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What Simone De Beauvoir knew about loss

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

By Ali Smith and Chris Stone

The novelist Ali Smith first came across the work of Simone de Beauvoir in an Inverness bookshop, aged 18 or 19, and was instantly compelled by her “tough, troubling” prose. In this week’s long read, Smith reflects on De Beauvoir’s 1964 memoir A Very Easy Death, a slight, visceral book about her estranged mother’s death. What happens when an existentialist, bound ethically to a thinking life, confronts the end of life and thought? Why does a writer who prides herself on uncompromising truth tell her mother she is not dying of cancer, when she is?

Smith blends the personal and the political in an essay that grapples with De Beauvoir’s power to disturb and provoke, sixty years on.

Written by Ali Smith and read by Anna Leszkiewicz.

This article originally appeared in the 28 July-17 August 2023 New Statesman summer issue. You can read the text version here.

If you enjoyed listening to this episode, you might also enjoy Karl Ove Knausgaard: a personal manifesto on the art of fiction.

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