La force de l'âge


After being blown away by the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs last September, I knew I had to get to the second installment as soon as possible. Let me just say, it did not disappoint. Covering the years from 1929, when Beauvoir graduated from college and first lived on her own as an adult, through the development of her ideas and interpersonal relationships of the 1930s and into the war years to the liberation of Paris in 1944, La force de l'âge (translated into English as The Prime of Life) is seven hundred pages of densely-packed insight, and a new favorite for me.

In both volumes I've read, what sets Beauvoir's autobiographical writing apart is her concern with both the specific details of her own life at any given time (standard memoir fare), and also with drilling down into the ontological state of being a 5-year-old girl, a 23-year-old intellectual, a 32-year-old novelist, and so on. In Mémoires, for example, she describes the gradual process she went through in order to understand the nature of signifier and signified, believing at first that the word "vache" was uniquely and innately bound to the actual cow-object, and only later coming to accept that language and other systems of thought are arbitrarily imposed by humans in order to divide up and make sense of the world around them. Similarly, in La force de l'âge Beauvoir delves into her persistent perception, throughout her 20s, that her own subjectivity and way of being in the world is "true"—the subjectivity of others being a persistent myth which she might believe intellectually but for which she saw little viscerally convincing evidence. She, like so many people in their teens and early twenties, perceives herself at this time as the center of her universe: she is vaguely threatened when she encounters people who cannot be "annexed" to her own circle of friends or way of being, and is frankly incredulous at the idea that any serious catastrophe could ever happen to her. She calls this irrational but stubborn mode of thought her "schizophrenia," and analyzes throughout the book the different ways in which it manifested and developed over the years.

Ainsi, nos aînés nous interdisaient-ils d'envisager qu'une guerre fût seulement possible. Sartre avait trop d'imagination, et trop encline à l'horreur, pour respecter tout à fait cette consigne; des visions le traversaient dont certaines ont marqué La Nausée: des villes en émeute, tous les rideaux de fer tirés, du sang aux carrefours et sur la mayonnaise des charcuteries. Moi, je poursuivais avec entrain mon rêve de schizophrène. Le monde existait, à la manière d'un objet aux replis innombrables et dont la découverte serait toujours une aventure, mais non comme un champ de forces capables de me contrarier.
Also, our elders forbade us to envisage that a war was even possible. Sartre had too much imagination, and that too inclined to horror, to respect this ban completely; visions passed through his mind of which some featured in Nausea: cities in a state of riot, all the shop gates pulled down, blood in the intersections and in the butcher's mayonnaise. Me, I continued cheerfully in my schizophrenic dream. The world existed, in the manner of an object with innumerable folds whose discovery would always be an adventure, but not as a force field capable of thwarting me.

Beauvoir examines the ways in which this "schizophrenic dream" is facilitated by her unacknowledged privilege: the world never seems to deny her the things she really cares about, so she imagines that it is not capable of doing so. Similarly, the deprivations she suffers in the pre-war period (she and Sartre are living paycheck-to-paycheck, without much luxury) are things about which she never cared in the first place, and are more than made up for by the freedoms inherent in the belief that nothing truly bad will happen to her. This ability to live the life that best suits her own nature, in turn engenders a philosophy of extreme individualism in the young Beauvoir: throughout their 20s she and Sartre distrust any political organizations, identifying as liberal intellectuals but limiting themselves to the role of witnesses when, for example, the Front Populaire wins the 1936 elections and institutes the 40-hour work week and paid vacation. Although this complaisance is threatened on a number of occasions and evolves over the years, it isn't until the outbreak of the Second World War that Beauvoir's insularity is truly overturned, and that she accepts on a fundamental level her solidarity with other people, and the uncertainty of all human lives. I know this passage is long, but I find it so beautiful I have to share.

