Tag Archives: Simone de Beauvoir

Raised to the Pitch of Incandescence: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

“Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream-companion I had longed for since I was fifteen; he was the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence,” writes a young Simone de Beauvoir who is about to begin her most famous love affair.   While reading Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the first in a trilogy of very detailed books about her life, I kept thinking that incandescent, intense, and passionate are the perfect words to describe Beauvoir even from a very young age.

At the age of five or six Beauvoir has vivid memories and intense feelings of love and devotion towards the people who are closest to her: her parents, her younger sister and her nanny, Louise.  She believes they are all perfect and can do no wrong and adores her family with an unwavering and almost romantic fervor.   She writes about her earliest years, “I though it was a remarkable coincidence that heaven should have given me just these parents, this sister, this life.  Without any doubt, I had every reason to be pleased with what fate had brought me.”  When she goes to school she throws herself wholeheartedly into her studies and is very proud when she receives praises and rewards for her academic achievements.  And the young Simone’s religious devotion is just as passionate as her love for her family and her interest in learning:

I was very pious; I made my confession twice a month to Abbe Martin, received Holy Communion three times a week and every morning read a chapter of The Imitation of Christ; between classes, I would slip into the school chapel and, with my head in my hands, I would offer up lengthy prayers; often in the course of the day I would lift up my soul to my Maker.  I was no longer very interested in the Infant Jesus, but I adored Christ to distraction.

As she grows older, she gradually loses her faith and questions the double standards for men and women placed on her not only by the rules of religion but also by the demands of the bourgeois society that she has grown up in. She is discouraged from asking any questions about sex and doesn’t realize until an absurdly late age—at least by today’s standards—how conception takes place and she knows full-well that this is ridiculous.  She detests the idea that it is acceptable for young men to sow their wild oats and have a variety of sexual escapades before marriage, but if  a woman does the same thing then she, and her family, are ruined.

Not surprisingly, Beauvoir goes from one extreme to the next—she embraces atheism, openly rebels against her parents, and chooses education and a career instead of marriage and children.  As she is moving towards these things her desire for more and more freedom causes her a great deal of angst and her moods are rather extreme.  She goes, within the space of a page or two, from being in love with life to being in the absolute pits of despair.  She oftentimes quotes the diary she keeps during these years which are filled with grand, melodramatic statements: “I want life, the whole of life.  I feel an avid curiosity; I desperately want to burn myself away, more brightly than any other person, and no matter with what kind of flame.”

In a lot of ways the memoir is  a tragedy about two of the closest people to her throughout her childhood and her teenage years: her older cousin Jacques and her best friend Zaza.  Beauvoir is intermittently in love with her cousin whom she views as a hero, especially in her younger years.  For a time she even thinks that should could marry Jacques, but her feelings about him, like many other things in her life, run to the extremes of love and rejection.  And Zaza she meets when they are young pupils at the same school.  It is touching to see that as the girls get older they become closer friends and confidants.  But neither Zaza nor Jacques are able to break free from yoke and expectations placed on the by bourgeois life.  While Beauvoir is studying at the Sorbonne, living on her own, and meeting Sartre, her cousin and her best friend are swallowed up by their miserable lives.

This volume of the memoir ends just as Beauvoir is about to take up a love affair with Sartre.  The amount of details, the extremes of emotion, the incandescence are, at times, a bit overwhelming—not that I didn’t like her writing, and, in fact, I oftentimes identified with her.    But I think I will take a break because I am in need of something a little more serene at the moment before I resume her story.

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Filed under French Literature, Nonfiction

Satisfying my Craving for Details: Autobiography, Auto-Fiction, and Letters

On one of our daily walks this week, my dear friend was telling me about a cousin she had lost touch with but through a series of different circumstances she had the opportunity recently to meet and reconnect with her family member.  My friend and her cousin had been close as children but in the last ten years had not spoken for a variety of reasons.  I was fascinated by what many would consider an ordinary story and, as is my habit, I asked my friend a plethora of detailed questions, some of which she could not answer.  She likes to tease me that I ask intricate details about a story, a character, a life, that “no one ever thinks of except you, Melissa”   I like to have a complete picture, I like to get lost in the details, I like to know what it is about life and fate that brings people together and drives them apart.  I think that my habit of incessant questioning, seeking out the minutiae, is what has drawn me to reading quite of bit of autobiography, auto-fiction and letters in the past year.

I read Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place and The Possession early in the year and had mixed feelings about both.  There are narrow details about specific events in these brief autobiographical novellas.  A Man’s Place, for instance, describes Ernaux’s relationship with her father and the particulars of his painful illness and death.  But the scope of the story was too narrow for me; I wanted to know more about the aftermath of her parent’s death and how it was situated in the broader context of her life.  In The Possession, Ernaux recounts a relationship she has with a man after her divorce.  Even though she is the one to break off the love affair, she becomes obsessed with him after she learns that he is living with another woman.  Once again, I wanted to know how the circumstances of this affair came about—how did he compare to her ex-husband, her father, and to subsequent intimacies in her life.  Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, which I read over the summer, felt similar in approach to Ernaux’s shorter autobiographical works.  Levy describes a very specific period in her life, the aftermath of her divorce and the adjustment to a new life but, once again, the narrow approach of her subject matter left me wanting more.

I was excited that Ernaux’s longer autobiography, The Years, was finally being translated and published in English because it might give me some of these answers I sought after reading her previous books.   The Years, told in the third person, sometimes third singular, sometimes third plural, is more of a social history than a traditional autobiography.  Ernaux describes the years between the end of World War II and the 2000’s within the broader context of what was happening in the world.  There are a lot of lists and the writing has more of a journalist tone than a personal narrative: “With the abbreviated memory one needs at sixteen simply to act and exist, she sees her childhood as a sort of silent film in colour.  Images of tanks and rubble appear and blur with others of old people who have died, handmade Mother’s Day cards, the Becassine albums, the First Communion retreat, games of sixes played against a wall.  Nor does she care to remember the more recent years, all awkwardness and shame—the time she dressed up as a music-hall dancer, the curly perms, the ankle socks.”  While I appreciate her unique approach to autobiography, I was unsatisfied for lack of personal details.  The lists, the detached narrative, became, at times, too generic and therefore uninteresting.

The recent trend towards auto-fiction feels like an attempt to turn what could be an mundane autobiography into a more engaging narrative that appeals to a wider audience.  Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s auto-fiction, for instance, have gained a lot of attention in the literary press and have been included on many a “best of” list.  I read the fourth book of Knausgaard’s autobiographical fiction and was captivated by his details, but, for some reason, I haven’t been drawn back to read any more of his books in the My Struggle series since.   I read the first two books in Cusk’s trilogy last year and enjoyed immensely the style of her writing as well as her storytelling.  But in the spring, as I read Kudos, the final book in the series, I realized that her approach to autobiography is difficult to sustain in multiple works.  There are, in my opinion, much better examples of aut0-fiction in other languages that have not gotten the same attention as Cusk or Knausgaard. Per Olov Enquist’s The Parable Book, Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and Friederike Mayrocker’s Requiem for Ernst are all linguistically interesting and satisfied my need for details.

Since reading Kafka, I have been obsessed with the personal letters and correspondence of authors which are uniquely autobiographical.  Kafka’s letter to Felice, for instance,  that painstakingly describes their first meeting at Max Brod’s house could easily have been incorporated into an autobiography.  Kierkegaard’s surprisingly tender letters to Regine would have made a fascinating few chapters in his autobiography. Simone de Beauvoir’s letter to Nelsen Algren in which she describes her encounters with the sculptor Giacometti is the stuff of fascinating autobiographical material.  One of the first collections of personal letters that I ever read were those of Cicero which I was forced to translate during my first year of university.  I thought they were boring, self-centered and self-righteous and I haven’t given them very much attention since then.  But perhaps with my new appreciation for the autobiographical details contained in personal letters I ought to give poor Cicero another try.

