Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Lauren Elkin: Becoming Simone de Beauvoir

Becoming Simone de Beauvoir
by Lauren Elkin
The Quarterly Conversation

It is proof, if proof were needed, of Simone de Beauvoir's mythic stature in France, that to commemorate the centenary of her birth the French news weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published a photograph of Beauvoir's naked derriere on its January 3rd cover.

Taken in 1952, when Beauvoir was in Chicago visiting her then-lover, Nelson Algren, the photograph shows the great feminist standing in the bathroom, wearing not a stitch of clothes, looking at herself in the mirror. And it was not Algren who took it, but his close friend, the photographer Art Shay. The way Shay tells it, Beauvoir heard the shutter snap behind her and, laughing, chastised him: "Naughty Boy!" (No word on why Shay was around while Beauvoir was in the altogether).

The author of The Second Sex would have turned 100 this year, and in spite of all the tributes, assessments, analyses, and appreciations—a special issue of Le Magazine Littéraire, a three-day conference under the direction of Julia Kristeva, several new books—it is the sexy, controversial aspects of her life that have been emphasized, once again, in the mainstream media: her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, their pact not to marry and to tell each other everything of their extracurricular conquests, their tendency to pass lovers back and forth and how it was all his idea. Beauvoir comes off as a doormat every time—which suits popular opinion just fine, thriving as it does on human fallibility. What sells more papers: a fair and balanced portrait of the "greatest feminist theorist of our time," or a photograph of her ass?

Even Beauvoir scholars are guilty of projecting their own anxieties onto her, and it is the relationship with Sartre that plays such an ambiguous role in their idol's life. Did he compromise her or copy from her; inspire her or keep her down? "Sartre trapped Simone de Beauvoir by insisting that she follow him," maintains Michelle Le Doeff. Edward and Kate Fulbrook have been at pains to show that Sartre cribbed the philosophy in Being and Nothingness from Beauvoir. Even the most recent biography to appear in English was a double biography—Hazel Rowley's Tête-à-Tête: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Thinking Simone de Beauvoir apart from Jean-Paul Sartre has not, apparently, been feasible: too many scores to settle, that embarrassing pact, and the paradox of the great feminist in thrall to her boyfriend.

Of course, the relationship between two of the most important philosophers of the 20th century is worth spilling a little—okay, a lot—of ink. It did last half a century. But Beauvoir's image—not the one that evolves through a careful study of her writing but her popular, mainstream image—could benefit from a little one-on-one time with the lady in question. We can therefore be grateful that Beauvoir's early diaries have now been released to the public, giving us a glimpse of a passionate, joyful, brilliant young woman, who suspects she has greatness in her, but has no idea of the icon she will become. We meet in them not the older, self-protective Beauvoir who looks back at this period in volume one of her four-volume autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, 1958); rather, we meet the intimate and not-yet-formed Beauvoir, speaking in her own youthful voice, asserting her dedication to ideas, to literature, and to dedicated thought.

When Beauvoir died in 1986, her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, found these diaries in among her papers (an earlier diary, from 1925, which Beauvoir refers to, has not been found). In 1990 she donated them to the Bibliothèque National in Paris, where they were made available for scholarly research, and subsequently, thanks to the efforts of two American Beauvoir scholars, Margaret A. Simons and Barbara Klaw, the first volume of the diaries appeared in English in 2006 as part of the University of Illinois Press's Beauvoir Series. But this volume covers only 1926 to 1927; the events of 1929—which chronicles Beauvoir's meeting Sartre and the beginning of their affair, her passing the agrégation examination (coming in second only to Sartre), her move out of her parents' home, and the death of her childhood friend Zaza—will be released at a yet-to-be-determined date.

The Cahiers de jeunesse cover the years 1926 - 1930, when Beauvoir was studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, and then preparing for the agrégation (a highly competitive national exam, which women had only been allowed to take since 1905) while finishing her undergraduate degree. She would not meet Sartre until 1929; we are granted three full years of Beauvoirean thought to consider apart from Sartre's. And we can also begin to assess the young Beauvoir from a different perspective than the account she gave of herself, years later, in her autobiography.

Beauvoir describes in the Memoires the unhappiness of her adolescent years; in 1919 her grandfather (president of the Meuse bank) went bankrupt, and her father, a bourgeois gentleman and lawyer by training, had to go to work. Georges de Beauvoir was a very charming man, but not particularly suited to the professions, and the family's income steadily dwindled. He moved his family to a cramped apartment on the rue de Rennes, on the sixth floor with a meager supply of running water. Simone and her younger sister Hélène shared a tiny bedroom off of the kitchen. Their devoutly religious mother read their mail, doted on "Poupette" (as Hélène was nicknamed), and gave Simone a hard time about her reading habits. The Beauvoir girls would have to be educated, their father decided, so that they might go out and earn their living—as they certainly would have no dowry. For Simone this was a blessing, and she threw herself into her studies to combat the loneliness, shame, and frustration of her circumstances. She said later that it was after reading Little Women and identifying so much with tomboy Jo that the idea came to her that marriage was not her only choice in life; doubtless the knowledge that she would have to earn her own living compounded this feeling that marriage was optional. As Beauvoir admitted to her biographer Deirdre Bair, even if Jo does marry in the end, her rebellion was fortified early on by exposure to literary women like Jo March.

In 1926 and 1927, the diaries give us a privileged viewpoint on the emotional effects of her rebellion from her bourgeois family. She feels keenly the lack of an intellectual equal to confide in, and she writes repeatedly, in the early years at least, of her utter solitude, trying to make a virtue of her difference, occasionally yielding to her misery in pages of despondent prose. But her misery is countered by wild, exultant intellectual discoveries. She reads widely and deeply, frequently including long passages copied out from books that impress her: Bergson, Barrès, Claudel, Mauriac, Fournier, Jammes, Cocteau, Arland, Gide. All the great French writers of the early 20th-century are represented.

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