[N]on seulement la guerre avait changé mes rapports à tout, mais elle avait tout changé: les ciels de Paris et les villages de Bretagne, la bouche des femmes, les yeux des enfants. Après juin 1940, je ne reconnus plus les choses, ni les gens, ni les heures, ni les lieux, ni moi-même. Le temps, qui pendant dix ans avait tourné sur place, brusquement bougeait, il m'entraînait: sans quitter les rues de Paris, je me trouvais plus dépaysée qu'après avoir franchi des mers, autrefois. Aussi naïve qu'un enfant qui croit à la verticale absolue, j'avais pensé que la vérité du monde était fixe [...]
      Quel malentendu! J'avais vécu non pas un fragment d'éternité mais une période transitoire: l'avant-guerre. [...] La victoire même n'allait pas renverser le temps et ressusciter un ordre provisoirement dérangée; elle ouvrait une nouvelle époque: l'après-guerre. Aucun brin d'herbe, dans aucun pré, ni sous aucun de mes regards, ne redeviendrait jamais ce qu'il avait été. L'éphémère était mon lot. Et l'Histoire charriait pêle-mêle, avec des moments glorieux, un énorme fatras de douleurs sans remède.
Not only had the war changed my relationship with everything, but it had changed everything: the skies of Paris and the villages of Brittany, the mouths of women, the eyes of children. After June 1940, I no longer recognized things, or people, or hours, or places, or myself. Time, which for ten years had revolved in place, suddenly moved, and carried me away: without leaving the streets of Paris, I found myself more disoriented than I had been after crossing the seas in former times. Naive as a child who believes in the absolute vertical, I had thought that the truth of the world was fixed [...]
      What a misunderstanding! I had lived through, not a fragment of eternity, but a transitory era: the pre-war. [...] Even victory would not reverse time and restore some provisionally disarranged order; it would begin a new era: the post-war. No blade of grass, in any field, under any gaze of mine, would ever return to what it was. The ephemeral was my lot. And History barreled along pell-mell, with glorious moments, an immense jumble of grief with no cure.

This trajectory from individualism to solidarity is just one thread running through La force de l'âge, and is linked with many more: the need for autonomy and connection; Beauvoir's burgeoning feminism and the ways in which she balances that with her long-term relationship to Jean-Paul Sartre; her fear of and eventual partial acceptance of death, and the ways in which she realizes that catastrophes can happen to her as well as to other people. This is all examined with an intelligence both patient and passionate, and makes Beauvoir's narrative far more memorable than a simple catalog of events.

At the same time, there is also plenty of the kind of thing that makes standard biography and autobiography interesting. Beauvoir chronicles the voyages she and Sartre took all over Europe during the 1930s, traveling in Spain in 1931 (still giddy with the rise of the Second Spanish Republic), Italy in the early 1930s (where they saw their first Fascist), Berlin shortly after Hitler's rise to power, Greece in the late 30s, France's Free Zone during the war. She describes her long backpacking trips in France and elsewhere, in which she takes off alone on foot for weeks at a time, armed with her wine-skin and espadrilles. She writes about the couple's non-traditional romantic arrangements, their decision to eschew legal marriage and monogamy and the struggles and benefits that result from that. The second half of the memoir, which deals with the war years, provides a vivid account of the everyday chaos, uncertainty, shifting moods and sudden devastation of life in Paris during the German occupation.

There are, of course, pages on Beauvoir's and Sartre's famous friends, among them Albert Camus and Alberto Giacommetti. She describes exhaustively the plays and films she saw from year to year, and her reactions to painting, sculpture, and music. Unsurprisingly, she also writes with insight about the books that she and Sartre read and discussed during those years, going into great detail at times about why the work of novelists like Faulkner and Dos Passos was so important to her, both as a writer and as a person. Beauvoir acknowledges beautifully the way in which the discovery of a book can be a pivotal life event.

