The first volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, Memoires d’une jeune fille rangee (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959), traces her successful revolt against French Catholicism and bourgeois idealism. Significantly, this second installment begins with this observation: “The most intoxicating aspect of my return to Paris in September, 1929, was the freedom I now possessed.” The Prime of Life describes how de Beauvoir guarded and used that freedom for the succeeding fifteen years.
Her life during this period, like the historical events that impinge upon her despite her best efforts to escape their effects, divides into two parts, and so does the book. The first, and longer, section treats her experiences during the 1930’s, as she establishes her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre and gropes her way toward becoming a writer. For her this is a decade of splendid isolation and introspection, brought to a jarring end by the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II.
Quoting diary entries to help portray the years between 1939 and the liberation of Paris in 1944, de Beauvoir in the second part traces her growing realization that the personal freedom she treasures must not be pursued, indeed cannot be maintained, without concern for others. During the war years she matures into the engaged intellectual that she remained until her death. As she becomes more conscious of the relevance of world affairs to her own life, they assume a larger role in her book, so that The Prime of Life presents a sensitive, firsthand account of life in occupied France.
Because Sartre was in many ways her second self, The Prime of Life offers a dual autobiography. It describes the development of Sartre’s existential philosophy, as well as his hobbies (such as playing with a yo-yo), his aversions (to tomatoes, for example), and his pleasures. One sees de Beauvoir and Sartre traveling, eating, arguing, reading, enjoying films and plays, walking across mountainous landscapes and through museum corridors. De Beauvoir treats their lives, individually and together, with careful attention to detail; yet, as she warns her readers in the preface, she has “no intention of telling them everything. . . . There are many things which I firmly intend to leave in obscurity.” As is so often true of authors, a full picture of her life and thoughts emerges only in her fiction.
For a dozen years, from 1931 to 1943, de Beauvoir taught philosophy, first in Marseille and later in Rouen and Paris. Her intention was to train her students to think as she did, and her didacticism is evident in The Prime of Life. At the end of each part she presents a brief summary of the lessons she has learned, the ways in which her life was changed, and the distance she has yet to travel between the young woman who is the subject of the book and the middle-aged woman writing it. She adheres to her determination “to set out the facts in as frank a way as possible, neither simplifying their ambiguities nor swaddling them in false syntheses,” and she acknowledges that “self-knowledge is impossible.” Yet the older de Beauvoir cannot escape becoming a character in the account and serves as a chorus to guide the reader’s interpretation.
Beyond Simone de Beauvoir’s now-classic study of the subordinate role that women have played throughout history, Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1952), her self-exploratory series of autobiographies may well constitute her most lasting achievement. The initial volume, Memoires d’une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter , 1959), describes her first twenty-one years and focuses on her steady but painful...
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movement away from her parents’ rigid, petit bourgeois values. The second installment,The Prime of Life, spans the fullness of her years, from the summer of 1929 to the liberation of Paris in August, 1944. It begins on a note of relief at her emancipation from her family and closes on an even higher note of joy at France’s deliverance from the Germans. Beauvoir’s subsequent memoirs include La Force des choses (1963; The Force of Circumstance, 1965), Une Mort très douce (1964; A Very Easy Death, 1966), and Tout Compte fait (1972; All Said and Done, 1974). Her book on Jean-Paul Sartre’s declining years, La Cérémonie des adieux (1981; Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, 1984), is also deeply self-revealing.
In July, 1929, Beauvoir was a philosophy student at France’s most distinguished university, the École Normal Supérieure. Studying for her comprehensive orals, she was invited to join a small circle of male fellow-students who were also preparing for them; one of them was the intellectually dazzling Sartre. By the fall, they had begun a friendship and companionship that was to become a lifelong union. They agreed that, while theirs was an “essential” love, it should not be allowed to degenerate into constraint or mere habit; nor should their partnership prevent them from experiencing “contingent” liaisons with others. Moreover, they promised neither to lie to each other nor to conceal anything from each other. They considered theirs an enduring alliance “of the mind, the imagination and the senses.” After all, they shared a passionate commitment to thinking, to writing, to individual freedom, to words, words, words. “One single aim fired us,” states Beauvoir, “the urge to embrace all experience, and to bear witness concerning it.”
Sartre and Beauvoir initially decided on a “two-year lease” for their relationship, then renewed it for their lives. Since they intended to pursue their respective careers and anticipated long periods of separation, and since neither desired children, they saw no need to marry. By the spring of 1934, however, when Sartre was offered a position at a lycée in Le Havre and Beauvoir a similar posting in Marseilles, at the opposite end of France, he did offer to marry her so that they could both teach in the same preparatory school. She declined his proposal, to safeguard their independence. By 1936, both she and Sartre were teaching in Paris. They became the reigning couple of a group they termed “the Family.” The unchanging core of this unit consisted of the Kosakievicz sisters, Olga and Wanda (both of whom Sartre bedded), and Jacques-Laurent Bost, a brilliant journalist who married the moody Olga and was also an occasional bed-partner of Beauvoir. She and Sartre would congratulate themselves for having originated a new social network, a chosen rather than genetic family.
Beauvoir’s association with Olga Kosakievicz, who had originally been her nine-years-younger pupil, was particularly close. She found the Russian girl to be an intelligent and sensitive companion with whom she could talk intimately about everything. Yet the Sartre-Beauvoir-Kosakievicz-Bost quartet never attained the equilibrium and harmony in fact that Sartre and Beauvoir considered attainable in theory, since Olga’s shifting moods kept the others continually off balance. Olga’s intrusion into the intimacy Beauvoir and Sartre were enjoying provided Beauvoir with the plot for her acclaimed novel L’Invitée (1943; She Came to Stay, 1954).
The 1930’s were extremely active years for Beauvoir. She read voraciously, discovering Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Martin Heidegger, and Edmund Husserl, among others. She frequented, usually with Sartre, cafés, theaters, cinemas, art galleries, grubby pubs, jazz dives, and lively, long-lasting parties, strolling, scribbling, and talking with enormous energy. To the urban Sartre’s discomfort, she loved to clamber up steep and stony hillsides in search of ancient ruins, to conquer rock walls, to hike through not only France but also Spain, Italy, and Greece, seeking mountain peaks to conquer.
As World War II approached, Beauvoir and Sartre finally abandoned their apolitical, self-interested individualism, which excluded meaningful concern for others. They were, to be sure, broadly in favor of social justice, but they remained indifferent to the day-to-day occurrences of domestic and world politics. The atrocities committed by the Nazis at last convinced Beauvoir and Sartre, in mid-1939, that war was inevitable and that they needed to commit themselves to political action. After some unsuccessful Resistance work, however, they concentrated on their writing, and they made their literary reputations during the German Occupation. With the Allied entry into Paris, Beauvoir ends her book with an ardent appetite for further challenges: “. . . the more I saw of the world, the more I realized that it was brimming over with all I could ever hope to experience, understand, and put into words.”
Simone de Beauvoir occupies a deservedly central place in the history of feminism. In The Second Sex, she uses existential notions of people’s need to establish their freedom in a purposeless, absurd universe to encourage women no longer to resign themselves to the role of the weaker and inferior person in relation to a man. In much of her fiction, such as the novel Les Mandarins (1954; The Mandarins, 1956), she describes women whose dependency on men has hobbled their ability to construct satisfying lives for themselves. As much as any writer, she is responsible for inspiring women’s movements throughout the world.
In The Prime of Life, however, Beauvoir’s influence on women’s issues, and hence women’s literature, is a mixed one. She frequently asserts her claim that highly charged emotional relationships are amenable to rational control, that people can rigidly compartmentalize their emotional and intellectual needs. Yet her autobiography testifies otherwise. She admits that “. . . my body had its own whims, and I was powerless to control them; their violence overrode all my defenses.” Her sexual appetites, she discovers, “were greater than I wanted them to be” and greater than she cared to avow to Sartre, despite their pact of absolute candor with each other. “By driving me to such secrecy my body became a stumbling block rather than a bond of union between us.” Yet she provides the reader with no advice on how sexual relationships are to be conducted or what role physical affection is to play in one’s personal life. In Beauvoir’s fiction, most affairs bring humiliation and destruction to women.
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir argues that much of woman’s psychological self is socially constructed, with few physiologically rooted feminine qualities or values. One assumes that she would question much of the American feminist concern for “women’s culture” and “feminist studies.” In The Prime of Life, she describes marriage and family life in generally negative terms, with coolness toward relatives and no interest in children. She has achieved autonomy from parental control, barely mentions her mother, and devotes only one paragraph to her father’s death in 1941.
Beauvoir carefully explains her rejection of motherhood:[Sartre] was sufficient both for himself and me. I too was self-sufficient. I never once dreamed of rediscovering myself in the child I might bear. . . . Maternity itself seemed incompatible with the way of life upon which I was embarking. . . . By remaining childless I was fulfilling my proper function.
It can be argued, however, that both she and Sartre acted out parental roles in their relationships with students and other young people whom they admitted to their circle. In this regard, their ultimately failed friendship with Olga Kosakievicz provides a provocative example, since Beauvoir depicted the pains of the Beauvoir-Sartre-Kosakievicz triangle in She Came to Stay, whose publication justified her claim to be a writer—and not to be a mother. In The Prime of Life, Simone de Beauvoir gives birth not to children but to her career. Surely, a number of other talented women have been encouraged by her work to do likewise.
Brée, Germaine. Women Writers in France. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973. Professor Bree, a leading authority on contemporary French literature, discusses Beauvoir’s writings with sensitive understanding.
Leighton, Jean. Simone de Beauvoir on Woman. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975. This is a luminous interpretation of feminism in Beauvoir’s work.
Marks, Elaine, ed. Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. An assemblage of nearly thirty articles, essays, and reviews by such scholars and critics as Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Rene Girard, Francis Jeanson, and Terry Keefe.
Marks, Elaine. Simone de Beauvoir: Encounters with Death. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973. By far the leading book-length interpretation of Beauvoir’s career, this work is both learned and lucidly written.
Winegarten, Renée. Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical View. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Winegarten’s study is compact, incisive, and often sharply skeptical of Beauvoir’s behavior, such as her slow awakening to political responsibility. A ten-page chronology of Beauvoir’s life is included.