All Said and Done
In her new book Simone de Beauvoir reflects upon the events of the last ten years of her life since 1965 when Force of Circumstance, the third volume of her autobiography, was published. It was followed by an encyclopedic study of old age and that theme crops up many times in the present volume written when she was sixty-four. She has had to defend herself against the incredible personal venom of her French critics of that book, for the French have a cabaret tradition of ridiculing the elderly with a spite uncommon in other countries. Speaking on the radio one envious cad pretended to apologize for a review of a book of hers in these words:
Ever since I caught a glimpse of Simone de Beauvoir on the rue de Rennes I have been sorry for that article: she was creeping along, looking faded and haggard. One should pity the aged. That is why Gallimard goes on publishing her, by the way.
French reviewing is governed by party or publishing politics and easily falls into mean rancor or swells into the puff.
As a combative figure of the left, an atheist among militant or conventional Catholics, Simone de Beauvoir is of course used to these attacks, and they have little effect on her. It is true that she is sometimes a long-winded and humorless writer, and tutorial in a ponderous way. The first volume of her autobiography or a novel like Les Mandarins (1954) had more vivacity and direction than the present book, and one has to say that artists become diffuse when they become commentators. They generalize where they were once sharp and actual. But her confidence, her sanguine and energetic concern for the human condition are still bold. She is firm in her feminism and keeps her head about it. She fights back against the merely conventional notion that the minds of atheists are bleak and despairing because they do not believe in the afterlife; she is warm in her belief in the value of happiness and truth-telling; she has always been the enemy of stagnant “serenity”: the incurious are, for her, the self-starved. She is hard-working at sixty-four—which by contemporary standards is not old at all—and she willingly examines with detachment the differences she sees between the self of today and the self of twenty years ago. The energy, the genetic tonnage of vitality remains, but there is, she says, a loss of the sense of the future: how does that affect today’s will?
I used to reach out toward the future; I went happily toward my meeting with the woman I should be tomorrow. Now I can still fling myself into short term plans—voyages, lectures, meetings—but the full impulse that urged me on has been broken…. I am aware of my finity.
But against this:
Yet my life does not seem at all stagnant to me. Its repetitive side is no more than a background against which new things perpetually appear …