Of course, she also records her own writing life and that of Sartre, both from an artistic-development standpoint and from a perspective of publishing, critical reception, and political engagement. I look forward to revisiting these passages when I'm more familiar with both of their novels and essays. Even without that familiarity, though, I was impressed with the frankness Beauvoir brings to a discussion of her own work: she is not easy on herself, and in retrospect she finds herself guilty of many serious flaws. At the same time, she does not hesitate to point out the elements which she still, after 20 or more years, finds powerful or effective. She gives the impression of taking herself seriously, but not more seriously than she would any other writer. So too, she examines the ways in which one book lead to the next for her, each one being a reaction to and against its predecessor.

I've spent almost a month with La force de l'âge, and although I am ready to be done with this volume for now, I also feel a tiny bit sad to put it on the shelf; I know it will be one I return to many times in the future. I also feel so lucky to be about to visit Paris and Rouen, where Sartre and Beauvoir lived and taught. I hope to pick up more of her work while I'm there!


All translations are mine. However, this book is available in an English translation by Peter Green (titled The Prime of Life).


  • From my background reading that 'trajectory from individualism to solidarity' is at the heart of the next edition, Force of Circumstance. I'm eager to get started but my edition is bouncing between England and Canada.

    Her commentary about the books that she and Sartre read was fascinating.

    • The book-related commentary was definitely a highlight for me. Especially since many of the early 20th-century American novelists she and Sartre were so enthusiastic about are ones I've spent some time with, yet her insights were generally things I hadn't thought of in exactly that way.

      I'm excited about the third volume but will be taking a detour into The Second Sex before I get to it - I'm hoping to read it in June/July with the Year of Feminist Classics folks.

  • I love Beauvoir, and find her full of fascinating contradictions. I know her fiction work far better than her autobiographies, but I think there's an intriguing schism between her representation of her life, in which she IS hard on herself but focused on an ambitious trajectory of success, and her fictional representations of women that depict them constantly on the verge of fearful breakdown, impaled on their love relationships and empty inside. I have never read Les Mandarins but I would like to very much - it's the most autobiographical of her novels, supposedly 'dealing' with her relationship to Nelson Algren - whom she trailed around after helplessly once he had ended the relationship. She was such a strong, powerful woman, but a disaster in love.

    • Fascinating contradictions, indeed. I don't know her fiction at all, but am now eager to get to it. In these memoirs there is a LOT of intellectual remove that I'm sure was not there when she was living these events first-hand (in fact, Anthony read her journals from some of the same years and commented on the difference in tone). She does talk a little bit about, for example, how difficult it was to deal with Sartre's first attachment outside their relationship, and at length about a fairly but not completely disastrous three-way relationship they had with one of Beauvoir's former students (which is one of the inspirations for L'invitée, apparently).

  • This sounds even more fascinating than the first volume of her memoir. So, one doesn't need to be really familiar with her work to enjoy the memoirs?

    • Stefanie, I have only the slightest familiarity with either hers or Sartre's work, and I find these totally fascinating. Of course, they do make me want to read her fiction (and re-read The Second Sex)! But definitely not necessary to enjoy.

  • "Not a fragment of eternity, but a transitory era." What a lovely way to frame what must have been a terribly disillusioning wake-up call. If Beauvoir's memoirs are full of these types of nuggets, you have added a whole slew of volumes to my future TBR yet again, damn you!

    • That passage is particularly stunning, I thought. I like "And History barreled along pell-mell," too, and in French "[N]on seulement la guerre avait changé mes rapports à tout, mais elle avait tout changé" - I couldn't figure out a way to get that lovely inversion (changé tout / tout changé) in English. Beauvoir & Duras are top of my must-buy lists for France!

  • I found a copy of the first volume of the memoirs through Book Mooch, and it's on its way to me now -- yay! I'm glad to hear that this volume is very good as well. I'll admit that when I saw the book in a store a while back, I was intimidated by its length, but I'll have to get over that because it sounds well worth it.

    • It is totally, totally worth it. That said, it is both long and dense. But seriously, it really repays the effort put in. And there's nothing saying you can't alternate with a lighter book if the mood strikes. Yay for finding the first volume on Book Mooch!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography