Moi on B).

    Early on, I read Anne Cohen-Solal’s bio of Sartre, which is by far the best, I think. It was a deeply impressionable read. Soon after, I read Deirdre Bair’s bio of B, which was also quite good (very long and detailed, but worthwhile). I’ve since read all of the major biographies of Sartre, and perhaps the only one that stands out is Ronald Hayman’s “Writing Against.”

    They’re both controversial figures in their own ways — with aspects of their lives that are less flattering than others. (Perhaps this is more so the case with Sartre.) And I appreciate reading both the friendly and less friendly assessments of them, because collectively they lend a better sense of the two as ordinary human beings, despite their extraordinary lives.

    Reading a neat book at the moment called “Unfinished Projects: Decolonization and the Philosophy of J-P Sartre” published by Verso in 2010. It appears to have been the author’s doctoral thesis in history at Berkeley — and it’s the sort of topic I wish I had come up with myself… Also mainly about what is in some ways the most interesting period in Sartre’s life — the 50’s to the late 60’s…

  7. Pingback: The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 9: My Trip to Paris (1) | Musings of a Writer and Unabashed Francophile, by Alyssa Linn Palmer

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