The Prime of Life by Simone de Beauvoir

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<i>The Prime of Life</i> by Simone de Beauvoir

“If a fraternity can be created by words, then writing is well worthwhile. What I wanted was to penetrate so deeply into other people’s lives that when they heard my voice they would get the impression they were talking to themselves.” -Simone de Beauvoir in The Prime of Life

The Prime of Life—published in 1960 as the second volume of four in Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography— meticulously recounts the decade and a half of the author’s life when she began to emerge as a public figure. As the book begins, de Beauvoir has recently graduated from the Sorbonne and begun teaching high-school girls. She revels in the freedom her new financial independence brings. She and a young Jean-Paul Sartre have recognized a powerful romantic and intellectual partnership in one another; they begin to set its unconventional parameters. This is France between the two World Wars, and the openness with which these two conduct themselves is unheard of at the time. They live in complete devotion to one another, but refuse to marry; they take other lovers, even, and then compare notes. In an early scene, Simone’s father comes upon the two having a picnic in a field, and he awkwardly demands that Sartre declare his intentions towards his daughter. There’s no answer for that really, not yet. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre will use their own lives to find one.

Nowhere in the book, by the way, does Simone refer to her partner by his first name. She references him exactly as we do who know him only from historical or literary record: He is without exception called “Sartre,” never simply Jean-Paul and certainly not by any affectionate nickname, though she herself is known as “Castor” or “The Beaver.” Does this illustrate unchecked patriarchal assumptions even in the mind of this pioneering feminist icon? Sartre receives recognition for his writing a few years before de Beauvoir, and in a certain subtle way she seems held in a kind of unquestioning worship of his gifts. It’s the fate of women even in our own time—that she’s the one most often known for her relationship to Sartre, not vice versa. And the already living legend of Sartre looms centrally in this work of hers.

The choice in the naming of Sartre also offers a second possibility. It reflects the utter seriousness with which Simone and her group of young artist and intellectual friends conduct themselves. Absolutely convinced of the power of literature in the world, they held their callings in high regard, long before any witnesses hearkened to their work outside this small circle of friends.

Ms. de Beauvoir recounts her impressions of this time with crispness, clarity, precision. As we might expect from one who gave her life to literature and philosophy, her thought processes and her violent ambivalence in coming to terms with her emotions become as central to the movement of the book as any actual life events. She lifts whole chapters from her diaries, rife with sensuous detail: The significance of a rain storm. The smell of the countryside. The exact outfit someone wore, from hat to shoe buckle.

The War comes, bringing austerity, violence. Friends of Simone’s, including Sartre, serve forced military duty. Nearly starving in occupied, war-rationed Paris, where bombs shake them from sleep nearly every night (“I often spent hours…sorting out maggoty dried beans from the sound ones,” de Beauvoir writes of wartime, when food was scarce), these young people cling to a vision of themselves as “The Family.” They are Chosen, the bearers of Literature, yet unrecognized.

This sense of readers and writers as a chosen few is nothing new. Indeed, wherever the written word began to first appear on earth thousands of years ago, cultures declared it descended from the gods. At first, only a special class, a priestly one, handled reading. It evolved into a means of bartering with the heavenly powers, but also of constructing man-made boundaries. Then and since, gate-keepers have strategically limited access to reading. An example? American slaves, denied the right to read by law.

By circumstance, enjoying literature—and learning to enjoy literature—often required a great deal of time on one’s hands. It helped if someone else labored to secure food and shelter. Nowadays, we might see reading as a function of making the choice to use one’s free time towards one specific end rather than another. Either way, enjoyment of literature ranks as a privilege. The freedom to enjoy literature, whether granted, achieved through education, or through exploitation, grants a person greater standing in the social hierarchy. Reading and writing are inextricably—and stickily—bound up in class.

We have always preferred to believe our greatest resources are accessible to all. It’s the American way. This belief often requires a certain willful self-delusion. We believe in democracy, the rule of the people, yet choose to ignore that from the time of the Greeks—for whom women and slaves were not citizens—government “by the people” has always depended on excluding folks from the very definition of personhood.

America’s increasing self-consciousness about the inequities our way of life depends on has expanded the privileges of personhood to many within our borders. Yet we still indulge in denial of the inhuman labor conditions required to support our way of life, regarding most of those who labor on our behalf as illegal, abroad, or otherwise invisible. In this way, we protect our ability to believe in literacy and education for all. For much of the second half of the 20th century, we collectively nursed the hope of achieving some kind of golden, harmonious vision of universal literacy in the United States. After all, we need a basic level of literacy just to consume the waves of print advertising flooding the American landscape. Now, the evolution of all that media brings us to the point where we ask if the book itself has become outmoded.

Like ours, Simone de Beauvoir’s world began to be inundated by new forms of media. The effect of the art of the times on her and her cohort takes prominence in her memoir. She recalls, for example, feeling turned inside-out by the arrival of Faulkner in French translation. She recounts spending hours at the movies, completely taken over by the exotic effect of American film. This new kind of cultural production issued from across the Atlantic in some kind of contagious mania, first silently, with only the stark force of the image itself, and then accompanied by riotous sound. In this new age, de Beauvoir recalls that the French felt electrified by the new rhythms of jazz music and by the ascending dominance of American popular culture on the global landscape.

Conspicuously absent from de Beauvoir’s telling? Any fear that one of these forms—and cinema, an expansion on the storytelling devices of the novel, presents itself as a particularly viable candidate—would somehow supplant literature in the public psyche. Certainly in de Beauvoir’s own mind, the written word remained king.

We of the 21st century, on the other hand, feel panicked by the explosion of media that defines the Internet age. And not without justification—after all, nowadays the issue is not only that forms of media other than the physical book exist to be enjoyed, but anyone (ostensibly, I think it’s important to add) can instantly write words viewed by millions for free. The basic economic viability of the physical book is threatened. Which means that the viability of the lifestyle needed to produce books themselves—a lifestyle dependent, yes, on free time —seems likewise threatened.

We lament something passing. On good days, the something has a name. It’s the publishing industry in trouble, some say. Or the bookstore. Maybe the novel itself is dead. All manner of apocalypse seem to threaten the world we know. We reach to express our anxieties in various ways … but something, some degree of loss, still feels ineffable.

To soothe this grief, let’s ask the fundamental question. Who, exactly, reads?

I am lucky to have worked for an independent bookstore for the past three years. Because of this, I know that readers, die-hard ones, exist across every sector: across race, across class, across profession. I’ve sold books to people in dickies with engine oil under their fingernails, and to mountain men who descend from the Appalachians a couple times a year to come to the big city. Young black men with saggy jeans and thick Bankhead drawls. Professional black men in tailored suits. People who would ignore one another on the street buy books together in a book store. People who fear one another on the street buy books. There seems to be certain temperament shared by people attracted to books: perhaps the temperament of those who regard the world at a certain distance, and as a result take a longer view. The obstacles to literacy loom, but the reader’s way of coming to understand the world seems so fundamental that it permeates would-be barriers. Everyone does not read. But readers, somehow, can be found nearly everywhere: a tenacious, lonely bunch.

Here’s something else about the book. Secondhand, at least, it can be obtained cheaply—in fact, more cheaply than ever, to the consternation of those who make their living selling books. Socioeconomic factors that limit access to books do remain very real, but it is also true that with a certain very basic educational foundation (the type that can be transmitted in a year or two to a child) and a certain individual lust for the power and access reading brings, literature can be self-taught. Malcolm X and Ray Bradbury offer two examples of very powerful intellectual figures who were astoundingly well-read but largely self-educated. Such figures have always been exceptional, it’s true. They have also always been necessary, and they have always been present. The fact that basic literacy can empower an individual to an independently driven education remains one of its greatest strengths.

Rick Santorum caught a lot of heat for recent comments on the snobbery of an education. Why did his statements bruise us so much? He appealed to a presumed illiteracy of his audience. He set up an us-versus-them: us, the simple common folk, versus them, the educated elite. He did so despite the fact that we are all taught—if we still believe the rhetoric of the American dream—to assume that there is no “them” beyond our reach, with enough hard work on our own behalf and our children’s. Santorum’s attempt to profit from an assumed ignorance reminded us of why we value literacy in the first place: If we do not arm ourselves with it, someone surely lies in wait to use our ignorance against us.

I am also mindful of the risks readers run by viewing themselves with too much distance from an imagined “everyone else.” I wonder if we could take the fact that literacy has not only been systematically reserved for an elite, but seems to have an inherent set of limits in its reach, and use this awareness towards new ends.

Reading de Beauvoir’s words, I sometimes grew annoyed, resentful: I wondered if she used books to cushion herself from the immediacy of reality. It’s a valid danger for most of us who spend so much of our time dealing, literally, in figments of the imagination. And so filled is The Prime of Life with cross-reference to other art and literature that I wondered if its author could capably interact with—or even see—people lacking the same literary references, or the same level of literacy. There stand many valuable ways of interpreting the world and the human experience. Literature is only one of these—one not everyone is drawn to by character or temperament, even if its access really was truly unlimited.

Not even the Internet has the power to give everyone access to literature. The rise of the Internet, and the ubiquity that the smart phone has enabled it, means Americans probably read more text than ever—but not, necessarily, better. We tend to scroll, to skim, to privilege headline and hype. The result? Our average attention span shortens—something that renders the enjoyment of a lengthy book less possible. Rich reading makes requirements of us: our full attention, our quiet minds. All things that we have less of, ironically, the more frantically we consume information. Paradoxically, more access to words can mean less access to them. This to say nothing of the fact that the kinds of devices required to live in the constant glow of the Internet remain out of economic reach to many even here in the first world, and still more outside it.

Should we readers imagine ourselves as some kind of a talented tenth, then? And if so, how do we regard the remaining 90 percent? Untalented? Best not. Without looking for new ways to define ourselves and our relation to the whole, I fear that we will only reinforce the sort of divisions that always upheld unequal power structures: priesthood from lay, elite from the masses; the privileged holding (or withholding) access to the resources that rightly belong to all. In The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir and friends are shaken into political consciousness by the events of World War II. In Nazi-occupied Paris and on the war front alike, the terrifying specter of Fascism overshadows their day-to-day lives. And in their tourist travels to North Africa, the young Simone and Sartre come face to face with the reality of French colonialism. They begin to develop a greater sense of their roles in the world around them. We can too.

Here’s the truth: None of us readers were born able to access literature—not the way most of us were born able to access a beat, or a tune. To enjoy books, we had to be given keys. Today, in a real sense, we hold those keys. Literacy remains one of the guards to gates of power in our world. How can we reconcile literature with its limits? Whether we earned the privilege of our literacy or were granted it, a critical question hangs in the balance for us as readers: What do we do with literacy now?

Chantal James is a Carolina-raised ATLien. Her fiction is represented by the Karpfinger Agency, and she has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Morocco and a Vermont Studio Fellowship in fiction. Follow her on Twitter @chantalalive