Beauvoir, Simone de Entries

France Day 7: Brecht, Bouquinistes, Boissonnerie


We had a lovely last day in Paris. (But not in France; we're here for two more weeks!) After a leisurely morning in, we headed back to the neighborhood of the Louvre to a performance of Opéra de quat'sous (Threepenny Opera), with music by Kurt Weill and book by Bertolt Brecht. Neither of us have ever seen a production of Threepenny Opera, but I have long adored the music in both English and German (I own three recordings of it), and in college I studied John Gay's 1728 Beggar's Opera, which was the source material for Brecht's story. So it was a super-exciting opportunity to see it staged by such a prestigious company. And it was also pretty much the perfect piece to see in French, since I was already very familiar with the characters, the music, and the storyline, so it wasn't that important that I could only understand about 10-15% of the words spoken. (David had neither so high a familiarity nor such a high percentage of language comprehension, but he was a very good sport. And he likes the music too.)

Despite what unqualified judges we are, I thought it was a great performance. The staging and set design was fantastic—the director modernized the action, setting it in post-Thatcher London, and the scene changes were incorporated into the action in interesting ways. For example, in the change leading up to Macheath and Polly's "wedding," Macheath's thugs are supposed to be setting up the nuptial feast using furniture and dishes from their plundered store—in this production they simply move the set pieces into place at the same time. It worked very well. Acting highlights definitely included Véronique Vella as Celia Peachum (a brilliant physical comedienne, probably under five feet tall and played Mrs. Peachum as a whirlwind of manipulative yet no-nonsense theatricality), and Thierry Hancisse as Macheath (charismatic and sleazy in just the right measure—I love the idea of Raul Julia in this role but I honestly think he would have been too far on the charming/sexy side).

There is apparently, although I don't know the details, a debate about whether Mackie's new bride Polly or his old flame Jenny should sing "Pirate Jenny," and this production gave it to Polly. This has always struck me as a strange choice; for one thing, if Jenny sings the song, which after all does bear her name, we get a greater insight into her anger and ambivalence earlier in the play. If she doesn't sing it we don't even see her until halfway through, which is odd for such a pivotal character. Still, Sylvia Bergé did a good job at getting across the weight of the character even with such a late introduction, and that would probably be even truer if I had understood her words better. She and Hancisse traded off verses and stood front and center during the first finale ("What keeps mankind alive?"), which reinforced the importance of both her character and the bond between them. I've heard and read versions of the story which paint Jenny as more or less in love or in hate with Macheath; from what I could tell this production veered toward the hate side, although Bergé's Jenny was still obviously conflicted about turning in her former pimp and associate to the hangman. The "Ballad of Immoral Earnings" piece, for example, was staged in such a way that her more vicious lyrics seemed sincere, whereas her more nostalgic lyrics seemed like manipulation of Macheath. In any case, it was super exciting to see this play staged so well, and I've been walking around humming "Mack the Knife" for the rest of the day.


After the play we strolled down to the Seine and across the pedestrian Pont des Arts, then briefly along the quai famously lined with bouquinistes (bookstalls). Having just re-packed my suitcase and being slightly nervous about my ability to lift its new-found bulk, I did not actually buy anything, but it was fun to browse a bit. Especially in the stalls that chose to forgo the postcards of John Lennon in his New York tee shirt and Jim Morrison with his beaded necklace, in order to stock actual books.


As I was starving, we stopped for a snack at Café Flore, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre's home base during the 1930s. They would often sit here working and socializing from morning until night—Beauvoir particularly, during the war years when her own home wasn't heated due to shortages. These days it's pretty touristy, but you can still discern some of the old ambiance in the tiled floors, the narrow, worn wooden spiral staircase up to the second floor, and the few jovial customers on speaking and back-slapping terms with the waitstaff.


After soaking up the history for a while, and very much enjoying the small terrier/dachshund mix that came in with a man at the table next to us, we ducked across the way and picked up a little box of macarons at famous bakery Ladurée. Our friend Marie Christine has agreed to make macarons with us when we're staying with her and her husband Yves in Toulouse next week, so...just consider this research. We stood in line in the tiny shop to order a flavor selection including chocolate, rose petal, orange flower water, pistachio, violet and raspberry—but unfortunately, the strawberry-mint flavor so touted by the window display had already run out for the day.


Determined to go out for a proper dinner and to do it at a European hour, we wandered around for a bit, ducking in to the church of St. Germain des Près for the end of an evening mass, which was lovely. Not wanting to disturb the service itself, we sat in a nave to the side of the main aisle, gazing at a smallish painting which we later realized was a Fra Angelico. St. Germain des Près is one of David's favorite spots from his one previous trip to Paris, so we were both glad to return there together.


More wandering, and we happened by the hotel where, in 1900, Oscar Wilde met his rather gruesome end. Coincidentally, or maybe not, it turns out that Borges also stayed there quite a bit in the 1970s and 80s.


Finally, having succeeded in waiting until after 9pm to seek out our restaurant, we felt justified in turning our steps toward Fish La Boissonnerie, a tiny but totally charming restaurant that had been recommended to us. It really was delicious; David had the rabbit and I had a salmon steak, with a shared carafe of amazing Chinon cabernet franc and followed by a crème brûlée flavored with verveine. The wine was so good that we decided to buy a bottle to take home with us; apparently the delicious repast made us temporarily forget the weightiness of our suitcases. Tomorrow on the métro to pick up our rental car, we may be cursing all our purchasing of heavy objects. At least David's tea habit is lighter on the muscles than my penchant for books and wine!


Tomorrow we're off to the Norman coast followed by the Loire valley. I'm not 100% sure what internet connectivity will be like in our future locations, so the blog entries may become more sporadic. I'll be sure to check in when I can, though, and am very much looking forward to the next segment of our trip.


Cross-posted to Family Trunk Project.

France Day 4: Medievalism + Books


Success! We finally managed to visit the Cluny Museum (a.k.a. Musée National du Moyen Age), and it was fantastic. The building itself is built within a structure that began as Gallo-Roman baths, with the 15th-century addition of an elaborate residence. The setting couldn't be more perfect to showcase their fascinating and extensive collection of ancient, medieval, and early Renaissance art. The array of media on display was impressive; tapestries (below, for example) are an obvious draw to this museum, as it is the home of the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (on which more later).


But the show was not limited to the textile arts, not in the least. One of the most impressive elements of the museum is the way its huge stone rooms and original medieval structure lends itself to exhibiting monumental architectural elements, including portal statuary, pillar capitals, and even an entire cathedral portal (arched entranceway), which was transported to Paris from elsewhere in France when its original home was damaged, and which has since been integrated into the interior of the museum in a very organic-feeling way. Also very impressive was the room of huge capitals depicting, on one side of the room, the heads of the kings of France, and on another side the huge headless bodies of a series of prophets. A limited amount of natural light streamed into this room, which marked the boundary between the original baths and the later addition of the medieval Hôtel de Cluny. These angel sculptures were in the same space:


The recorded audioguides were a wealth of useful information. In the Cluny chapel, constructed as part of the original mansion, we were given the history of how the tiny chapel was used, including entrances, exits, and the special "hagiometer" that allowed the abbot to participate in the service semi-remotely. (Personally I think it's inexcusable that Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy passed up the opportunity to use the word "hagiometer"—though if it had, the thing would probably have been higher-tech and more sinister than a simple peephole in a stone wall.) In an exhibit on swords, which was on display in their rotating exhibit gallery located in the former gallo-roman "Frigidarium" (PULLMAN?? WHERE ARE YOU??), we were given fascinating backstory on this piece:


Apparently, the soldier arresting Christ is marked as a sinister alien "other" not only by his Oriental features, but also by the curved shape of his sword, which contrasts with the straight blade that St. Peter (to Christ's left) is in the process of pulling from its scabbard. A cultural tip-off I never would have honed in on, but one presented in a particularly clever way: the curators juxtaposed this piece with a looped video playing a sword fight scene from a Hollywood movie, between a blond and a dark-haired knight. We passed the screen before reaching the above piece, and I commented that the brown-haired actor was probably the bad guy, because of his looks and because he got in a few good strokes on the blond—the good guy is always about to come off worst in a duel when he "unexpectedly" rallies, right? It turns out this carved piece was operating on exactly the same kind of signifiers, but ones I would no longer have picked up on. Interesting how little people change. In an unrelated note, I also think it's cool how much of the polychromy (brightly colored paint work, which was present on most medieval carvings but has since worn off) is still visible in this piece.


One thing I find appealing about medieval art is the way it treats as everyday objects things in which we as a general culture have stopped believing. So, in the tapestry above, a few of the characters are holy men doing something or other in the course of the story of Christ's life. A lot more people are just going about their daily business, like the fellow on the left here, picking up some luggage that was stored in the hold of the backgrounded ship, in order to bring it home with him. Right next to him? A series of grotesque demons who seem to be falling haphazardly from the sky. It's all in a day's work, you know? I like that about the medieval mindset. I think it's one reason I tend not to like modern historical fiction set in these times: few authors can replicate the credulous yet blasé stance toward what we now think of as the "supernatural," found in actual medieval art and literature.


Also on display was the typically medieval tendency to revel in the grotesque. This was especially prominent in the stained glass portions of the exhibit: the blinding of Sampson (above), or the panel that opens this blog entry (which depicts Job's livestock being taken away, although it's plainly being taken by a devil whereas my understanding has always been that God himself screwed Job over in order to test the poor fellow). One sometimes forgets the intense physicality of a lot of medieval art, but it's definitely there: in one exhibit of choir stalls, some of the carved misericords (those little platforms that allowed the monks to rest their feet during mass) even featured bawdy scenes!

The big draw to the Cluny, for me as for many folks, was the famous set of six Lady and Unicorn tapestries, and man, they did not disappoint. They're kept under very dim light in a special rotunda, due to their delicate condition, so I couldn't really take pictures, but believe it or not a tear came to my eye upon entering the room with them. They certainly have a magic about them, and the artistry involved in rendering the animals, facial expressions, and drapery of the ladies' garments in woven form is pretty incredible. They are more or less an installation, given that they were intended as a set that would line the walls of a room, and seeing them in person, at full size and all together, was quite powerful.


In the Lady and Unicorn tapestries, as well as most of the tapestries in the Cluny, animals play a central role, and that was true in the stained glass and even the painted works as well. I loved the above section of stained glass with its depiction of partridges, and another favorite was this crazy-looking winged rabbit-cum-porcupine from a tapestry in the chapel. I can't really tell if this is an example of the artist having seen, perhaps, a porcupine's quill without seeing the whole animal (the quills look quite naturalistic to me), or whether it's just a similarly loose interpretation as some of the lions and weasels that feature in these same tapestries.


All in all, we spent a good half a day in the Cluny, and were starving when we emerged around 3:30pm. Before taking off for our picnic lunch, though, we did swing by the gift shop, where I accidentally dropped a 50-euro-cent coin behind the register and invoked the wrath of the gift store lady. "Ce n'est pas important," I assured her, and she let loose with a torrent of Parisian French about why it WAS important, and how she would never be able to find this coin. As David said as we were walking away, since this kind of behavior accords so strongly with American stereotypes about Parisians, and since we have encountered absolutely NONE of it prior to this, the Cluny gift store lady could be considered a kind of rite of passage for our trip. Anyway, here's what I got for running the gauntlet with her:


  • Monograph on the lady & unicorn tapestries, by Elisabeth Delahaye (director of the Cluny)
  • Tristan et Iseut (Béroul and Thomas texts reconstructed by André Mary)
  • Abélard et Héloïse Correspondance

The rest of the afternoon was rather more of a Beauvoir/Sartre excursion than a medieval one. We swung by the pâtisserie / boulangerie Eric Kayser, which had been recommended, and which in addition to making delicious food was staffed with super-friendly, jovial Parisians who more than made up for the mildly negative experience in the gift shop. With our bags bulging with pastries, sandwiches and baguettes, we strolled past Beauvoir's alma mater...


...and on to the Jardin de Luxembourg, where she often studied and hung out while she was in school. We grabbed some chairs by a reflecting pool and devoured our sandwiches, while a baby across the way yelled "Bâteau! BATEAU!!" in an ever more insistent voice. It later transpired that he may have been thinking of this little pond, where exuberant children launch tiny sailboats with long sticks, and then run hither and thither tracking their progress.


The sun was warm, and we sat sleepily on a bench people-watching for a half hour or so. I love these promenaded European city parks, used by people of all ages and nationalities in, seemingly, a similar spirit of leisure.


And then, it was on to the Librarie Gallimard, flagship bookstore of the publishing house that took on Sartre and Beauvoir, and coincidentally the publisher of most of the books in French I was interested in buying. Believe it or not, I did not buy them all.


  • Simone de Beauvoir: L'invitée (you all know my Beauvoir fixation)
  • Simone de Beauvoir: Les mandarins I
  • Simone de Beauvoir: Les mandarins II
  • Maryse Condé: Moi, Tituba sorcière (Condé has been recommended to me by several people, among them Jenny)
  • Marie Darrieussecq: Naissance de fantômes (recommended by Litlove, although I don't remember exactly where)
  • André Gide: La porte étroite (recommended by Anthony and by Beauvoir herself)
  • Albert Cossery: Un complot de saltimbanques (seen on Three Percent's list of Best Translated Fiction from 2011)
  • Marguerite Duras: L'amant (Duras needs no explanation)
  • Marguerite Duras: Hiroshima mon amour
  • André Breton: Nadja (a general interest in Modernism and Surrealism makes this a must)
  • Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes (may be a dud, but won the Prix Goncourt in 2009, and I've heard good things about her novel Rosie Carpe)
  • Irène Némirovsky: Chaleur du sang (I'd read anything by Némirovsky after Suite Française, and this one comes recommended by Sasha)
  • Irène Némirovsky: Dimanche (again, Némirovsky)
  • Véronique Olmi: Le premier amour (her novella Bord de Mer sounds fantastic based on posts by EL Fay and Isabella among others, but it wasn't available, so I took a chance on another title by Olmi)
  • Raymond Queneau: Zazie dans le métro (Oulipo fun)
  • Raymond Queneau: Exercices de style (ditto, recently enthused about by my friend Marie Christine and by Jenny)
  • Nathalie Sarraute: L'usage de la parole (I picked Sarraute's Le planetarium for the Wolves reading group, but that title wasn't to be had. I'll continue looking, though, and in the meantime picked up two others.)
  • Nathalie Sarraute: Martereau
  • Georges Simenon: L'homme qui regardait passer les trains (multiple posts by Isabella have me super interested in Simenon)
  • Marguerite Yourcenar: Mémoires d'Hadrien (September pick for the Wolves)

Apparently, the good people at Gallimard had a promotional deal going on where the purchase of any two Folio editions earned you a free gift book, so I earned several free editions, although I didn't get to choose them. Still, I'm not complaining. Know anything about any of them? Any good? If not, I'm not out any extra money.


  • Patrick Pécherot: Les brouillards de la butte
  • Marc Dugain: Une exécution ordinaire
  • Stephen Vizinczey: Éloge des femmes mûres
  • Frédéric Beigbeder: Dernier inventaire avant liquidation
  • Gilbert Sinoué: L'enfant de Bruges

Exhausted and excited, we returned home to a dinner of cheese, fruit, and baguette in our little flat. Tomorrow we're thinking of switching things up from ancient/medieval to avant garde, and combining a visit to the Centre Georges Pompidou (modern art museum) with more tea shopping. The latter might enable David to catch up with my book spending; he is currently browsing the internet to assess the offerings by tea merchants Mariage Frères and Dammann Frères, so that he will be prepared for our visit. We'll let you know how it goes!


Cross-posted to Family Trunk Project.

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).

Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée


The short of it: From the opening pages I fell head over heels for Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (translated into English as Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter but more literally "Memoirs of a well-behaved girl"), the first of four volumes in de Beauvoir's autobiography. It's been a long time since I connected with a book at such a level of visceral sympathy—since I had the feeling "Yes! That's what it's like for me too!," since I felt such a sense of loss upon turning a final page. So there may be a certain lack of critical distance in this post: I'm declaring myself right up front to be a newly-converted de Beauvoir fangirl, and my only dilemma now is whether to break my book-buying ban and order the second volume (La force de l'age) right this second, or whether to hold out for a gift-giving holiday or upcoming trip to France.

And the long: For me, one of the greatest pleasures of Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée is simply watching de Beauvoir's brain apply its lifelong training in philosophy and semiotics to the examination of her own early life. Beginning with birth and ending with the completion of her secondary schooling, some of the most interesting passages in this book map to what are often the "boring bits" of biography and autobiography: de Beauvoir's early childhood. She is such a keen observer, and obviously so well-accustomed to dissecting the way humans perceive and process the world, that hers becomes an early-childhood story unlike any I've ever read before—and it's especially exciting to read about her development in this regard if the reader has some slight familiarity with her existentialist feminism later in life, since she does a complete about-face on many issues. She writes, for example, about her early assumption (age five or so) that language and other signs sprang organically—necessarily and without human intervention—from the things they signify, so that the word "vache" (cow) was somehow a necessary and organic component of the animal itself. In this mindset she could understand letters as objects (an "a," for example) but not as building blocks representing sounds that make up words. In this passage, she recalls the "click" in her brain when she finally, although in a limited way, grasped the concept of a sign:

[J]e contemplais l'image d'une vache, et les deux lettres, c, h, qui se prononçaient ch. J'ai compris soudain qu'elles ne possedaient pas un nom à la manière des objets, mais qu'elles représentaient un son: j'ai compris ce que c'est un signe. J'eus vite fait d'apprendre à lire. Cependant ma pensée s'arrêta en chemin. Je voyais dans l'image graphique l'exacte doublure du son qui lui correspondait: ils émanaient ensemble de la chose qu'ils exprimaient si bien que leur relation ne comportait aucun arbitraire.
[I was looking at a picture of a cow [vache], and the two letters, c and h, that together were pronounced "ch." I understood suddenly that they had no name in the sense that objects do, but that they represented a sound: I understood what a sign is. It then took me very little time to learn to read. However, my ideas stopped there. I saw in the picture the exact double of the sound corresponding to it: they emanated together from the thing they expressed, so well that the relation between them involved nothing arbitrary.

One of the many threads running through the book traces de Beauvoir's evolving understanding of signs: where they come from, how they work, and the inescapable gap (despite her early naïvete) between the thing itself and the sign humans have invented to indicate it. There comes a period in her teenage years when language, the necessity of interpreting language, becomes her enemy for just this reason: when we express our thoughts, feelings, and intentions, there is always a chasm between the thing itself—our interior landscape—and our expression of it; often this chasm is only widened when our words are interpreted by another person.

