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The ‘running thread’ connecting me to Simone de Beauvoir

In early 1990, Simone de Beauvoir’s Wartime Diary and her Letters to Sartre from 1930 to 1963 were published by Gallimard, at the instigation of her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon. Much of the press unleashed violent sarcasm. With the headline “L’album de la Mère Castor[1]”, Libération painted a picture of “a macho, petty woman’s life of little schemes and plots”. In a condescending tone of affection, the Nouvel Observateur referred to “La plume de ma tante”[2] calling Simone de Beauvoir only “Tante Simone” throughout the article. Le Monde, with Josyane Savigneau, was nearly the only source to proclaim the interest of the Diary and the Letters, the freeness of their tone. I watched this deluge of mocking or contemptuous reactions with amazement. And also with some satisfaction: de Beauvoir was still troublesome. Instead of looking at the Diary and the Letters in relation to their function – as is evidenced in the very genre of writing they fall into, writing the self and immediacy, places where another truth can be writtenthey were seen as proof of the lie of her life and her philosophy. For me, Simone de Beauvoir – whether she wanted to be or not – was faithful to her project of demystification and provided, from beyond the grave, new proof of her freedom. It is in this context that Gallimard asked me if I would accept Bernard Pivot’s invitation to come and talk about the Diary and the Letters on his programme Apostrophes, on March 23. Appearing on television is an ordeal I agree to as little as possible. It’s an intellectual frustration, there is not enough time to develop or look at any topic in depth. However, that day, I accepted without hesitation. In my diary, on February 24, 1990, I wrote this: 

“I accepted immediately despite the loss of time concerning my book, the extra time that will be required. It’s a duty for me, a kind of tribute, or rather a debt. Without her, without her image throughout my youth and my formative years, no doubt I would not quite be what I am. (And, that she died 8 days after my mother, in ‘86, is a further sign).

Via the TV programme, I also want to convey a certain idea of the action of literature.”

If I quote these sentences here, it is because to me they seem to sum up, with spontaneity and, I believe, sincerity, the role that Simone de Beauvoir had in my life and on the meaning I have conferred on the act of writing. I must say that I never met Simone de Beauvoir and I never tried to do so: out of shyness, because of distance – I lived far away from Paris – but mainly because I have always been convinced that seeing a writer or artist in person adds nothing to his or her work. Like thousands of women, it was through her books and her public image as a committed writer that I experienced my relationship with Simone de Beauvoir.

It’s the spring of 1959, I’m eighteen years old and in a secondary school philosophy class in Rouen. I read Nausea, The Roads to Freedom and the teacher often mentions Being and Nothingness, passes around The Imaginary, but never quotes Simone de Beauvoir. This is just a name for me, I haven’t read anything by her. Memoires of a Dutiful Daughter has just been released but there is nothing about the title that speaks to me, and neither the word “memoirs” or the expression “dutiful daughter” is very motivating when you’re eighteen years old, I am quite the opposite. Even the noble “de” in the author’s name distances me from her. Three kilometres from my parents’ small town, there is a castle that I could see from afar when I was a child, and we went cycling on Sundays, the Château de Beauvoir: another world.

During the Easter holidays, I visit a friend from a middle-class background who has left school and whose father has a large personal library. I remember taking from the shelf a very thick hardbound book, with a fascinating and mysterious title that I’ve never heard: The Second Sex. I flip through it and my friend agrees to lend it to me. I also take Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. It’s impossible for me to say now which of these two books I read first, but I know that it was The Second Sex that was the revelation. I remember that mid-April in great detail, the leaves on the trees of the boulevard that I climb from school to the residence for girls where I’m staying, in the cramped cubicle of a dormitory room overlooking the rooftops. I’m not the same anymore. These upheavals of the self caused by a book are not the privilege of youth but when one is young, they possess a unique power and, I believe, a type of irreversibility. When I think of the effect The Second Sex had on me, I have no choice but to see the mythical image of the fruit of the tree of knowledge eaten by Eve: the blinding clarity of disenchantment with the world, the liberating light of knowledge.

To understand the shock of Simone de Beauvoir’s book, you must have an idea of the political and social context of the time. In 1959, France was engaged in a colonial war, the Algerian War, which sparked debates on all sides. Traditional values – religion, marriage and the family – governed society, and living together outside marriage was a scandal. The condition of women was hidden in utter obscurity. Paradoxically, the image of an active mother who was also a shopkeeper, enjoying power and freedom, having nothing but contempt for household chores and convinced of the need for a woman to have her own financial independence, had, at the same time, concealed from me the reality of the way society functioned, while it also kept me from accepting it without suffering. The maternal codes that I had assimilated were in conflict with those of society, in other words, I was not “feminine” either in my mind or in my behaviour, though my appearance, on the contrary, and to excess, showed signs of Brigitte Bardot-style femininity. The sexual experiences of the previous summer had sparked a conflict that I had gone through without understanding, in shame and loneliness[3], and which led me to bulimia, then anorexia. In the spring of 1959, de Beauvoir’s text, as it appeared in my life, allowed me to “reread” my adolescence, to situate myself as a woman. This unveiling of the condition of women was something frightening but also deeply liberating, paving the way for me to take control of my own life.

That I was taking a philosophy class at the time of this discovery of the Second Sex surely played an important role. For me, de Beauvoir’s book was a totality, touching on history, anthropology and, in an obvious way, philosophy. In it, I found the concepts of alienation and freedom, transcendence and existentialism’s immanence which, of all the systems studied, seemed to me to be the “truest” and the most capable of directing my life. I never reread The Second Sex. I have heard many criticisms about this book – its distaste for the female sex, close to misogyny, the refusal to consider motherhood in any other than in terms besides alienation, etc. These readings are undoubtedly legitimate, but they cannot, in my view, make a dent in what, in my eyes, remains fundamental, the definitive separation of nature and culture, the demythification of the eternal feminine and the image of the mother. If, so far, I have not reopened The Second Sex, it is not for fear of being disappointed, but the certainty that I will also be reading my 18-year-old self, who is contained in those pages, the self who was living her situation as a woman with a great deal of confusion but who was pulled out of it, and overwhelmed by another woman’s book, and I’m not yet ready for such an encounter.

In comparison, I am inclined to minimise the influence of a contemporary reading of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter but on closer inspection, this book’s “practical” function occurs to me. Of course, a whole section of Simone de Beauvoir’s childhood story was irreducibly different from my experience as a working-class child, but the trajectory followed by de Beauvoir as a student was the one I wanted and envisioned. I have never reread Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter either, but I remember a passage in which Simone de Beauvoir recounts that every evening, when she takes down the rubbish from the room where she lives alone, she looks at the night sky and feels an intense sense of happiness and freedom. I wanted to feel that and afterwards I often found myself in that image.

Now, it is certainly difficult to imagine how moral this period, which ran from the post-war era to the late seventies, was – in other words, its questioning of action, the relationship between the individual and the world, ideas as living realities, objects of violent struggle. The great strength of Simone de Beauvoir’s two books is that for me they asked, at that time, the question of existence in concrete terms, forced me to think of myself both as a woman and as an individual who must be the only one to choose her life. If de Beauvoir is something of a model, it is not in an aesthetic sense – writing is only one possibility among others in my future – it is in her refusal of the eternal feminine, of sacrifice, in her desire to project herself into the world and to act on it.

This is what sheds light on the connection that has been made in me, throughout the years, more or less consciously, between the image of Simone de Beauvoir and the image of my mother. De Beauvoir offered an alternative to maternal discourse and example, but an alternative that went in the same direction. I found theorized what had been transmitted to me through my up-bringing: the trap of housework, motherhood, the “woman-child”, the need for financial independence. In my mother’s words it was possible to find what was decreed to be de Beauvoir’s misogyny and which absolutely is not: a simple stigmatisation of women’s consent to behaving submissively or as a non-being, discouraging behaviour because it occurs within your own sex, your own double. I always feel violent anger towards women who give in to what they assume to be men’s expectations (when I read, for example, yesterday on the cover of Cosmopolitan, a women’s magazine, “a nice little spanking, maybe that’s what we need”).

From her role as a trail blazer, Simone de Beauvoir became my companion in the three years that followed, as I read The Prime of Life and The Ethics of Ambiguity. At that time, I was a student of literature, I had decided to become a teacher and to write. I submitted a novel to Les Éditions du Seuil and it was refused. From Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, I draw the strength to pursue this path and a model of life. Her philosophical essay gives me the conviction that art is not in itself a purpose, the result of contemplation, but a commitment to the world, a mode of action on it. The challenge to the aesthetics of ‘art for art’s sake’ finds fertile ground within me because of my social affiliation to the world of the dominated, which has always made me feel the weight of reality and social determinisms.

