Read It and Weep: Margaret Atwood on the Intimidating, Haunting Intellect of Simone de Beauvoir

“How exciting to learn that Simone de Beauvoir, grandmother of second-wave feminism, had written a novel that had never been published! In French it was called Les inséparables and was said by the journal Les libraires to be a story that ‘follows with emotion and clarity the passionate friendship between two rebellious young women.’ Of course I wanted to read it, but then I was asked to write an introduction to the English translation. My initial reaction was panic. This was a throwback: as a young person, I was terrified of Simone de Beauvoir. I went to university at the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s, when, among the black-turtleneck-wearing, heavily eyelinered cognoscenti—admittedly not numerous in the Toronto of those days—the French Existentialists were worshipped as minor gods. Camus, how revered! How eagerly we read his grim novels! Beckett, how adored! His plays, especially Waiting for Godot, were favorites of college drama clubs. Ionesco and the Theatre of the Absurd, how puzzling! Yet his plays, too, were often performed among us (and some, such as Rhinoceros—a metaphor for fascist takeovers—are increasingly pertinent). Sartre, how bafflingly smart, though not what you’d call cute. Who hadn’t quoted ‘Hell is other people’? (Did we recognize that the corollary would have to be ‘Heaven is solitude’? No, we did not. Did we forgive him for having sucked up to Stalinism for so many years? Yes, we did, more or less, because he’d denounced the invasion of Hungary by the U.S.S.R. in 1956, then had written an incandescent introduction to Henri Alleg’s The Question (1958), an account of Alleg’s brutal torture at the hands of the French military during the Algerian war—a book banned in France by the government but available to us in the boonies, as I read it in 1961.)But among all these intimidating Existentialist luminaries there was only one female person: Simone de Beauvoir. How frighteningly tough she must be, I thought, to be holding her own among the super-intellectual steely brained Parisian Olympians! It was a time when women who aspired to be more than embodiments of assigned gender roles felt they had to comport themselves like macho men—coldly, with avowed self-interest—while seizing the initiative, even the sexual initiative. A bon mot here, a slapping away of a wandering hand there, an insouciant affair, or two, or 20, followed by cigarettes, as in films… I never would have been up to it, struggling as I was with the lesser demands of the college debating club. In addition to which, smoking made me cough. As for those dowdy wartime suits with the durability and the shoulder pads, those would have been far too high a price to pay for a room of one’s own. …”
NY Times: Before She Loved Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir Loved Zaza
New Yorker: Simone de Beauvoir’s Lost Novel of Early Love

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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