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.