The question of writing still remains, in the sense that it arises at the moment when one begins to write, i.e. in the form of the stylistic and narrative model, to “write like” someone or other. My answer is clear: no, I have never taken Simone de Beauvoir as a model in this regard. My first unpublished text was marked, in its structure, by the influence of the “new novel”, then at its peak. However, in the years following this first attempt at writing and during which I did not complete anything – from 1963 to 1972 – I maintained a kind of implicit dialogue with the work of Simone de Beauvoir, where I find my place in a place of opposition. I read The Mandarins in 1967, She Came to Stay and A very Easy Death, in 1968. This book took hold of me and the writing seemed to me to be true and deeply moving, transporting me to the time when my own mother will no longer be alive, even if there is nothing in common between her mother and mine. Here, as in the Second Sex, the dialogue with de Beauvoir, is part of the order of life. But, in my journal, about She Came to Stay, I noted: “I will never write like this.” In my mind, what I reject is the novel as form and characters representing ideas. Since I began to think about writing, the interrogation of traditional genres has been part of my literary questioning and “how to write” cannot be separated from “what to write”.

This is the very locus of my difference from de Beauvoir. Like her, I see literature as a commitment, a means of action on the world, of struggle, and not a sacred thing. As they were for her, the project of living and that of writing are inseparable in me. I could also put my name to what she writes about her sincerity in the preface to The Force of Circumstance: “It is natural to me, not by a special grace, but because of the way in which I consider people, including myself […] I seem in my own eyes even as an object, a result, without involving the notions of merit or fault in this estimate.”[4] But I am convinced that form, that is, the choice of the structure of the text, of words, a permanent questioning of a language that invisibly conveys hierarchies, sexism, is an integral part of this action on the world, constituting the means of this search for truth and, as such, must be worked on, without it being a question of aesthetics. However, the way Simone de Beauvoir evokes writing in her autobiography – as a learning of techniques – her way of working – a quick first draft, then reworking – shows an indifference to writing as subject.

And this too, which partly explains my attitude towards language and writing: I do not write from the same place as de Beauvoir. An anecdote will illustrate this gap. At a symposium of writers on the theme “Que peut la littérature ?” published in 1964, Simone de Beauvoir explained the difference between literature and information, documentation: : “When I read The Children of Sanchez, I stay at home, in my room, with the current date, with my age, with Paris around me; and Mexico City is far away with its slums and the children who live there […] and I don’t change universes. While Kafka, Balzac, Robbe-Grillet, ask me, convince me to remain, at least for a moment, in the heart of another world.” It wasn’t until the mid-eighties that I read The Children of Sanchez. This book upset me, followed me, in it I found, in a more violent form, the behaviours and language of the world of the dominated that I came from. I then realised that de Beauvoir had not found her place in Oscar Lewis’s book because she had absolutely no possibility of identifying with the world described and she didn’t imagine that such an identification was even possible. In other words, her distinction between literature and documentation was a result of her unconsciously reading from her class position.

But, “on the whole” I would rewrite today what I noted in my diary, in 1990, about Simone de Beauvoir. Browsing through some of her books, The Woman Destroyed for example, I am struck by the truth of sentences which, when I read them twenty-five years ago, had not seized my attention. A random example: “Reflections, echoes, bouncing back and forth to infinity: I discovered the sweetness of having a long past behind me.” I’m starting to have a long history, too, and I know that sweetness. Simone de Beauvoir is still capable of  accompanying my lifetime as a woman.


Annie Ernaux, March 9, 2000.

Text first published in Simone de Beauvoir Studies17 (2000-2001), 1-6, Reproduced here courtesy of the journal, and Annie Ernaux.

Translated by Dawn M. Cornelio. Translation first published here on 21 March 2019.

[1]Translator’s note. Besides being a reference to the ‘Albums to père Castor’, a collection of children’s books, this is literally, “Mother Beaver’s Album”, a play both on the Mother Goose fairytale, and Sartre’s pet name for de Beauvoir, “Castor” (“Beaver”).

[2]Translator’s note. A play on the stereotypical phrase once memorized by learners of French, “La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau” (“My aunt’s pen is on the desk”).

[3] In A Frozen Woman I set about analysing the dichotomy between what I learned from my mother, her example, and the feminine role the bourgeois structure of a patriarchal society was forcing me into. Ce qu’ils disent ou rien (Translator’s note: untranslated into English) is a fictional transposition of that summer.

[4] Translator’s note: Quoted from Richard Howard’s Force of Circumstance (Harper and Row, 1977, p. vii). De Beauvoir’s text reads: « Elle m’est naturelle, non par une grâce singulière, mais à cause de la manière dont j’envisage les gens, moi comprise […] je m’apparais à mes yeux comme un objet, un résultat, sans qu’il intervienne dans cette saisie les notions de mérite ou de faute ».