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Amber Paulen

Simon de Beauvoir - Force of Circumstance Vols 1 and 2.

Simone de Beauvoir

Force of Circumstance

3 June 2009


I read about the life of Simone de Beauvoir with inexplicable enjoyment, some goad pushed me on: I am fantasized. Of this woman’s life there is much I want to know: as part of the French intelligentsia, anything to do with Paris, her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism, The Second Sex, le Dôme or la Coupole at night, her famous friends, love affairs, travel, staunch protests of war, politics, communism, Castro.

At the most, if my books are still read, the reader will think: There wasn’t much she didn’t see!

Force of Circumstance is Simone de Beauvoir’s third autobiography, originally published in two volumes, it is long. The Prime of Life (her second) I read twice in a row; it was a book that influenced me deeply, especially during those first stages of trying to think myself as “writer.” There was so much vital development in Simone’s younger autobiography as she found herself, the writer, after leaving school at the Sorbonne. In comparison much of Force of Circumstance seems already settled—not that that time in her life was; the book gives way to the resignation of older age.

After fifty pages I determined the pattern: personal life, theater/arts and a big chunk of politics, repeat. Perhaps it was the lengthy dragging of politics that bored me the most—all those acronyms cause inscrutability—though the theatre has also been known to put me asleep.

In all those stale politics that did not at second glance appear so outdated, I was made to wonder: How much are we determined by our time? Is it the current state of politics that effects us or the crummy nature of politics in general? I can’t help comparing all bad things to other bad things, like Germans in Paris or French in Algeria or Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The whole of Volume II: Hard Times is devoted more or less to the war in Algeria. Where Volume I: After the War is hopeful, the second volume shatters any hope for the good of humanity into a myriad of depressing pieces. For those of of us who have become numb to the horrors of our time there is much to learn from Simone de Beauvoir’s sensitive reaction to that colonial war. That France, so recently released from Hitler’s fascist grasp would turn and become fascist itself: massacres, genocides, torture, starvation, labor camps, death, murder, death. That fellow humans turned their faces sunk Simone de Beauvoir into despair. A sadness that gave way to her own old age, more death.

For now I know the truth of the human condition: two-thirds of mankind are hungry. My species is two-thirds composed of worms, too weak to ever rebel, who drag their way from birth to death through a perpetual dusk of despair.

My favorite parts were the descriptions of her travels. With enough money in her and Sartre’s pockets they went to China, Algeria, Brazil, Communist Russia, the USA, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba. She had a keen eye and a memory like a basket. Then there were the numerous road trips and summers in Rome. Rome: a place where what we must call beauty is the most ordinary thing in the world. Rome: where a million eyes have rested and each time one may know something new.

To walk through the piazza before the Pantheon and know her and Sartre sat there every morning for coffee and the papers, is to know they drew a similar solace. She touched what I can still touch. That they were here in Bracciano and caught the view over the lake and admired the Castello is fortifying: I see her shadow. I see this woman walking through the streets, experiencing their beauty.

Then there is Simone’s relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, a relationship not of the slightest curiosity. In the first sentence of the epilogue she writes: There has been one undoubted success in my life: my relationship with Sartre. Their relationships was what we call “open,” though in those days there was no name for it. They slept with other people and after a certain amount of time stopped sleeping with each other. They shared most everything about each other’s lovers and even went out to dinner together, all four!

Besides from the sleeping-with-other-people part, the relationship between Simone and Sartre was bigger than what most modern couples achieve. Not simply because they were similar in occupation but that they met each other equally, they were challenged by each other, respected the other, one’s own work fed the other’s work. Simone de Beauvoir wrote of Sartre as if he were a vital part of herself, transparent, he illuminated more about the woman I was eager to know.

The epilogue to Force of Circumstance is dire indeed. There are no illusions of false-hope: only old age and eventual death. Nothing will have taken place. As I read the epilogue my heart leapt. I couldn’t believe that this solemn and beautiful chapter was the way the author of The Prime of Life was going to end it. Perhaps I’ve become so accustomed to Henry Miller’s striking optimism to believe Simone de Beauvoir, a lover of life, would scorn old age.

To grow old is to set limits on one’s self, to shrink.

Simone de Beauvoir was a “woman of her time,” whatever that means! Like Doris Lessing she never lets on that writing is not a lot of work. Her devotion to her craft was steadfast. It is these women I have in mind when I think of the writer I would like to become. Though many of Simone de Beauvoir’s novels have slipped into an obscurity, I believe her autobiographies and of course The Second Sex, will remain. It is not only the woman as writer I find so interesting but the person with a deep and complex life that eclipses all.



Commentary for Force of Circumstance


1 On Tuesday 26 March 2013 Vivek narain wrote:

There are so many inspiring books to learn from that may relieve the frustrating stranglehold of circumstance. I suggest two books, the sea wolf by jack london and the saint in newyork by leslie charteris


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