Despite this semiotic difficulty, however, de Beauvoir herself does an impeccable job of articulating her own interior landscapes at different times in her life, not only as personal experiences, but as ontological states capable of dissection by her as an adult. Another thread that is first woven into the narrative very early is the dread inherent in the realization that we change with time, that our present incarnation is different than the person we will be in the future, and in ways currently dismaying or frightening to us. That these changes may cease to dismay or frighten us in the future, before or after they happen to us, doesn't change the dread our current selves feel at being left behind, replaced:

Je regardais le fauteuil de maman et je pensais: "Je ne pourrai plus m'asseoir sur ses genoux." Soudain l'avenir existait: il me changerait en une autre qui dirait moi et ne serait plus moi. J'ai pressenti tous les sevrages, les reniements, les abandons et la succession de mes morts.
[I looked at maman's chair and I thought: "I won't be able to sit on her lap anymore." Suddnely the future existed: it would change me into someone else who would say "me" and would no longer be me. I sensed all the weanings, the renunciations, the abandonments and the whole progression of my deaths.

This was one of those jolts of recognition for me: I have a memory very like this, of being at the zoo with my mother and grandmother when I was three or four years old, and overhearing them talk about how unpleasant "teenagers" were. Mom and Grandma probably didn't actually say this, but I got the impression from their conversation that teenagers hate their parents. And it suddenly dawned on me that one day I would be a teenager: would I hate my parents as well? But I didn't want to hate them; I loved and depended upon my parents. Where would this monstrous teenage-me come from, and how would it eat away at the love I currently felt toward my family? I remember an awful feeling of dread, and of impotence: I didn't want to become this future self I foresaw, but presumably I could do nothing to stop it: "I"—the "me" looking at the polar bears—would be consumed in teenage-ness and no longer care about "my" (toddler-age) preferences. Of course the truth was more complicated—I never stopped loving my parents, needless to say—but in a way, my three-year-old self was right: by the time I was a teenager I DID act snotty and unpleasant to them a lot of the time, and I no longer wished (luckily) to regress into the trusting dependence of toddler-hood. I had become a stranger, and no longer wanted to go back; the only way was forward.

De Beauvoir's delineation of this process is fascinating, and she returns to it several times throughout this volume: the dread that precedes a change, and the ontological break that enables us to be in a completely different emotional space after the change, so that our former dread is no longer relevant. Raised devoutly Catholic, for example, she realizes sometime in her early teens that she no longer believes in God. At some point before this realization, she thinks to herself that to lose one's faith would be the most horrible thing she can imagine happening to a person; yet when she herself realizes that it has happened to her, it makes no immediate change in her life; she feels little distress. She had thought that her morality and assumptions about the universe would immediately and drastically be torn asunder, but in fact she retains the tenants of her bourgeois Christian upbringing long after she has stopped believing in God, and only very gradually (years, decades later) comes to reexamine the aspects of that upbringing that no longer make sense to her. By the time she is questioning these assumptions, other things (literature, philosophy, human relationships) have taken the spiritually fulfilling place that religion once held in her life:

La littérature prit dans mon existence la place qu'y avait occupée la religion: elle l'envahit tout entière, et la transfigura. Les livres que j'aimais devinrent une Bible où je puisais des conseils et des secours; j'en copiai de longs extraits; j'appris par coeur de nouveaux cantiques et de nouvelles litanies, des psaumes, des proverbes, des prophéties et je sanctifiai toutes les cironstances de ma vie en me recitant ces textes sacrés. [...] entre moi et les âmes soeurs qui existaient quelque part, hors d'atteinte, ils créaient une sorte de communion; au lieu de vivre ma petite histoire particulière, je participais à une grande épopée spirituelle.
[Literature took, in my life, the place that had formerly been occupied by religion: it overran everything, and transfigured it. The books I loved became a Bible from which I took advice and comfort; I copied long extracts from them; I learned by heart new hymns and new litanies, psalms, proverbs, prophecies, and I sanctified all the circumstances of my life by reciting these sacred texts. [...] Between me and these sister souls there existed something, out of reach; they created a sort of communion; instead of living my trivial individual story, I was participating in a grand spiritual saga.]

Although I want to discuss so much more—young Simone's feeling of tragedy at the unconsciousness of inanimate objects; her attribution of her own negative capability to the difference in her parents' belief systems; her relationships with her sister and her best friend; her first meetings with Sartre—I'm already running long. I can't close this post, however, without mentioning the insight that Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée gives into de Beauvoir's feminism. Her father looms large in this history, as both the object of her childhood and adolescent idolatry, and as a conservative blow-hard who says things like "a wife is what her husband makes her; it's up to him to shape her personality," and bitterly regrets the fact that his loss of money means that his daughters will be earning their own livings, rather than marrying well into good society (never mind that they PREFER to earn their own livings; that's not the point). Her father's betrayal of her—he tells her she will have to educate herself and earn her living, then hates her for being a reminder of his own financial failure—was a formative event in de Beauvoir's life, and a source of real bitterness for her; I was impressed, however, at how impartial she manages to be toward her father himself, while coming to reject the set of values he held.

As with all other aspects of the book, her observations on gender relations are detailed and perceptive, and the roots of her feminism run through this volume, from her examination of the sexual double-standard that allowed her parents to entertain men who kept mistresses but not the mistresses themselves; to the assertion of her otherwise avant-garde philospher friends that they "can't respect an unmarried woman"; to the effects of having her reading censored (it was considered dangerous for unmarried women to read about sex). I can't resist including this passage, in which a ten-year-old Simone is reacting to her priest's story about a young female parishioner who reads "bad books," loses her faith in God, and subsequently commits suicide:

Ce que je comprenais le moins, c'est que la connaissance conduisît au désespoir. Le prédicateur n'avait pas dit que les mauvais livres peignaient la vie sous des couleurs fausses: en ce cas, il eût facilement balayé leurs mensonges; le drame de l'enfant qu'il avait échoué à sauver, c'est qu'elle avait découvert prématurément l'authentique visage de la réalité. De toute façon, me disais-je, un jour je la verrai moi aussi, face à face, et je n'en mourrai pas.
[What I understood least, was the idea that knowledge led to despair. The priest hadn't said that the bad books painted life in false colors: in that case, it would have been easy to brush aside their lies; the tragedy of the girl he had failed to save was that she had prematurely discovered the true face of reality. In any case, I said to myself, one day I'll see it too, face to face, and I won't die.]

This passage makes me feel like cheering. And de Beauvoir does not neglect to notice that men and boys were not considered so delicate as to kill themselves over premature exposure to a tawdry potboiler. Still, Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée puts de Beauvoir's feminism in perspective: she may be most famous for The Second Sex, but she's primarily a humanist, interested in the modes of existence experienced by all humans, and by specific humans, regardless of gender.

I'll be honest: this is not the memoir for everyone. If you're not interested in philosophy and like a lot to "happen" in your books, it will probably seem hopelessly dry. De Beauvoir's adolescence involves all the arrogance and angst one might expect from a recently-secularized teen who went on to become a preeminent existentialist (hint: a lot). But even when she is recalling her most turbulent periods, the adult de Beauvoir maintains her incisive, perceptive, ever-so-faintly-amused voice. She doesn't take herself too seriously, but neither does she dismiss her experiences or manifest a false modesty. This balanced tone, combined with her stunning intelligence and existentialist insights, makes this volume easily one of my favorite reads of the year, if not of all time.


Please excuse my creaky translations from the original French; I am no Lydia Davis, and have no copy of this book in translation.

Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée is my fifth book for the Women Unbound Challenge, and my fourth book for the Challenge that Dare Not Speak its Name (GLBT connection: de Beauvoir was bisexual, and although she takes no lovers of any gender during the course of this first volume, she does have a passionate, near-obsessive relationship with her best friend, Zaza.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography