Beauvoir, Simone de (Vol. 8)
Beauvoir, Simone de 1908–
French novelist, essayist, playwright, autobiographer, and proponent of the existentialist philosophy, Beauvoir is a long-time associate of Jean-Paul Sartre. In her novels Beauvoir is concerned with explicating her philosophy, as in, for example, The Mandarins, which explores the problem of commitment and action among French intellectuals following the Second World War. She is the author of the immensely influential The Second Sex. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
When she is 75 or 80, will Simone de Beauvoir provide us with still another installment of her life? For those of us who have become addicted to the series, that would not be unwelcome. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine what more she can really add besides an accumulation of further ventures which do not substantially alter her basic views and values. One does not expect her to renounce her socialism, her humanism, her feminism or her atheism in her remaining years…. Her experiences of still another decade may prove of historical interest but—in view of her current volume of memoirs of the past decade—would reveal little more of this rational, self-contained, voluble woman than we already know.
One direction in which she might go is that of more intimate introspection and analysis, like Anaïs Nin: but she deplores Nin's "narcissism," and despite her frankness about herself in so many areas, she has a Puritanical reticence about her personal emotional life, particularly with Sartre, for which in these let-it-all-hang-out times we should be grateful. Another way she might go, in carrying her anti-militarism and her disillusionment with existing Socialist states to a logical conclusion, would be to question the efficacy of military force even in violent revolutions. But that is an unlikely development at this stage of her life. Though she abhors violence personally, she affirms in many ways and at many junctures her belief in the necessity of "counterviolence" by oppressed peoples in response to the violence, overt or latent, of oppressive groups or governments. This struggle is the implicit theme of the … second half [of All Said and Done], which includes her travels in Japan, the USSR and other East European countries, Egypt and Israel, and her participation in the Russell War Crimes Tribunal, in the 1968 student uprisings in France and finally in the women's movement.
The struggles of the oppressed are partly what this volume of Beauvoir's memoirs are about, but not exclusively. The first half of the book is a more personal reassessment of her life and that of her friends, catching us up on people we met in earlier volumes. It is as if she were responding to an overwhelming correspondence, the way some people duplicate accounts of their yearly family adventures at Christmas and send them to friends with whom they've been out of touch and to whom they don't have time to write…. She writes of how her childish perceptions have changed, her conception of time, her increasing awareness of her finity. The void of death she no longer finds overwhelming—"but still I do not get used to it."
Emerging from these introspections after some 40 pages, Beauvoir becomes her more extroverted self. (p. 732)
I felt some disappointment in reading this volume of Beauvoir's memoirs. While I did not expect the unity that she herself remarks as distinguishing her first volume, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, from subsequent ones, I found this one her most disjointed. Many of its eight sections are interesting in themselves, but some of the accounts read like Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Part II, with every lap of her journeys, every historic site described as a schoolmistress might describe it for her pupils. Sometimes she tells the reader too much, and one feels slightly insulted; at other times her references are too cursory or oversimplified. The personalities and issues involved in the Russell Tribunal are examples: when one is personally acquainted with some of the people and events she writes about, her descriptions seem inadequate, even misleading. Still, it is impossible not to be enlightened by some aspect of her accounts, whether historical, geographical, political or aesthetic. (pp. 733-34)
Ann Morrissett Davidon, "A Life Well Lived for All That," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), June 14, 1975, pp. 732-34.
Numerous times throughout her voluminous work Beauvoir asserts that one of the goals she has pursued most obstinately (the word is hers) has been to strip away the hypocrisies, prejudices, lies, and mystifications that obstruct our perception of reality and prevent us from seeing the truth. (p. 2)
An even more basic impulse in her work is an irresistible urge to communicate her own experience, to re-create her own life. Aware of the fact that she does not possess the kind of inventive imagination that characterizes the very greatest creators of fiction, Beauvoir, who nevertheless has written several important novels, maintains that the creation of a fictional world has never been her intention. In 1972 at the age of sixty-four she looked back on the many books she had written and declared that her mission as a writer was not to create an oeuvre d'art, but rather to communicate as directly as possible the feel of her own life. (p. 3)
Begun before the outbreak of the war, L'Invitée [(She Came to Stay)] opens with an epigraph by Hegel: "Each consciousness seeks the death of the other." Even though Beauvoir did not come upon Hegel's statement until she had already done considerable work on her novel, it neatly expresses the book's underlying metaphysical theme. The novel's strength is precisely the manner in which Beauvoir manages to give this abstract theme sensuous form and to incarnate it in the lives of her three principal protagonists.
In addition to illustrating one of the metaphysical themes that runs through existentialist thought, L'Invitée is, in the best tradition of the French psychological novel, a study of the devastating effects of love and jealousy. (p. 30)
One of the curious features of Beauvoir's work as a whole is that the dogmatic and sometimes oversimplified assertions in her sociological or polemical studies are often contradicted by her novels. In the former she establishes theoretical positions and, marshaling her considerable intellectual powers, defends them forcefully. In the latter she evokes, to use her phrase, the opaqueness of contingency, that is to say, the ambiguities of life as experienced emotionally.
Thus, the kind of love that is called authentic in Le Deuxième Sexe [(The Second Sex)]—a love which somewhat resembles the "generous friendship (amitié généreuse) that characterizes the love of Cornelian heroes—is a freely chosen partnership of two autonomous beings who share a common goal and hold each other in the highest esteem. In L'Invitée, however, this type of love is shown as being illusory for two basic reasons: seeing the relationship between people as one of hostility, Beauvoir illustrates the existentialist view that each consciousness affirms its autonomy and liberty by active opposition to every other consciousness (the metaphysical motif of the novel), thus making of Françoise's and Pierre's supposed oneness a momentary illusion; secondly, although existentialism, in theory at least, tends to adopt the Cartesian separation of mind and body and so assures autonomy for the consciousness, Beauvoir's novels tend to show characters—especially female characters—who react emotionally, at times even hysterically, when confronted with personal problems and dilemmas (the psychological aspect of the novel). (pp. 32-3)
In her famous and combative analysis of "the second sex," Beauvoir fails to come to grips with this feminine need (it is she in her novels who depicts it as such) to cling to a man and to have one or more passionate love affairs—a need that is central to her own life and to that of her heroines. (p. 34)
[L'Invitée] has a decidedly claustrophobic atmosphere. Most of it consists of long and inconclusive conversations among the three protagonists (either together or in couples)…. (p. 35)
Pierre … is something of a question mark. Beauvoir herself notes that in general she had greater success with her female characters than with her male characters. In the case of Pierre, she explains, she did not wish to pattern him too directly after Sartre. Seen essentially through the admiring eyes of Françoise, he has Sartre's creative energy, generosity, and strong personality, but he remains rather abstract and seems more like a caricature than a real person.
Beauvoir's refusal to present authorial analyses of her protagonists and her reliance on dialogue to reveal the psychological motivation of her characters are a result of her concept of the novel, which in turn has its roots in her philosophical position concerning appearance and reality. Like Sartre, she rejects the traditional view, particularly strong in thinkers of Neoplatonic persuasion, that there is a difference between appearance and innermost reality, between the exterior world and our inner life, between our words, our glances, our acts, and our secret being. Supporting her argument by references to Hegel, Beauvoir affirms that the real must never be conceived as an interiority hidden behind external appearances. The exterior hides nothing; rather it expresses.
But since appearances are subject to endless interpretations, it follows that reality is never fixed. It is ambiguous and multiple. Contrary to her philosophical works which set forth opinions clearly, the novels express ambiguities, doubts, and hesitations. Technically this is achieved by telling the story from different points of view. (pp. 36-7)
[Beauvoir's] dialogue, which is finely articulated and neatly phrased, tends to be highly stylized. Noting that she wished to imitate and not copy the kind of speech she heard around her, Beauvoir says that a good novelist never reproduces the stammerings of a real conversation. The dialogue in L'Invitée is in harmony with the overall stylization of the novel.
The theme of the novel is made explicit—probably too explicit—in a conversation between Pierre and Françoise. "You're the only person I know," says Pierre, "who bursts into tears on discovering in someone else a consciousness similar to your own. Everyone experiences his own consciousness as an absolute. How can several absolutes be compatible? The problem is as great a mystery as life or death. What surprised me is that you should be affected in such a concrete way by a metaphysical situation." (p. 39)
Throughout all her work, Beauvoir tends to view the self as inescapably locked in conflict with others. In L'Invitée this enmity is shown as being derived from the very nature of consciousness itself…. Beauvoir has always tended to divide mankind into two opposing camps: "adversaries and allies" the two fundamental categories through which she seems to grasp experience. She has remarked that "we always work for certain people against others." The adversaries and the allies differ from book to book, but the two categories remain constant, giving her world its basic order. (p. 40)
It is … probably a mistake to read Beauvoir's novels as if they were principally novels of ideas, containing a philosophical content which, like a lode of ore, must be extracted even at the expense of ruining the surface texture. At their best, they are evocations of a concrete, living reality. Concerned with the dense and shifting texture of existence, Beauvoir dramatizes in L'Invitée the difficulty of living and the walled-in or claustrophobic quality of human experience…. Occasionally verbose, often delicately ironic and densely poetic, L'Invitée is one of Beauvoir's best books. (pp. 41-2)
There are novels which, because of an intricate design or an extensive and radical use of ellipses, must be read twice to be fully comprehended. Few novels require a second reading as urgently as Le Sang des autres, 1945 (The Blood of Others). The difficulty lies not in the narrative line, which is basically simple, but in the manner in which Beauvoir constructs the novel. Impressed by Dos Passos, Faulkner, and other American writers, she wished to experiment with form in an attempt to evoke the dense, shifting, ambiguous texture of life. To achieve this end she tells her story from different points of view. The unheralded shifts from one point of view to another mean that a reader does not know at first who is speaking, to whom the personal pronouns refer, and whether the narrative is being related by the author or through the consciousness of a particular character.
Gradually, however, the voices become recognizable. Characters emerge, and the reader becomes aware of the fact that the confusion and indeterminateness which he felt in the opening pages is the calculated effect of a skillful writer who wishes to express the complexity of existence. (pp. 49-50)
Beauvoir evoked her somber mood during the war years far more convincingly in Le Sang des autres than in her pompous and simplistic comments written some thirty-odd years later. (p. 56)
Beauvoir's success in Le Sang des autres, as in L'Invitée, is not essentially in illustrating an abstract idea (which she does) but in evoking the increasing heaviness, density, and solidification of existence through an ever more complicated network of relationships among a limited number of protagonists. In her second novel as in her first, the dilemma of interpersonal relationships is revealed in its starkest, most tragic form in love. (pp. 56-7)
Despite Beauvoir's didactic zeal in Le Sang des autres, the notions of commitment, of solidarity, of guilt and responsibility are ultimately shown as being as profoundly ambiguous as the notion of art. [The central character's] commitment to the cause of the working classes reinforces rather than diminishes his spiritual isolation because he realizes that there is an unbridgeable gulf between himself—the bourgeois intellectual who pretends to be a proletarian—and a genuine proletarian. (p. 62)
Numerous themes from Le Sang des autres are treated, albeit in a somewhat different register, in [Beauvoir's only play, Les Bouches inutiles]. Once again the basic idea is the inevitability of making choices and the subsequent moral accountability for the choices made. (p. 63)
Although caught up in a momentous personal and public crisis, the characters seem lifeless. Beauvoir's failure here, as elsewhere in her fictional work, is due to a certain lack of imaginative intensity. Furthermore, she tends to reduce the characters to ethical attitudes. Moral lessons, instead of being worked out imaginatively and dramatically through the characters, are condensed into aphorisms that, taken together, constitute a breviary not only of existentialist thought but of Beauvoir's curious and ambiguous kind of feminism as well.
