Beauvoir, Simone de (Vol. 1)
Beauvoir, Simone de 1908–
A French existentialist and associate of Jean-Paul Sartre, Miss Beauvoir is a novelist and essayist as well as a philosopher. The Second Sex is a masterful study of the role of women in history. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)
Among the novelists … whose names have recurred in the pages of Temps Modernes, Simone de Beauvoir has certainly been one of the most gifted and tenacious….
Her first book was a novel, L'Invitée, published in 1943, and it brought her immediate fame. In it the author dispensed with psychological analysis and showed different characters in 'situations'. Caring nothing either for morals or for the conformism that novelists (male and female) generally demonstrate in the portrayal of their heroines, Simone de Beauvoir presented women, in their everyday behaviour and dealing with the most serious problems, that one had not yet met in fiction….
The novels which follow—Le Sang des Autres, 1944, Tous les Hommes sont Mortels, 1947—are not based on the same 'lived' (or living) experience and reveal to a greater degree their philosophical strings….
As in the work of Sartre, the desire to edify (in the best sense of the word) is not absent from the novelist's intentions. Existentialist novelists wish to write works that 'signify' something rather than 'significant' ones. In less gifted hands this resulted in a more or less well-ordered, lifeless and somewhat dated ballet of philosophical, moral or even sociological concepts. Such works have historical value: they help us to recreate that confused period in our recent history. In writing Mémoires d'une Jeune Fille Rangée, 1958, followed by La Force de l'Age (which for the war and occupation are openly in the form of a journal), the author of Le Deuxième Sexe shows her preference for autobiography and the direct account over the fictional form. The necessities of invention can no longer distort what she feels, in all honesty, should be told.
Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; © 1967 by Methuen and Co., Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 92-4 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).
No French woman writer as yet has probably risen to the stature of Jane Austen or of Virginia Woolf, of Willa Cather, perhaps even of Edith Wharton. The exception, towering above all other women writers, may well be Simone de Beauvoir. She has not been daunted by the male conspiracy. Feminine charm has not been denied her; her intuition can be as piercing and her touch as delicate as those of women writers who never mastered Spinoza or Hegel. With Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), she has achieved, however, in spite of some needless display of pedantry and crudeness, the most formidable vindication of woman's rights since Mary Wollstonecraft, and she has, in her Ethics of Ambiguity, given the best exposition to date of existentialist ethics. She ranks, with Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, as one of the three best philosophers of French atheistic existentialism. And two of her novels are among the finest fictional accomplishments of that militant group that has invaded the drama, the short story, and critical and polemical writing, as well as the novel and philosophy. The third, Tous les hommes sont mortels, is an artistic failure such as the most intelligent writer will sometimes perpetuate, and [can be regarded] as a reminder of the author's dangerous bent, in which her qualities melt into faults: too clear an awareness of her purpose and too obstinate a zeal in building a work of fiction around an idea….
The position of a woman of letters is especially arduous. She enters a world fashioned by man and has to meet standards set by him. She has to live imaginatively in an artistic and literary universe created by man to complete, replace, or interpret the real one. She tends to be restricted to one domain: that of woman's existence, where the search for love and for man's caresses, for the family comfort of children, a home and a tenderly tilled garden, and refuge in childhood memories are the main themes. Simone de Beauvoir is determined to meet successfully the challenge often thrown by male critics to female letters and to pass from the particular truth of women, which they alone can express in their subjectivity, to a universal truth. From the desolate solitude of a consciousness set apart from others, she passes on to the interaction of several conscious beings upon one another, hence to the eventualities of responsibility, risk, and guilt faced by the characters in Le Sang des autres….
Simone de Beauvoir does not cultivate emotional effects and does not utilize the violence, the coarseness, or the surprise that have been frequent in recent fiction. She also shuns the relative facility (for French authors steeped in that tradition) of the psychological novel in the first person singular. Although everything is seen and related by Jean Blomart [in Le Sang des autres], it is not colored by his own spectacles, and events are never a pretext for introspective delving. The forte of the author, indeed, is dialogue. Through their earnest desire to face each other with full frankness, the characters lay bare and discover what is truest in them, in brief, clashing sentences. They talk too well, to be sure, and with a neat firmness of phrasing that is part of the stylization of the novel. One never quite forgets the author, who has planned and governed every incident with a lucid intellect and an inflexible will. There is more mystery and less docile obedience in the truly living and haunting characters molded by the very great masters of fiction….
Simone de Beauvoir is occasionally over-explicit in her display of the philosophical ideas which her characters evolve, live by, or demonstrate. A male prejudice makes some of us balk at a woman writer who knew so very cearly what she wanted to do and and appears so cool in her mastery of her material.
Henri Peyre, "Feminine Literature in France: Simone de Beauvoir" (© 1967 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in his French Novelists of Today, Oxford University Press—Galaxy, 1967, pp. 275-307.