Thursday, May 17, 2012


The Force of Circumstance, Simone de Beauvoir, G P Putnam's Sons, 1964, 658 pp (Librairie Gallimard, Paris, 1963; translated from the French by Richard Howard)

What a long but enriching read this was. The Force of Circumstance is the third volume of the autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir. The physical book itself, which I got in hardcover from the library, weighed so much that my wrists and hands would tire. I only managed to read about 30 pages per sitting. In addition, the subject matter was heavy in the extreme.

This volume covers the years (1945-1963) when Beauvoir and Sartre watched their dreams for a just society (called socialism and at times communism) crumble and fade in France at the hands of monied fascistic right wing politicians. It was compelling to read about this from the viewpoint of a French intellectual. While the United States poured dollars into Europe via the Marshall Plan, fought communism in Korea, and took over Vietnam from the French by stealth and "diplomacy," Beauvoir watched the resurgence of the bourgeoisie in her country. The manic changes in communism as Stalin gave way to Khrushchev, and the attempts to misinterpret, ridicule and discredit Sartre along with Existentialism led her to bouts of depression.

Meanwhile she kept falling in love, traveling, and writing books. She relates in the memoir her entire relationship with American novelist Nelson Algren; then explains how she fictionalized it in The Mandarins. The years she spent researching and writing The Second Sex, then experiencing the subsequent fallout in France (negative) and America (wildly positive), as well as the effects on her of fame and wealth, are portrayed as much from the heart as from the mind.

There is so much more: her changing relationship with Sartre as he turned increasingly to politics; her long love affair with Claude Lanzmann; the horrid, bloody, endless and completely shameful Algerian War for independence. She and Sartre went everywhere: the USSR multiple times, China, Cuba, Brazil, the Sahara Desert and more. They were looking for any evidence that socialism and human rights activism were being successful.

As I read on and on, I kept being struck by the parallels between her life and mine in terms of joys and sorrows at any given age, because she lived through these things 40 years before I did. I wondered if other women would find similar parallels. 

I admire this woman for many qualities but most of all for her seamless melding of heart and mind. The ability to bring strong emotion as well as keen intelligence to the business of living is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of women. This ability does not always lead to personal happiness (though when one or the other is suppressed you get a deranged woman), but it is ultimately good for humankind. 

Beauvoir writes an epilogue in the last pages of The Force of Circumstance, summing up the meaning of life to her at age 55. She compares the young dreamer she was at 20 to the disillusioned, aging woman she feels she has become. She looks at death and is terrified. She longs for those dreams, for her loves in their earliest bloom, for the energy and passion she once had. It is not despair; just a clear-eyed look at what it all amounts to. When I closed the book, my eyes were streaming with tears, but I felt strong and validated for who I am.

(The Force of Circumstance is out of print in hardcover, though can be found in libraries. Some used booksellers have paperback copies of it, split into at least two volumes. I think a hardcover reprint is long overdue.)

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