In Beauvoir's fictional world, the female characters, who are usually endowed with their creator's sensibilities, strive essentially for happiness, whereas her male characters seek to justify their lives by struggling for a cause, by participating in some kind of oeuvre, either a work of art or a political enterprise. Curiously, Beauvoir, who in Le Deuxième Sexe denies that there are peculiarly female characteristics, is less dogmatic in her fiction and joins Colette, whom she resembles but little, and Rebecca West, to whom she is somewhat closer, in discerning in women a distinctly feminine aptitude for happiness, a will-to-live that is specifically female. However, unlike the characters of Colette or West, Beauvoir's female characters seem unable to realize their happiness unless they team up with a man whose aspirations they espouse and whose projects they make their own. In other words, her women cannot get along without men, whereas her men could, it seems, get along admirably well without women. (pp. 64-5)
Sexual love is valorized in Beauvoir's world only when it is sublimated into comradeship. Such sublimation usually occurs when the interests of the community are threatened—in moments of social or political upheaval, in a climate of urgency and crisis. Love that does not assume the form of a fraternal struggle against the evils that stalk the world is considered individualistic, a word which for Beauvoir evokes the bourgeois mentality. It is characterized by the sorrows of sex. Since only her female characters are victims of this dolorous kind of love, which is endured rather than created, it is associated with woman's subservience—often willingly accepted, Beauvoir admits—in a man-governed world. (pp. 65-6)
[Tous les hommes sont mortels (All Men Are Mortal)] is an ambitious work, a book in which one can see Beauvoir reaching out for a broad, all-inclusive subject. However, its cargo of ideas is borne aloft by a cast of characters so wooden and unconvincing that the novel never really comes to life, and must in the final analysis be called a relative failure. Still, it marks an important step in Beauvoir's evolution; here she meditates leisurely not only on death and time but also on the history of humanity and on the vanity as well as the validity of political action. Beauvoir later described the book accurately when she called it "an organized digression whose themes are not theses but points of departure toward unpredictable meanderings." (pp. 68-9)
Sight is the primary sense in Beauvoir's world. In her autobiography she declares that she can conceive of living without any one of the senses except sight. Her fundamental enterprise is to see reality, to unmask the truth (dévoiler is one of her favorite words), and then to expose it to the eyes of others. (p. 69)
Closely associated with Beauvoir's concern for appearances and her use of a vocabulary that suggests the theater is her frequent mention of mirrors. A rich symbol, the mirror is often used in her work to suggest not only narcissism but also a character's search for his own identity. Significantly, it is Beauvoir's heroines rather than her heroes who peer into a mirror in a vain attempt to define themselves and to give meaning to their lives…. From the existentialist perspective, meaning can come only from acts, from a project, and the fact that so many of Beauvoir's heroines identify with the image of themselves that is reflected in a mirror, in the eyes of a lover or … in the eyes of an applauding public, is a comment on the inauthenticity and passivity that is their lot.
Narcissistic posturing before a mirror suggests a solipsistic attitude, an entrapment in the circle of self, a denial of transcendence toward the future or of intentionality, to use the word existentialists borrowed from Husserl. It thus suggests a rejection of life itself. Indeed, in Beauvoir's work, especially in Tous les hommes sont mortels, reflections in mirrors, in eyes, or in water often evoke the presence of emptiness or of death. (p. 70)
Closed upon themselves, the young women who populate Beauvoir's fiction no doubt represent a revolt against all those forces, societal or biological, which tend to push them into preordained roles in life. However, viewed not as incarnations of an idea but as fictional characters endowed with a psychological makeup, they are narrow-minded, petulant, and singularly unpleasant. Beauvoir has repeatedly displayed her considerable talent for creating disagreeable young heroines. (pp. 71-2)
All of Beauvoir's novels, but especially Tous les hommes sont mortels, are punctuated with joyous celebrations. Her autobiography, too, is marked by fêtes commemorating victories both small and great. The most elaborately described and intensely felt fête in her work is the liberation of Paris in 1944, recounted both in the autobiography and in Les Mandarins [(The Mandarins)]. (p. 76)
As a study of womankind, Le Deuxième Sexe clearly belongs to anthropological sociology. But while analyzing the situation of women in general, Beauvoir was preparing the way for a study of a particular woman—herself. Seen in this light Le Deuxième Sexe is a long preamble to the four volumes of the autobiography she would later write. (p. 94)
[Each] of Beauvoir's books is an account of an education. In the novels it is the fictional characters who gradually perceive reality; in her nonfiction it is Beauvoir herself who writes her books to mark the various stages on her way toward truth.
Le Deuxième Sexe is a mammoth edifice that rests on two slender postulates: first, that man, conceiving of himself as the essential being, the subject, has made woman into the unessential being, the object, the Other; second, that there is no such thing as feminine nature and that all notions of feminity are therefore artificial. Both postulates are enunciated in the introduction and are derived from concepts elaborated by Sartre in L'Être et le néant [(Being and Nothingness)], a book to which Beauvoir frequently refers as if to a sacred text whose validity and authority no right thinking person could question. "The perspective I am adopting," she announces at the end of the introduction, "is that of existentialist ethics."
Borrowing directly from Sartre, Beauvoir declares that the category of otherness is inherent in consciousness itself. "Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought. No group ever conceives of itself as the One without immediately setting up the Other in opposition to itself." Furthermore, awareness of otherness arouses a feeling of hostility. The dialectics of aggression is one of the most characteristic features of Beauvoir's work. Not for a moment does she imagine that opposites can sustain and complement each other. In order to assert itself, each consciousness must strive for the destruction, the annihilation of the other. This, in fact, was the theme of L'Invitée, written before existentialism had yet been codified into a philosophical or ideological doctrine. (p. 95)
Beauvoir's second postulate—that there is no feminine nature—is derived from one of the most fundamental of existentialist principles, namely that there is no human nature, the word nature being understood here as essence. Sartre expressed this notion in his famous formula, existence precedes essence, by which he meant basically that man need not conform to any archetype, that only in the very process of living does he create his own values, his being, his essence. If there is no archetypal human nature, there obviously can be no feminine or masculine nature. As Beauvoir expresses it in one of the most telling aphorisms in Le Deuxième Sexe: "One is not born a woman; rather one becomes a woman." (p. 96)
Beauvoir's basic argument in [the last section of volume 1] is that for a boy there is no distinction between his vocation as a human being and his vocation as a male. "Humanity is male," she asserts in another of those aphorisms which reveal her fondness for the trenchant, incisive utterance that overstates and distorts the argument and that has provoked the ire of a number of readers. For a girl, however, there is a profound divorce between her condition as a human being and her vocation as a female. If adolescence is so difficult for girls, Beauvoir argues, it is because they must abandon the childhood image they have had of themselves as autonomous beings, as individuals, and accept the role of dependence and relative submission that society demands of them. They must pass from being essential to being unessential. (p. 103)
It is easy enough to criticize Le Deuxième Sexe for this or that supposed flaw. Beauvoir no doubt fails to come to grips with maternity and family life. She no doubt advocates a kind of "virile independence" that is better suited to a woman who is unmarried, childless, exceptionally intelligent, violently ambitious, and relatively well-off (in short, like Beauvoir) than to the majority of women.
Furthermore, the existentialist suppositions on which the study rests are debatable. Beauvoir herself wrote in 1963 that if she had to rewrite the book she would give far greater importance to economic matters and far less to philosophical speculation about the nature of consciousness. More specifically, she says that she would base the notion of the Other, together with the Manicheism it entails, not on an idealistic, a priori struggle pitting each consciousness against every other consciousness, but on the economic reality of supply and demand. Although Beauvoir does not explain why she would build her study on a somewhat different foundation if she had it to do over again, any faithful reader of Sartre knows why. The reason is simply that in 1960 Sartre published Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason), a mammoth philosophical and political treatise in which he argues that all human history has been a history of scarcity and a bitter struggle against shortage. In brief, Beauvoir would rewrite Le Deuxième Sexe to bring it in line with Sartre's revised philosophical and political theories. The most faithful of disciples, she clearly (and admittedly) takes her cue from Sartre in all matters relating to existentialist doctrine.
It is perfectly true that Le Deuxième Sexe suffers from a certain repetitiveness. Rather like a prosecuting attorney who brings in every scrap of evidence, Beauvoir builds up her case deliberately and without haste. Her strategy … is to accumulate evidence, to heap up data until the reader is overwhelmed ("discouraged" and "petrified" are Suzanne Lilar's words) by the mass of information. Only rarely does Beauvoir display her superb talent for satire; the pages in which she discusses certain male writers who have spoken arrogantly of women, notably Claude Mauriac and Montherlant, are written with marvelous verve and gusto. On the whole, however, the tone is earnest, humorless, and a bit pedantic.
Despite all the criticisms that have been leveled at Le Deuxième Sexe, the fact remains that it is the most important, the most forceful vindication of women's rights to have appeared in the twentieth century. In this book more than in any of her others, Beauvoir has realized her wish to leave a mark on the world. Not that she deluded herself into thinking that she could transform the condition of women. No significant change can come about, she insists, without the overthrow of capitalism. But she adds with excessive modesty, for her book has probably provoked more changes in individual lives than she can know of, that at least she has helped her female contemporaries to become conscious of themselves and of their situation. (pp. 105-07)
The underlying theme of [Les Mandarins] is … descent from enthusiasm, intoxicating triumph, and rapture into the murky, unheroic business of daily existence, characterized by taedium vitae, by broken dreams, and by the specter of boredom.
This theme was a favorite of the romantics and again illustrates how broadly and pervasively Beauvoir's work, like that of many important twentieth-century writers, is colored by romanticism. Her despair, usually expressed as fear of old age and death, the histrionic aspect of this despair as well as the equally theatrical nature of her joy and exultation, her reforming zeal and desire to act, her insatiable thrust for experience, her earnest but also self-indulgent sincerity, her didacticism, her desire to be modern and to seize the real, her refusal to separate literature or art from life, her often repeated view that man strives for the impossible, for being, and falls back into the relative, into existence—all these are part of the enormously rich, romantic heritage that has determined so many of our attitudes in the twentieth century and that has sustained much of our literature and art. (p. 109)
In order to evoke the density, complexity, and opaqueness of reality, Beauvoir uses in Les Mandarins a technique she had used earlier. She alternates third-person narrative chapters in which the central figure tends to be Henri Perron … with chapters narrated in the first person by Anne Dubreuilh…. Events are thus seen from different perspectives. Character is revealed, not through authorial explanations, but through the highly subjective appraisals that the various protagonists make of a situation. (p. 110)
Les Mandarins has a breadth of historical perspective, a density, and a richness of texture that make it wholly worthy of the Prix Goncourt it won in 1954. Writing in the early sixties, Beauvoir declared that most of the fiction published during the fifties, especially the nouveau roman, completely ignored the momentous events that shaped postwar Europe. "So many things," she said, "have happened since 1945, and fiction has scarcely expressed any of them. Future generations that might want to learn about us will have to consult works on sociology, statistics, or simply read our newspapers." They would also have to read Les Mandarins, but not just because it is a fine chronicle. Beauvoir insists that an imaginative projection of experience, as distinguished from a mere chronicle of events, conveys the "significance" of experience. That is precisely what Les Mandarins does. It recaptures the human significance of ethical and political problems that were intensely personal and emotional concerns for Beauvoir, Sartre, and their friends among the non-Communist Left during the years immediately following the war.
Beauvoir's seriousness of purpose in Les Mandarins is wholly admirable. If the novel falls short of being great, it is once again because Beauvoir lacks the imaginative intensity that characterizes supreme creators of fiction. Her vision is simply not powerful enough to enable her to formulate in fictional characters the schemes of redemption and enlightment that effect an expansion of the reader's own moral vision or awareness.
Furthermore, the novel provides the reader with few pleasures of style. Indeed, the prose is by and large colorless and graceless, marked by colloquialisms and occasional vulgarity. It will not do to say, as several critics have, that the author of Les Mandarins simply does not write well. Beauvoir's shift toward a style that strikes many readers as leaden and undistinguished is probably one consequence of her postwar loss of faith in literature as something sacred.
French critic Serge Julienne-Caffié has suggested that the dialogue in Les Mandarins is the linguistic equivalent of the socialist and democratic state which the characters in the novel (they all speak quite similarly) wish to see established in France. It is certainly true that in Les Mandarins and in most of her subsequent books Beauvoir contemptuously rejects any belletristic attitude toward literature, an attitude she proclaims to be eminently bourgeois.
There may be yet another explanation for Beauvoir's inclination to write prose that often seems deliberately pedestrian, consciously limited to the spoken language. Despite their vitality and their incessant activity, Beauvoir's mandarins are ultimately shown as living not in the world of action but in what Nietzsche called "the prison house of language." Momentous social and political forces are at work shaping the world around them while they, infatuated with their own words, talk on and on, only dimly aware of the fact that no one is really listening. (pp. 119-20)
Still, beneath the surface texture of language that is at times perversely charmless, a reader of Les Mandarins can discern—particularly in the pages that are dominated by the female characters—the peculiar current of emotionalism, tenderness, and lyricism, intense yet discreet, that runs stealthily through all of Beauvoir's works and that combines with the author's intellectual toughness to create a literary voice unmistakably her own. Flawed though it may be, Les Mandarins must surely be counted among the most significant French novels published since World War II. (p. 121)
Beauvoir's post-1950 tendency to subordinate ethical to political concerns was clearly evident in Les Mandarins. It would continue to mark much of her later work. In fact, one of the most distressing features of the third volume of the autobiography is Beauvoir's inclination to view as an enemy anyone who does not share her political convictions. Such an attitude is hardly the perfect stance for a writer who presents long portions of her autobiography—especially the section dealing with the decade of the fifties—as a faithful chronicle of events. Beauvoir seldom if ever declares that her dislike, often hatred, for this or that person is simply the result of opposing political views. Instead, she nearly always denigrates individuals who disagree with her by cataloging their supposed moral flaws, their alleged weaknesses of character. (pp. 126-27)
"The most important, the most irreparable thing that has happened to me since 1944," noted Beauvoir in the early 1960s, "is that I have grown old." Indeed, the theme of old age and the closely related theme of death had always been present in Beauvoir's work, but they had remained in the background, much like a menacing cloud on the horizon. During the 1950s, when Beauvoir was in her forties, her disenchantment with the political scene in Europe was exacerbated (or perhaps partly provoked) by her realization that she was growing old. The ten or so books she wrote from 1950 to 1972 are all, with the exception of La Longue Marche [(The Long March)], marked by a deepening awareness of old age. (pp. 130-31)
Une Mort très douce, 1964 (A Very Easy Death), which Beauvoir called a récit, is one of her shortest books. Sartre has called it her best. On one level, it is an almost clinical, at times harrowingly dispassionate, account of an old woman [Beauvoir's mother] dying of cancer in a modern hospital. The contrast between the messiness of life (the tears, the cries of pain, the pus, the unpleasant body odors, the soiled sheets, the vomiting) and the cool efficiency of modern medical technology (the various machines attached to her mother's body, the doctors themselves, well groomed, well paid, and condescending) is all the more striking because it is understated. Beauvoir's language can be as sharp, as clean, as impersonal as a scalpel. With remarkable skill, she paces her account of her mother's decline in such a way that when death comes the reader experiences, as in a good tragedy, relief from the intolerable anguish that has steadily mounted.
The anguish, however, is essentially Beauvoir's own and not her mother's. On another level, then, Une Mort très douce is an epilogue to La Force des choses [(The Force of Circumstance)]. It is part of Beauvoir's autobiography.
Watching her mother die, Beauvoir feels compassion for the old woman's ravished and anguished body. She cannot forget, however, that her mother is a member of the hated French bourgeoisie. "I was saddened," Beauvoir writes, "by the contrast between the reality of her suffering body and the nonsense with which her head was stuffed." Beauvoir's portrait of her dying mother is thus composed of two contrasting tones: compassion for the suffering body and ironic contempt for the old woman herself, for the life she led, and for the values she professed.
When Mme de Beauvoir remarked that she was glad to be in Hospital C. because she had heard that it was so much better than Hospital G., Beauvoir, by the very way she tells the incident, turns the trivial comment into yet another example of the fatuous vanity of the bourgeoisie. Since Mme de Beauvoir was not told that she was dying of cancer, Beauvoir weaves the theme of deceit into her account of her mother's death. Cunningly she equates the atmosphere of hypocrisy which surrounds the dying woman with the atmosphere of falsehood that characterized (in Beauvoir's view at least) the bourgeois milieu in which her mother had lived. The two kinds of falsehoods (if indeed they are falsehoods) are of a totally different order. By deliberately blurring the distinction between them, Beauvoir indulges in a kind of sophistry that mars not a few pages of her work. (pp. 134-35)
Beauvoir's inability to see her mother except through ideological lenses is chilling. Although elsewhere she has written eloquently about the difficulty of communicating with others and about the opaqueness of the Other, she seems to believe that her mother was perfectly transparent, so shallow (or bourgeois) was she. The cavalier way in which she passes judgment on her mother borders on arrogance. There is scarcely a page in Une Mort très douce that is not informed by the author's ironic glance. (p. 136)
The grief in Une Mort très douce is genuine, but it is not grief at her mother's death. In the final analysis, the book is an elegy in which Beauvoir laments the dissolution of her own being. (p. 137)
The obvious danger in writing a novel [like Les Belles Images] composed largely of platitudinous dialogue is that the reader, instead of shuddering at the emptiness and vacuity of the bourgeois way of life—which he is clearly meant to do—might well find the book dull and unrewarding. Smart tittle-tattle about stereo sets, vacations in Bermuda, and ultra-modern architecture palls very quickly.
The principal character, Laurence, is married to an up-and-coming architect, has two daughters, and works for an advertising agency where she has been very successful designing advertisements for things like tomato sauce. The title of the novel is an ironic reference to the "lovely images" she creates.
Each of the characters in the novel is minutely intent on keeping up appearances and on projecting an acceptable image of himself—an image as slick, as artfully deceptive as those created by Laurence. Unlike the other characters, who seem to have no reality beneath the glib image they project, Laurence senses dimly that her life is somehow out of joint. As the result of three incidents, her vague malaise becomes a full-scale existential crisis which is accompanied by nausea (a rather worn image, coming nearly thirty years after Sartre's La Nausée [(Nausea)]. (p. 138)
Les Belles Images contains many of Beauvoir's usual themes. However, they are here expressed in images that are facile, pat, and rather too obvious. Eager to jolt the reader into contempt for the bourgeoisie, Beauvoir has indulged her taste for didacticism at the expense of imaginative insight. (p. 141)
Each of the three female voices that emerge from La Femme rompue [(The Woman Destroyed)] tells a tale of disintegration, prodigious bad faith, and, above all, overweening egotism. They are the hysterical voices of women who are too monstrously selfish, too lacking in perception to be entirely credible as fictional characters. Furthermore, Beauvoir's vulgar and pedestrian prose—a prose that ultimately strikes the reader as an unpleasant affectation—is leaden and oppressive, adding to the generally sodden effect of the book. In the final analysis, both Les Belles Images and La Femme rompue, skillfully constructed as they may be, are decidedly inferior to Beauvoir's best fictional work. (pp. 142-43)
[In] none of Beauvoir's books is the everyday hum of life, the trivia of daily existence, more pervasively present than in Tout compte fait [(All Said and Done)]. From her leisurely enumerations of weekends spent in the country, museums visited, books read, films seen and music heard, there clearly emerges the unmistakable voice of the author who is intent on defining the meaning of her private experience.
It is a voice that is as steady as ever but somewhat more subdued, less abrasive—a voice tinged, certainly not with sadness or fatigue, but with a sense of inevitable conclusion. "I have a keen awareness of my finitude," Beauvoir says simply. "Even if my creative work will encompass two or three more volumes, it will remain what it is." (pp. 146-47)
On the last page of Tout compte fait Beauvoir, with a remarkable sense of plenitude, notes that she has written the very books she had hoped to write when she was twelve years old. Having rejected the notion of writing for posterity, she always wished to write for her contemporaries. Looking back on her many books, she concludes her autobiography with remarks that are both a summing up and a succinct statement of the distinctive nature of her literary opus:
I have not been a virtuoso of writing. I have not, like Virginia Woolf, Proust, or Joyce, resuscitated the shimmer of sensations nor caught in words the external world. But such was not my intention. I wished to make myself exist for other people by communicating to them, in the most direct way, the flavor of my own life. I have pretty well succeeded. I have made adamant enemies, but I have also made many friends among my readers. That is all I wanted. (p. 148)
Robert D. Cottrell, in Simone de Beauvoir (copyright © 1975 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1975.