Thursday, 10 January 2008

When I first read Simone de Beauvoir

I only found out late last night that yesterday was the centenary of Simone de Beauvoir’s birth. Of the rash of media coverage caught up with today, I particularly enjoyed the series of personal appreciations by intellectuals, writers and feminists in the online Guardian, especially Lynne Segal's (though the level of readers' comments is pretty damn depressing - ugh!). Hard to believe she was born 100 years ago, since she was still very much alive and active when I first read her.

Autumn 1974: I was a student teaching assistant at a lycée in a small mountain town in central France. It was a beautiful place, but in those days very remote and no one was much interested in learning English or having anything to do with a foreigner. I was 20 and had never lived on my own, never mind spent most hours of every day alone. What kept me sane was reading almost the then complete works of de Beauvoir, purchased in the town’s single small stationer/bookshop. The shop’s row of white shiny folio paperbacks slowly shrank and the row on my bookshelf in the small, bare bedroom at the lycée grew. I read The Second Sex, all four volumes of the memoirs, the novels including the two fat volumes of The Mandarins and my favourite, L’Invitée, and many shorter works. I disappeared into her world for all those endless evenings alone. It was a rich and intense journey through many hundreds of thousands of words of history, biography, fiction and intellectual debate. I left my lonely room to live in the Paris of a generation earlier, the heady days of existentialism and early feminism, and learned an enormous amount. No one did so much to form my ignorant young mind. Few writers mean as much to me.

I chucked in the job and nearly chucked in my degree studies. My planned research project on de Beauvoir and the interplay of memoir and fiction never got written. But the interplay of life, stories and writing remains at the heart of my preoccupations. I read most of de Beauvoir’s later work as it was published and she will always have a big place in my intellectual and emotional landscape. Those shiny white paperbacks – now shiny yellow – still sit on my top bookshelf. Recently I took down L’Invitée and the volume of memoirs covering her fifties to re-read. I must admit that I didn’t really get into them. Perhaps, in the context of a lifetime’s reading, they aren’t quite as wonderful as I remember. Perhaps, too, they moved me and shifted my mindset so much thirty years ago that this can only be diluted by revisiting them.

There was another reason why she figured largely in my emotional landscape in the years following that first reading. I came back from France and fell in love, with a man who surely much resembled Jean-Paul Sartre: small and unprepossessing, brilliant and charismatic – and a compulsive womaniser. He was a wonderful man in many ways. We loved each other so much: I never doubted his love for a moment. But I couldn’t, wouldn’t deal with all the other women. I had enough of it and ran away to London, but a little bit of me continued for a long, long time to miss him, turn to look for him and wonder why he wasn't there. Soul-mates come along rarely. I used often to think of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s enduring and famously ‘open’ relationship, and wonder why I couldn’t be like her. I guess I only understood much later that it was because I lacked her strong sense of herself, her constant invention and re-invention of self in her mind and work (I know, I know, I grossly simplify ... nonetheless...).

Come to think of it, maybe no writer means as much to me.

10 comments:

Pica said...

Jean: thanks for this lovely glimpse into a period of your past. And present. I admit to having been a bit clobbered by the pounding rhetoric of Le deuxième sexe and irritated by its circuitousness, but I'm sure I'd have more patience with it now.

I used to have shelves full of white shiny Folio editions too. Few survived my many moves. But libraries are good for this.

Dave said...

If Beth and I ever get a commentary section of qarrtsiluni launched, this is exactly the sort of essay we will be looking to publish. Very moving. Thanks.

marja-leena said...

Yes, very moving and personal, Jean, thank you!

balatron said...

Oh Jean, I can relate ... since I went through much the same experiences reading Simone de Beauvoir, including my own reenactment of a life with Sartre in the form of a brilliant Irish/English boyfriend who managed to bring out the best in me when it came to academics and theory, but whose relationships with other women drove me to strange behaviors of my own.

How I miss those times, though -- the clarity of thinking and the muddle of feelings....

Thank you for this post!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... I ws hoping that TypeKey would have my right name when I used it just now to leave a comment for you ... "balatron' is Maria of "small change" over at smallchangeblog.com.

Maria

litlove said...

What a wonderful post! I, too, lived and taught in France for a year and fell in love with Beauvoir whilst there (L'Invitee, did it for me). And although I didn't find a Sartrean soulmate, I certainly would have done if I could!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Jean, you write so vividly that I can almost enter your 20-year old mind and space. I was similarly excited by Simone when I first read her and remember writing in my diary that I wanted to have the kind of relationship she had with Sartre. Of course, when it came to it, I too found it hard to cope with the constitutionally incapable of fidelity man. I tried the tit-for-tat retaliation but alas, love gets in the way. I think the same thing may have applied to Madame de B. especially when Jean-Paul didn't tell her about some of the affairs he was having, contrary to their 'opennness' rule.

Lucy said...

I loved this, how vividly you call it back, and how exceptional and courageous you were and are.(Employing sensitive 20 year olds as lycee assistantes seems to be a particularly crass form of sadism in the educational system, they can't get them now and I'm not surprised.)

I'm never sure about revisiting the authors that have seemed so powerful in one's youth, it often seems disappointing.


Wasn't there a tale of Sartre saying to someone that the secret of successful relationships with women was never to tell them the truth. "Even the Beaver?" they asked, "Especially the Beaver!" he replied. The glamour of such 'open' (and why is it always in inverted commas?) relationships was perhaps not all it was cooked up to be.

tamarika said...

I've been away from blogging too much because of book - editorial revisions etc. Am thrilled to read more about you, Jean, and especially about De Beauvoir. I have been thinking about reading some of her stuff now that the book is on its way ... this has convinced me.
Smiles.

Jean said...

Tamar, I would most recommend any of her several volumes of memoirs or her book about old age, or A Very Easy Death, about her mother, or, if you want fiction, L'Invitee (She Came to Stay). The Second Sex, is one of her earliest works, very rambling and perhaps not as engaging as much of her work, unless you are particularly interested in what she was the first to say about a specific aspect of feminist analysis.