A Long Engagement

Force of Circumstance

by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Richard Howard
Putnam, 658 pp., $10.00

Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir; drawing by David Levine

It is a triangular affair: Sartre, Beauvoir, History. The second is in love with the first; the first with the third; the third not at all. Force of Circumstance, the third long volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s huge autobiography is the story of the saddest and most ironic phase of this relationship: from the liberation of France to the liberation of Algeria. The first chapter begins with the words, “We were liberated. In the streets the children were singing:

Nous ne les reverrons plus
C’est fini ils sont foutus…”

The last chapter greets another victory—peace in Algeria—in a different tone: “For seven years we had desired this victory; it came too late to console us for the price it had cost.” What they had learned in the mean-time was that the children were wrong to believe that “we shall never see them again; that even the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was not, as it had seemed, absolute.” Not only had Frenchmen done in Algeria the same things that Germans had done in France: worse still the French people generally had responded to its knowledge of such things with the same indifference as the German people had shown.

The crimes he [Servan-Schreiber] described should have had some effect on public opinion: Arabs shot down “for the fun of it,” prisoners brutally murdered, villages burned, mass executions, etc. No one turned a hair…[Another] narrative—hanging, beating, torture—was read out in stony silence: not one gasp of surprise or disgust: everyone knew already. My heart froze inside me as I once again faced this truth: everyone knew and didn’t give a damn, or else approved.

Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were among the few who did give a damn, and who spoke out at a time when more moralizing writers, including Camus were silent. Camus’s silence was not—as one might perhaps infer from La Chute that it was—part of a general refusal to condemn or to be indignant, an achievement of political quietism. Camus publicly condemned—as Sartre also did—the Russian aggression in Hungary, and Camus did so in terms of intense moral indignation. This silence on Algeria—about which he knew so much more than he did about Hungary—can hardly be interpreted except in terms of a specific evaluation of the Algerian situation. The fact that he never—neither in an imaginative work nor in an essay—revealed what that evaluation was, leaves a great enigma in the life of this brilliant and haunted novelist and writer.

In Force of Circumstance—as also in The Mandarins but in a different way—Madame de Beauvoir is preoccupied by this enigma, and in general by the ambiguously symbolic contrast between Sartre and Camus. She tends to interpret this contrast in the sense of different relations to history. For Camus, according to Madame de Beauvoir, “History was a threat to his individuality and he refused to…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.