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26 July 2023

Simone de Beauvoir and the art of loss

Sixty years ago, the French writer’s unflinching memoir of her mother’s death tested the limits of her existentialism.

By Ali Smith

When I told a friend of mine I was about to write this essay, she told me the following story. She works in film and one day recently she was researching a project about young people. She was sitting at the back of a classroom of adolescent school students when she heard the (male) teacher taking the class say, “OK, so there was this French writer guy called Simon de Beauvoir.” The day after she told me this, I read the following in a newspaper in a piece by the journalist Rachel Cooke: “When I went to university in 1988, feminism was wildly unfashionable… it was considered deeply uncool to own a copy of The Second Sex.”

In fact, all I’ve encountered since I started thinking about writing this is people saying controversial and quite odd things about Simone de Beauvoir. It suggests she’ll never not be relevant, one way or another. She’ll never not be troubling to the people who can’t or don’t want to imagine the existence of such a powerful and influential thinking woman; troubling to the people who took umbrage at what they saw as her too-outré take on feminism when she published her pioneering study of societal pressure, oppression and construction of gender identity, The Second Sex (1949), translated by Howard M Parshley in 1953, or to those who later took and take umbrage at what they see as its too-inadequate take on feminism; troubling to the people who find whatever scandalous event is the new/latest thing to find outrageous about de Beauvoir’s life or work. Free thinkers are troubling. They’re disturbing. In a time fixated on category and identity like our own, de Beauvoir is bound to be, as ever, both freeing and troubling.

[See also: Virginia Woolf’s living book]

I first read her at the age of 18 or 19, I was in a bookshop in my home town, Inverness, in the Highlands of Scotland, and the shop had just opened a downstairs room and filled its shelves with bright new classic international paperbacks, an amazing transformation in what was usually only a stock of Agatha Christie mysteries and books about Bonnie Prince Charlie. I saw the title on one of the spines. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. I bought it.

I loved the ease of the writing, the rare lucid quality and the persuasive mix of subjective and objective observation with which such complex things were delivered. “A dutiful daughter. That looks like the kind of book a daughter should be reading,” my mother said. I laughed because right then I was reading about the deep and furious real-life rift between de Beauvoir and her mother over de Beauvoir’s rejection of Roman Catholicism and declaration that there was no God. I was thinking about my own arguments in my head with my mother about exactly these things, things I didn’t yet dare to say out loud.

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“Yes, it’s really good,” I said.

Then I bought a copy of some short stories by the same writer, The Woman Destroyed (1967), translated by Patrick O’Brian. I marvelled at the working – actually moral? – of something in the telling that was so acrid that it encouraged analysis while it burned off all pretence.

“That doesn’t sound very nice,” my mother said, “destroyed.” “It isn’t nice,” I said. “It’s way beyond nice.”

My mother, who always said she had no time for books, was nonetheless always interested, sometimes, I thought, too interested, in what I was reading, as I could be policed by her casual comments. Not that she censored my mail or watched me with the assiduousness with which de Beauvoir’s mother policed her daughter, nothing like that. But still. There was a tension I recognised, in the books and in my own life.

“What on Earth’s that you’re reading now?” my mother said. I held up A Very Easy Death. “Everyone knows the power of things,” I said, reading out loud from near its end, “life is solidified in them, more immediately present than in any one of its instants.”

At this point in my life no one I was really close to had died. I had no idea. I could see this was a tough piece of writing, visceral and true. I copied out into a notebook that sentence about things, and something from the last page about how age is nothing to do with death, which is “as violent and unforeseen” as an aeroplane’s engine “stopping in mid-flight”. Really, I knew nothing.

My mother shook her head. “Easy death,” she said. “No such thing.”

“And that’s where you and Simone de Beauvoir agree,” I said.

“Who?” my mother said.

Can you ever really yoke together with anything other than unease the word easy and the word death? This fundamental question sits at the core of this 1964 memoir by de Beauvoir of the death of her mother. It’s a book so slim it’s as if it suggests its own slightness. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is as tough and unflinching and courageous as a book can be. Sixty years on, it’s still (and I suspect always will be) shocking to the core. This is because it goes closer than close to the bone, to the core of loss in all of us.

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte”: it went to the core of existentialism too, if we touch for a moment on the first line of Camus’ 1942 novel, L’étranger, a novel at the start and at the heart of the thought movement that the young philosopher de Beauvoir would help form.

It’s not like de Beauvoir hadn’t faced wrenching loss before; above all, her girlhood friend Élisabeth Lacoin, de Beauvoir’s beloved Zaza, had died when they were both in their early twenties. But after the death of her mother, when de Beauvoir was in her fifties, she “had never felt so compelled to write something, to think life with her pen”, as her most recent biographer, Kate Kirkpatrick, notes about A Very Easy Death.

It caused, yes, a bit of public trouble. “When it was published some journalists accused her of capitalising on her mother’s suffering and her own grief; they even got a surgeon on the record saying that de Beauvoir sat at her mother’s bedside callously taking notes because she wanted to get ‘material’.”

In her 1965 essay “What Can Literature Do?” de Beauvoir herself commented on the inevitable little scandal the book had brought about the previous year, noting that her recent writing on despair and death had been:

“… much criticised in the name of socialistic optimism. I have been told, ‘The anguish of passing time and the horror of death – that’s all well and fine, you have every right to have those feelings, that’s very honourable, but that’s your business… and don’t talk to us about it!’… If literature seeks to surpass separation at the point where it seems most unsurpassable, it must speak of anguish, solitude, and death, because those are precisely the situations that enclose us most radically in our singularity… Language reintegrates us into the human community; a hardship that finds words to express itself is no longer a radical exclusion, and becomes less intolerable. We must speak of failure, abomination, and death, not to drive our readers to despair, but on the contrary, to try to save them from despair.”

[See also: Simone Weil’s great awakening]

The original French title of A Very Easy Death is Une mort très douce. Its translator Patrick O’Brian (perhaps better known as the author of the Aubrey-Maturin naval adventure novels) lighted on this equivalent ready-made phrase – particularly right for a book and a writer so invested in revealing the relationship between language, convention, language conventions and social conventions, and the direct relationship of each to meaning, reality, lies, truth and survival. But de Beauvoir’s use of the French word douce, meaning gentle, sweet, has an overt connection to the book’s opening epigraph, from one of Dylan Thomas’s most urgent poems, which yokes the word gentle to the word rage. “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” “Douce”in its English (well, Scottish) meaning can range from gentle and sweet all the way to sedate and respectable, two things you could never associate with de Beauvoir, “the family’s disgrace”, one of the most powerful European 20th-century sayers of the unsayable, an analyst of social and personal taboo from that early adolescent rejection of Roman Catholicism through her writing, in all her forms, all her life, on free will, free love, bisexuality, open relationships and gender expectation, control, convention and oppression.

Her novels, philosophical and political treatises and her openly lived infamous/famous life marked her out as one of the most influential and controversial champions of complexity in the human subject, and of an ethic of ambiguity as a positive fundament in both human thought and the construction of personal and social identity. Her writing is typically passionate in its dispassion; this involves an ethos of observation that swings between the intimate and the social, the personal and the public, the subjective and the objective, always creating a rhythmic symbiosis that counters the reduction implicit in any singular objectification or subjectification, especially working to open the boxed-up conventionalism or any reductive categorising in identity potential and formation, particularly gendered identity.

“She had been taught,” she writes of her mother in A Very Easy Death, “never to think, act or feel except in a ready-made framework.” But what did it really mean, to be here? What would it mean if you removed those conventions of the ready-made frameworks? To de Beauvoir, freedom of thought and action didn’t mean a lack of or freedom from ethics; on the contrary, our reason for being here, she suggested, was to work to build a community whose individual freeing-up created a focus on the worth of freedom of others.

For her, existentialism is the opposite of evasion. Immortality is a kind of vain lunatic joke. “Ten thousand years from now, someone will still remember me,” the actress in de Beauvoir’s novel All Men Are Mortal (1946), translated by Leonard M Friedman, thinks, as she decides to fall for a man who’s more dead than alive because he declares that he’s immortal, has been drearily alive for centuries.

But what happens when the individual existentialist, bound ethically to a thinking life, meets the end of thought, the end of life? In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter de Beauvoir remembered the day her child self, who loved to think the simple thought “here I am”, realised that one day she won’t be, that she’s “condemned to death”.

“I screamed and tore at the red carpet… ‘How do other people manage? How shall I manage too?’… When the reckoning comes, I thought, when you’re thirty or forty and you think: ‘It’ll be tomorrow,’ how on Earth can you bear the thought? Even more than death itself I feared that terror that would soon be with me always.”

This book deals with the final terror. It opens when the world-traveller daughter, away in another country, receives a phone call saying her mother, in her late seventies and at home, has had “an accident”. She imagines a car accident. She pictures it, invents it. The first thing we do is imagine. But no, she’s wrong; her mother has fallen over in her bathroom and broken a bone in her leg.

So she comes home, goes to see her mother, who’s been moved to a nursing home. She notices some frailties in her demeanour. “I was not very much affected. In spite of her frailty my mother was tough. And after all, she was of an age to die.” From its first pages onwards what we imagine meets reality. The imagined and the social and their personal frameworks literally shatter, and de Beauvoir is subjected to the process she’s been passionate about, and writing about, all along, the process by which we are brought to realise truth. Throughout, she analyses the tropey phrases we all use, sometimes out of fear or discomfort, sometimes out of something more controlling and patronising – particularly notable in how some of the doctors treat her mother, who’ll soon, one says, be able to “potter around again”. “I objected to his scale of values,” she says. She questions her own and her mother’s scales of values throughout too. What does it mean, to imagine someone is “of an age to die”? And what exactly is a mother afraid of when she uses the phrase, “You frighten me, you do,” to her daughter?

Simone de Beauvoir (right) and her younger sister Henriette-Hélène, 1914. Photo by Tallandier / Bridgeman Images

Meanwhile, the existentialist daughter who’ll never compromise on truth has decided, along with her sister and the doctors, not to tell their mother, who has always been terrified of having cancer, that she does, and that she’s dying. The mother, innocent, thinks she has peritonitis. The daughters play along. Soon, “I had the feeling of play-acting wherever I went.”

This “betrayal” starts to be revealing beyond belief, about something much larger than the sisters’ performance to their mother. The world de Beauvoir passes through reveals itself as operating on a level just as theatrical, just as false, just as much a kind of betrayal. In the clinic, “you might think you were in an airport – low tables, modern armchairs, people kissing one another as they say hello or goodbye… But there is a feeling of something not quite right… And sometimes a man entirely clothed in white appears in the opening of the door at the far end, and there is blood on his shoes.” She stops outside a chic Parisian store. “I saw ridiculously elegant hats, waistcoats, scarves, slippers, shoes… the sumptuous arrogance of a world in which death had no place; but it was there, lurking behind this façade… for me that was now the only truth.”

Somehow, because of the place where performance, lies, innocence and the truth of the terrible and terrifying viscerality of her mother’s painful decline meet, something truly un-easy happens. Something difficult, something true and profoundly troubling, frees up what’s been fixed and closed between the estranged mother and daughter. “It had wrenched her out of the framework, the role, the set of images in which I had imprisoned her: I recognised her in this patient in bed, but I did not recognise either the pity or the kind of disturbance that she aroused in me.”

The disturbance is what de Beauvoir can’t allay in this book. It is the revelation of a different self. She is struggling with it throughout, as the book passes from the first four lengthy sections to the final two, terse after the death, sections not so much fragmented as full of a kind of stunned and truthful combination of knowing and new unknowing. The “wide smile of unknowingness” that de Beauvoir sees on her mother’s face is a figuration of death itself. But as de Beauvoir, the dispassionate observer, the person in control of the mother/daughter dynamic, observes everything forensically, her mother, in her own wrenched-free new state, simply observes back. “I am looking at you,” she says to her daughter.

“Your hair is quite brown.”

In the end, en route to the truth of the ending, the mother unboxes herself from not just her daughter’s but from her society’s expectations – from everything a dutiful mother might approve. In the end, the daughter, in a calm rage at the incomprehensibility of death, comprehends the love, the dignity and the history of the knowables and unknowables between even the closest of us.

When I read this beautiful, terrifying, disturbing book now my whole body hurts for this mother, for her daughter, and for myself, my own gone mother, for all our selves, all our losses. My mind reels with this book’s viscerality, its spirit, its knowledge and its mystery.

“Everyone knows the power of things: life is solidified in them.” I hold it, slim, in my hand. It could fit in a back pocket. It contains me, and all of us.

It sits at the head of a French tradition continued by writers and artists from Barthes to Calle, Akerman, Ernaux. “The Americans have struck the word death out of their vocabulary – they speak only of ‘the dear departed’… it is a forbidden subject in present-day France, too,” as de Beauvoir would write in another of her taboo-dismantling works, Old Age (1972), also translated by Patrick O’Brian. After A Very Easy Death she went back to novels (the form she’s least well known for, which is a crime, she’s a truly great novelist) and wrote Les Belles Images (1966), one of her best, a mother/child satire of the good life, the marketing industry and the kind of society that would send a child who asks questions about poverty, colonialism, nuclear and genocidal holocaust, and unhappy humans, to a psychiatrist because she’s clearly “disturbed”.

Simone de Beauvoir – one way or another always contentious, always relevant. Good. Let her disturb you.

“If you can write, the very act of writing breaks down the separation… I believe that this is one of the absolutely irreplaceable and essential tasks of literature: helping us communicate with each other through that which is the most solitary in ourselves and by which we are bound the most intimately to one another.”

“A Very Easy Death” by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Patrick O’Brian, with an introduction by Ali Smith, is published by Fitzcarraldo

[See also: Making waves: how Virginia Woolf influenced generations of female artists]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special