Finally, this week I have begun reading Simone de Beauvoir’s three volume autobiography and I have been immediately captivated by the rich details of her childhood that she includes in the first book, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.  Maybe I am just a traditionalist, or maybe it’s my penchant for loose, baggy monsters, but of all the autobiography, auto-fiction, and letters I have read over the past year, Beauvoir’s work is by far the most satisfying, even at only 60 pages into the first volume.  Her writing is honest, straightforward and charming: “It doesn’t take much for a child to become the sedulous ape; I had always been willing to show off: but I refused to play the parts expected of me in false situations concocted by adults for their own amusement,” she writes.  A strong foreshadowing, I suspect, of how her character and strong personality develop throughout the course of her life.

On one final note (I promise), I bought Journey Into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch that was just reissued by NYRB Classics.  The introduction, written by Georgia de Chamberet describes this autobiography as an untraditional one: “the non-fiction novel” she calls it.  I’m interested to see where this fits into the genre of “auto” books I’ve described here.

What are your favorite autobiographies, auto-fiction, letters, and non-fiction novels?  Let me know in the comments!

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Filed under Essay, Nonfiction

Breaking and Beginning Again and Again: Simone de Beauvoir on Giacometti

Tall Woman IV, 1960-61, Bronze; Monumental Head, 1960, Bronze; Walking Man I, 1960, Bronze.

Last month I visited the fantastic Giacometti exhibit currently on at the Guggenheim.  I was exhausted, in a good way, after spending hours viewing his sculptures, sketches and paintings. I was fondly reminded of the exhibit when, this weekend, I started reading a collection of letters written by Simone de Beauvoir to her lover Nelson Algren.  In a letter dated the 5th of November, 1947,  she describes Giacometti’s messy studio and slovenly personal habits as well as his rejection of money and fame in favor of artistic integrity.  I was so amused by her candid portrayal of his artistic process and his private life:

I don’t think I happened to speak about a very good friend of us who is a sculptor, though we see him often and he is maybe the only one we always see with pleasure.  I tried to describe him partly in Le sang des autres.  I admire him as an artist immensely.  First because he does the best modern sculpture I know; then because he works with so much purity and patience and strength.  He is called Giacometti, and will have a big exhibition of his works in New York next month.  Twenty years ago he was very successful and made much money with a kind of surrealistic sculpture.  Rich snobs payed expensive prices, as for a Picasso.  But then he felt he was going nowhere, and wasting something of himself, and he turned his back on snobs; he began to work all alone, nearly not selling anything but just what was wanted to live.  So he lives quite poorly; he is very dirty in his clothes.  I must say he seems to like dirt: to have a bath is a problem for him.

Head of a Woman, 1926, Painted Plaster.

Yesterday I saw his house and it is dreadful.  In a nice little forgotten garden, he has an atelier full of plaster where he works, and next door is a kind of hangar, big and cold, without furniture nor store, just walls and roof.  There are holes in the roof so the rain falls on the floor, and there are lots of pots and pans to receive it, but there are holes in them too!  He works 15 hours a day, chiefly at night, and when you see him he has always plaster on this clothes, his hands and his rich dirty hair; he works in cold with hands freezing, he does not care.  He lives with a very young girl whom I admire much for accepting his life; she works as a secretary the whole day, and coming back just finds this hopeless room.  She has no coat in winter and shoes with holes in them.  She left her family and everything to come to Paris and live with him; she is very nice.   He cares much for her but he is not of the sweet kind at all, and she has some hard moments to get through.  What I like in Giacometti chiefly is how he could one day break into pieces all that he had done during two years: he just broke it and his friends thought it dreadful.  He has his idea about sculpture, and for years he just tried and tried, like a maniac, not show anything, breaking and beginning again and again.  And he could easily have got money and praises and a good name.  He has very peculiar, interesting ideas about sculpture.  Well, I think that now he really achieved something; I was deeply moved by what I saw yesterday.

Hands Holding the Void, 1934, Bronze.

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Filed under Art, Letters