The Prime of Life

Simone De Beauvoir’s autobiography from 1929 to 1944 leaves a lot to be desired. Certain parts were great: she hikes alone all over the rural French countryside, blithely uncaring about the rape threat her friends warn her of; she discovers the joys of having her own room to read and write in; she details the heavy-lifting of writing. But most of her recollections are too much based in Sartre. At the beginning she excuses herself saying that her life has been closely linked with his and she mentions him only insofar as he exists in her own life, since he’s writing his own life story. Well, I read his life story and he focuses only on himself (granted, it only goes up to age 10). But page after page denotes in excruciating detail what she and Sartre thought, said, or did. The early years are great, the best part. But it drags in a huge way as she begins to simply dictate events, people, places, as if she’s literally dictating this into a recorder as she lays supine on a couch.

Describing her life in 1929, just having returned to Paris and living in her own room (in her grandmother’s house, just like any of the other lodgers):

I kept myself warm with an evil-smelling kerosene stove. Somehow its stink seemed to protect my solitude, and I loved it. It was wonderful to be able to shut my door and keep my daily life free of other people’s inquisitiveness… I paid rent to my grandmother, and she treated me with the same unobtrusive respect she showed her other lodgers. I was free to come and go as I pleased. I could get home with the milk, read in bed all night, sleep till midday, shut myself up for forty-eight hours at a stretch, or go out on the spur of the moment. My lunch was a bowl of borsch at Dominique’s, and for supper I took a cup of hot chocolate at La Coupole. I was fond of hot chocolate, and borsch, and lengthy siestas and sleepless nights: but my chief delight was in doing as I pleased. There was practically nothing to stop me. I discovered, to my great pleasure, that “the serious business of living” on which grownups had held forth to me so interminably was not, in fact, quite so oppressive after all… A little private tutoring and a part-time teaching job at the Lycée Victor-Duruy guaranteed me enough to live on. These duties did not even prove a burden to me, since I felt that by performing them I was involved in a new sort of game: I was playing at being a grownup… I remember how tickled I was when I got my first salary check. I felt I had played a practical joke on someone.

She read quite a bit, becoming a subscriber to Sylvia Beach’s library and reading Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Rebecca West, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson. She did not enjoy Dorothy Richardson’s epic Pilgrimage, calling it an”interminable series of novels from ten or a dozen volumes of which I learned precisely nothing.”

She discusses her desire not to have children. “Small babies had never interested me… my happiness was too complete for any new element to attract me… I too was self-sufficient: I never once dreamed of rediscovering myself in the child I might bear. In any case, I felt such absence of affinity with my own parents that any sons or daughters I might have I regarded in advance as strangers; from them I expected either indifference or hostility—so great had been my own aversion to family life.”

In the countryside around Marseilles, she hiked for miles and miles. “Between October 2 and July 14 I never once found myself wondering how to spend my Thursdays and Sundays. I made it a rule to be out of the house by dawn, winter and summer alike, and never to return before nightfall. I didn’t bother with all the preliminaries, and never obtained the semiofficial rig of rucksack, studded shoes, rough skirt, and windbreaker. I would slip on an old dress and a pair of espadrilles, and take a few bananas and buns with me in a basket… At first I limited myself to some five or six hours’ walking; then I chose routes that would take nine to ten hours; in time I was doing twenty-five miles in a day.”

Moving to a different town to teach, “the insipid, rainy, overcivilized Normandy landscape held no inspiration for me… I very quickly slipped into a regular routine there. Routine habits keep you company in a manner of speaking—just as some companions are often no more than acquired habits.”