Monday, April 09, 2012


The Prime of Life, Simone de Beauvoir, The World Publishing Company, 1962, 478 pp


Beauvoir's second volume of autobiography was first published in France in 1960. She begins with the opening months of her relationship with Jean Paul Sartre. The sense of freedom she enjoys as a graduated student, out of the family home, making her own living and having a lover at last, is palpable.

She describes the details of the life she and Sartre created: their vows to tell each other everything, their decision to grant each other complete freedom (including the freedom to have other lovers), and the setting of life-long goals to be writers who are engaged with the world and making a difference. All of this is as intoxicating as only life can be when you are in your early twenties and meet THE person with whom you are going to share it all.

Bouts of jealousy and insecurity follow swiftly when Sartre DOES indulge in other lovers. Due to the locations of their respective teaching jobs on the far outskirts of Paris, they are forced to be apart much of the time. Beauvoir's newly awakened sexuality takes her by surprise with its intensity.

But hardest of all for Simone are her years of learning to be a writer. She describes in detail the travails of writing and destroying two novels before she completed and sold her first, She Came to Stay.

Just as she finally found a way to sublimate her physical energies by hiking endless miles through mountains and plains as a voracious traveler with Sartre, with other lovers both male and female, and on her own, the war began to impact all of France. She covers the German invasion and occupation followed by the years of deprivation, danger and the Resistance.

During the war she completed her second novel, The Blood of Others, about a Resistance fighter and his struggles to leave behind his bourgeois background. Other than Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise and Arthur Koestler's Scum of the Earth, I had not read much about what WWII was like in France. Because Beauvoir was not Jewish, she escaped that danger, but she makes clear the horror and degradation of having to live under German occupation and of watching politicians and countrymen collaborating with the enemy.

The volume closes with the liberation of Paris bringing a burst of returned freedom and new hope. I enjoyed every page.

(The Prime of Life is out of print but can be found in libraries and from used booksellers.)

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