Beauvoir, Simone de 1908–
A French existentialist novelist and essayist, Mlle. Beauvoir most recently published a study of the problems of the aged, The Coming of Age. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
The more I read of Mlle de Beauvoir, the more I have the impression that I met her, under various manifestations, during my schooldays. No doubt there is one in every educational establishment. She was the one in the front row of the class whose high marks led you to hope for an original intelligence. Disappointed (quickly) of that, you still looked for a reliable academic mind. It turned out to be a mind capable of missing entire points, and incapable both of the precision of an artist and of the accuracy of a scholar. Not inspired enough to be slap-dash, it was often slipshod. In the end, you were obliged to admit that the high marks reflected nothing but obedient work; that what seemed to be intellectual passion was only a sense of duty—plus, it might be, a devotion to the professor; that you were up against, in short, a plodder.
Mlle de Beauvoir is a plodder par excellence and even, I almost suspect, by wanton and perverse choice. Her first noval, L'Invitée, ill articulated as it was, did generate an intensity of moral atmosphere. It was a thunderous afternoon from which something might have flashed. Since then Mlle de Beauvoir has made it plain that in her judgment the flash of wit, irony or poetry is no better than the flashy. Neither the strategy nor the tactics of her writing will have any truck with metaphor. She disdains—or does not command—those moments of thought or language which simultaneously fuse two images and illuminate or sear the reader. Not for her the masterstroke which cuts a long story short; she opts every time for the Long March—the long plod….
Sense of style Mlle de Beauvoir seems to lack utterly. She claims 'a certain rigour' for the style of [The Mandarins]—but that is almost as ironic as her fear of sounding pedantic if she finishes her sentences in conversation. So far is she from pedantry that in this book she does not get the middle of her sentences syntactically correct. The participants and phrases which float, unattached or wrongly attached, through the translation are faithful renderings of the French text….
Mlle de Beauvoir has often (though not so often as she might, had she exercised her intellect and imagination more ardently) been on the side of the angels; but the method by which she arrived there must often have been enough to make the angels weep.
Brigid Brophy, "Simone de Beauvoir" (1965), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 285-89.
["The Woman Destroyed" consists of two] long stories and a short novel on the menace of middle age. The only unsatisfactory thing about them is that they are not fiction. Simone de Beauvoir writes with perception, grace and intelligence on the subject of aging women very much as she wrote about all women in "The Second Sex." She belongs to that estimable line of classically articulate Europeans; she is a pleasure to read, and for anyone who happens to be interested in women she is instructive. But the heroines breathe collectively, not individually. They are amorphous. They are extensions of Mme. de Beauvoir rather than themselves. Once this is accepted, there is not much to quibble about….
Indeed, everything that happens in all three stories is credible, which is an achievement. What is significant is what is missing—the violent touch of life that distinguishes high art from craftsmanship.
Evan S. Connell, Jr., in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 23, 1969, p. 4.
The existentialist that she is, de Beauvoir concludes [in La Viellesse, published in America as The Coming of Age] that old age belongs to "unrealizable categories." Whereas the adult attains his essence through conception and realization of projects, the old, faced with finitude, stumbling on the external limits of possibility and death, lose both the taste and the capacity for most undertakings. Their "experience," on which some primitive tribes still depend (leading them to veneration of the old), is of little value to an increasingly technocratic society whose incessant discoveries immediately seem to render the accumulated knowledge of the past obsolete.
But, it will be argued, young adults know that they will, one day, become old, and for their own future protection certain measures are taken, here and there, to ameliorate the state of senescence. On the contrary, the author implies, human nature being what is is, what happens to another cannot happen to me and, as with death, the possibility of getting old is often shrugged off by most of us, while we give only lip service to organized efforts for improving the life of the aged….
[At] a time when all over the world youth is ascendant, Simone de Beauvoir, contrary to vogues or trends, dares to publish a monumental treatise on old age; and at a time when people-become-robots put less and less stock in dreams, she is capable of engaging in utopian reveries of a world in which the old might hold on to their human dignity and pride. At age sixty-three she confessed: "I am on the edge of old age [but] I hope to live to the end of my days." And, if her treatise finds no solution (the role of the writer, in French literary tradition, is to uncover problems, not to solve them), Simone de Beauvoir demonstrates, in La Vieillesse, the fact that she does live to the end of her days, productively and, despite all, in hope.
Alfred Cismaru, "Enduring Existentialists: Sartre and de Beauvoir in Their Golden Age" (© 1971 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 4; reprinted by permission of the editors), in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, 1971–72, pp. 557-64.
Now that technology, medical science, oft-tweaked social consciences and resultant facilities have increased our ability to cope with the physiological and pathological complaints of the aged, and longevity has become the rule rather than the exception, we have to face a new set of problems. Mlle (or ought one to recognise her age and standing and call her Madame?) de Beauvoir challenges society to break down its taboos about old age, with brave yet banal resolution she accuses us of a conspiracy of silence. She is, however, too good a writer to remain committed for long to her sketchy and rather preposterous manifesto for Old Lib….
De Beauvoir's highly researched, consistently informative and surprisingly entertaining work [Old Age; published in America as The Coming of Age] deals in some measure with all aspects of old age….
De Beauvoir writes very much as a French woman. Her country has, mercifully, not nurtured a youth culture of the kind which has plagued the Anglo-Saxon countries in recent years and which, in its early twilight, has come to seek Wisdom (big W) at the feet of the picturesquely elderly—sages with white beards and lies of a like hue disguised as proverbs. And although she is aware of this culture's emphasis on individually, 'simplicity', etc, she does not fully appreciate, the lack of respect for family bonds that it has engendered. In France and southern countries the family is still strong and its elderly members are likely to be cared for more conscientiously by their kin than they are in northern climes where senile delinquency (a term coined by psychologist Louis Kuplin who might well have his eye on a spot of coverage) is on the increase; one of the factors contributing to it being neglect by those once succoured.
One wonders why so little is inclined on the subject of euthanasia; one regrets that the author had to wave her favourite flag and assert, with little evidence to support her, that the aged fare better in the USSR and 'popular democracies' than they do in the West; and one hopes, even longs for an active and randy old age like Victor Hugo.
Jonathan Meades, "The Ghostly Intruder," in Books and Bookmen, May, 1972, pp. 50-1.
The unrelenting industry of Simone de Beauvoir is astounding, and it is almost as great as that of Sartre. Like her companion, she continues adding to an achievement and a career of a kind that new modes of education, communication, and illiteracy may soon render quaint, if not impossible. Beauvoir, among the earliest women to have haunted the libraries of the Sorbonne after World War I, may turn out to be the last of this formidable breed. Unless illness prevents her, however, she will probably keep on dutifully working and producing until she dies. What she can find as a subject to write about after The Coming of Age is not clear, for this book looks like a culmination; but she will doubtless find something to engage her energy.
The Coming of Age (in French, less poetically and ambiguously, La Vieillesse) is about old age, in approximately the same way The Second Sex was about women. Critics and readers who brought large and small complaints against Beauvoir's feminist book will have the same ones to make against The Coming of Age, with equal justice. Beauvoir does not have a subtle or original mind, and her style—with fleeting exceptions—is plodding. She has apparently devoured whole libraries, but digested them incompletely. Her syntheses are a little too pat, and often betray the fact that she has swallowed the work of three men in particular (Marx, Freud, and Sartre) uncritically. She is still in the habit, as she was in The Second Sex, of giving the reader long plot summaries of classics he has probably read. She hardly ever fails to provide six illustrations when one or two would have been enough. She also, for all her thoroughness, often has a sloppy way about her….
Such complaints are well-founded, but they miss the point of Beauvoir's virtues. These are doggedness, sincerity, courage, and a certain ameliorative intention that resists experience and refuses to surrender to pessimism. The complaints might also obscure the specific virtue and agony of this book on old age, which constitutes a long struggle on the writer's part to hold on to her cheerfulness despite the worst that time can do….
The anguish in The Coming of Age is real, palpable, felt. It is not the "anguish" that is present merely as a philosophical formulation. And it is not just the anguish of an aging person, but specifically the anguish of an aging woman. The way Beauvoir confronts it is remarkable, not least because of her courage, but also because it is a confrontation she posited, agreed to, anticipated long ago, as a philosopher, a novelist, an autobiographer: yet for all that the confrontation is as if for the first time, and it is uniquely shocking.
Edward Grossman, "Beauvoir's Last Revolt" (reprinted by permission from Commentary; © 1972 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, August, 1972, pp. 56-9.