Originally, I thought it a good idea to choose a memoir by Simone de Beauvoir for the Women Unbound Challenge. After all, she’s such a famous figure of feminism, and I remembered how much I loved her Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter as I was a high school student, torn between idealist aspirations and rebellion against my own bourgeois parents.
Unluckily, it was a bad choice. I dragged myself through the first volume (my edition has 2) and couldn’t really bring myself to start the second one. This memoir covers the years 1929-1939 (although the tome I read finishes just before 1936 and the Front Populaire), which is the most carefree decade in her life. In 1929, she graduates together with Sartre from the very competitive university for teaching, and gets a position as a professor of philosophy in a high-school for girls in Marseille. This job makes her leave Sartre, who has got a position in another provincial town, and the perspective to be far away from him unsettles her at first. They know that they will spend their lives together, but they don’t want to marry, and even less for bureaucratic reasons of being given jobs in the same city. Anyway, the book is filled with tedious pages about her freedom, her hikes alone in the countryside, her acquaintances at the school and outside, her travels with Sartre and friends.
She makes it even less palatable by stressing how little she understood of the people she met, how she and Sartre misunderstood some major authors like Kafka, how little she was interested back then in politics and in world events (she was in Spain and Germany and Italy for G’s sake!). She comes out as a little pretentious and immature, which is just too bad! She certainly led a liberated life compared to her female contemporaries, but if it’s just to tell us that she drank cocktails and didn’t care so much if she spent the night in a disreputable cheap hostel, how disappointing! (we don’t even get to know with whom – we’re led to believe Sartre, but I came to understand that she had many outside adventures… unfortunately, no word here).
Her writing is quite stilted. It looks as if she was asked to write her whole story in details and that she used her diaries to retrace every step, only to cut out any personal details on what really went on inside their little group of friends. Too dangerous ground I guess. Perhaps she wanted to keep the legend alive, but the result is rather lifeless. Also, she discusses at length novels she wrote at the time, but none of them have been published because they were pretty bad, on her own admission. Obviously, she thought she had known and written better later on, but she doesn’t really put herself in the shoes of the reader.
After being so frustrated, I grabbed something more entertaining to read next, The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton.