Joanna Biggs talks to Thomas Jones about the life of Simone de Beauvoir.

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Further reading in the LRB

Joanna Biggs: A nice girl like Simone

Michael Rogin: Beauvoir and Nelson Algren

Toril Moi: Beauvoir Misrepresented


Thomas Jones: Hello, and welcome to the London Review of Books podcast. My name is Thomas Jones, and today I'm talking to my colleague Joanna Biggs, who's written a piece in the current issue of the LRB on Simone de Beauvoir. It's a review of three books – Becoming Beauvoir: A Life by Kate Kirkpatrick; Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me, a Memoir by Deirdre Bair; and the second volume of Beauvoir's Diary of a Philosophy Student 1928-29 translated by Barbara Klaw. But it's also a personal essay about Joanna's own changing view of and relationship with Beauvoir as a writer, as a thinker, as a historical figure, as a person.

So I thought if we begin where your piece begins, with that question that Beauvoir was asked more than once: why she'd never written a female character who lived a free life. And her first reply is to say that, I've shown women as they are, as divided human beings and not as they ought to be. And I think your piece sets out to show her as a divided human being, not as who she ought to have been, or as people think she ought to be. And then you quote a later interview in which she replied that 'there's a certain demandingness that I find a little stupid because it imprisons me, completely fixing me in a kind of feminist concrete block.' And your piece begins with that concrete block, and how to demolish it, as it were.

Joanna Biggs: It's funny having you repeat the beginning back to me, because actually I realise I didn't start where Beauvoir started, I started with the concrete block. I started backwards, and that was the whole struggle of the piece for me, I suppose, so I knew her more for her philosophy from studying her as a student. I was really lucky to be taught by Elizabeth Fallaize and Suzanne Dow when I was at Oxford, and so I always had this notion of her, I had the concrete block notion totally. And I loved it, man! I went to live in Paris, and I was in Place Sartre-Beauvoir and all I could afford was a coffee at the Café de Flore, and me and my friends would sit there and do things like steal the logoed coffee, the sugar cubes you get from the Café de Flore with the logo on, and just feel like you were living this sort of different life. It had a real glamour, that concrete block for me, and so reading her more and more since I was 18, so the last twenty years, I've come up against things that I don't like about her and I find difficult about her, and also things that I find incredibly endearing about her. She's completely changed for me from what she was when I was in Paris having my pretentious sips of coffee, but in a good way, I think. I think that's a good interaction to have with someone.

TJ:  And does that change the way you think about her writing as well? And how important is Beauvoir's life and what we know about her life, and the more and more that we learn about her life, to her philosophy and her ideas? One of the things about a philosopher’s biography is the idea that it's important that Socrates drank hemlock to kill himself and the way that he died. And there’s also the idea that that informs the idea of himself as a philosopher. But there is also an argument that perhaps what Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex should stand on its own, and it shouldn't matter who she was and what her life was and what she did and whether or not she was able to live up to it. Because of course, one of the arguments is that you can't possibly. But we are so interested in her life. And I wonder if that's a problem or a good thing?

JB: I think I go back and forth on this. I mean, she definitely thought of her life as a philosophical experiment in the same way as you're talking about Socrates and hemlock. And that was part of the pact with Sartre. Like how can we be free but also be attached? That for me is one of the major problems of being a woman. And you have so many patterns that come down to you that show you how. Things you have to follow in ways to be free, and they just seem completely opposed. So I do think it's important that life for her was that. So why wouldn't it be for us? And she wrote memoirs, like she wanted to show her intellectual life, and she was quite as honest as she could be while everyone was still living, about her love life and her personal life and her mother. Her book about her mother is the most extraordinary, honest account of how you can hate a mother who likes the fact that you're famous but doesn't like you, but also love her, for just existing and for having been your mother, I guess. I struggled with that, because at university we were told we had to pull these strands apart and look at a book in itself. And I do still read like that, and I still do think that's important. But as I get older, and I know more writers and I've worked with more writers, I think that that isn't how it works. That's not why you come to write a book. You don't come to write a book completely separate of your life and your own experiences. So I'd be more interested in thinking about women, the context of their lives and how that produces the work that they produce. Which maybe is unfashionable, old fashioned, but it's helped me to understand them.

TJ: What you say about attachments, and freedom and attachments, is that – maybe it's wrong for me to think of it this way – but it does seem that Beauvoir is also often thought of in terms of her relationships with men, with Sartre and with Nelson Algren and with Claude Lanzmann. And that also is problematic. Although as you say, how can you be free and attached at the same time, and she perhaps managed it better than many people do. 

JB: Yeah. She was really, really proud of her relationship with Sartre. So even if I'm disappointed by it at times, I've got to remember that's how she felt about it. She was interesting about this at the end of her life because there was a real move of second-wave feminists saying, let's give up on men completely. Let's live in female communes. Let's sleep with women,  let’s sleep with each other. Let's build a whole separate life. And that wasn't how she saw things. But also she did have lesbian relationships and some of them lasted her whole life. So Olga was part of her family. She was the person who Sartre and Beauvoir first took as a third person. They both shared that lover and she wrote her first novel about Olga, but she was friends with Beauvoir until Beauvoir died, like you could see her life, you could write her life the other way. You could write it through her female friendships, and her relationship with her sister, which was incredibly close, and her relationship with her mother, which was troubled, but she kept at it. And her final love, Sylvie LeBon de Beauvoir, who's still living, who has become an executor and had a lesbian relationship with her, it seems, but also was a very close friend and cared for her. So you could write her life in other ways. I don't know if I entirely brought that out in the piece, but I hope that it shows that some of the female friendships did really, really last. 

TJ: And also another difficulty for English readers until quite recently was that the only translation into English was this one that was done very quickly by a man who supposedly didn't even really understand French very well, and he wasn't a philosopher. And so the English idea of Beauvoir, at least for those of us who can't read French very well, is informed by this bad or inadequate translation.

JB: So this guy Parshley was a zoologist. I think Blanche Knopf loved the book. It was really big in France so she wanted to bring it over quite quickly and thought it was all about sex – I don’t think she read French – and he went for it and did this translation, but he didn’t understand the philosophy and wasn't well read in the existentialist stuff, mistranslated things, cut things out silently. So this translation that we have, I still quite like it in some ways. It is the book that Shulamith Firestone read, all the big important philosophers, or important feminist writers who use that book, read that version. So I think it's important. It should stand. And then of course we had a brilliant piece by Toril Moi about it. But then the new translation came out, made by two women who, again, didn’t know the philosophy and again had lots of infelicities in the way it was done. And it depresses me about women's writing, these important feminist books, that these do tend to be neglected or forgotten about or remembered in a weird way, or the archives are all over, but you know what I mean? It's just happened so many times. It's depressing.

TJ: Yeah. I mean, it does seem extraordinary that one of the most important books of the 20th century that has been read by many millions of people in English as well as in French and other languages should have been so inadequately translated. But after we published Toril Moi’s piece, there was a long series of exchanges on the letters page by people defending that translation. Of course, one of the things about all translations is that there's no such thing as a perfect translation. It's impossible. And there's this idea that there's a payoff between, as it were, a literal translation and an elegant one. And a better distinction may be between the idea that a translation – I remember John Sturrock talking about this – a translation which never lets you forget that the book you're reading was not written in the language you’re reading it in.  John believed that the translator had an obligation to the original language, not to let the reader think they were reading it in English, but against the idea that you should make it as English as possible and kind of an English equivalent. But I suppose  that's one of those things about a translation, that in a way you want as many different translations as possible, and that's the best way to move towards that, to approach the idea of an impossible, perfect translation by having as many as possible.

JB: I totally agree, and I think it's really important to have them from different generations as well, like every twenty to thirty years, if the book still lives, which it still does for me and my contemporaries, there should be a new translation, I think. It'd be so cool to have lots of them, you know?

TJ: And is that likely to happen?

JB: No, Gallimard hold it close. I don't think that there will be another one very soon. I sometimes dream of our lot doing one, like an online free translation and seeing what that would make. But one has to have a million lives to do all the projects that you hope of doing.

TJ:The Second Sex was published in France in November 1949 when Beauvoir was about 41, is that right? She was born in 1908…

JB: Yeah.

TJ: One of the things that you do so nicely in the piece is tell the story of her life. Would you be able to do a little bit of that now, the story of her life up to writing the book and beyond?

JB: Absolutely. I like to tell it using her version, really.The biography that I reviewed by Kate Kirkpatrick is the second major one in English. There's been lots of different ones. There’s a  short one by Lisa Appignanesi and Deirdre Bair was the first big one. But I like to return to where she started, which was saying that she was born in Montparnasse above the Café de la Rotonde in 1908 in January, 9th of January I think it was. And so she was born into this bourgeois family, and her first book of memoirs is called Mémoirs d’une Jeune Fille Rangée which becomes Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. And so the first book is this story of her breaking out of that bourgeois kind of net framework. Her mother was a practicing and deep believing Catholic, and when Beauvoir pulled away from her and broke with Catholicism and broke with the bourgeoisie, her mother, to the end of her life, hoped that Beauvoir would come back to the Catholic faith.

So in the early pictures of her, she's got these beautiful curls and the white dresses, so  starched and perfect, and she's really living that sort of life, going out to the park for a walk and she was taught at home for a long time. In some ways it’s extraordinary that she did break away from that because how did she do it, why would she think of something different from this kind of Catholic bourgeois life? But it was reading. Her father was an extraordinary person. He really enjoyed the theatre and he was really good at reading out loud. 

And so that artistic side came through, and it was the people that she met as well at her school, she went to this Catholic school called Le Cours Desir, which is quite a fancy private Catholic school. And there when she was ten she met this other girl who was called Zaza. Her name was Elizabeth Mabille, but she was called Zaza, and it was Zaza’s kind of vitality – she was naughty and she was good at things that Simone wasn't good at, and she was clever and maybe slightly cleverer than Simone and good at school, in that sort of Lila-Elena Ferrante way.

And it was through all those friendships, and different reading, and also just looking at her mother and thinking I don't know if I want to be chained to a sink for all my life. What else could I do? And she was really very determined to carry on with her studies. She went to the Sorbonne, where she met all these people like Merleau Ponty. Zaza was still with her, and it’s where she met Sartre. She met Sartre when she was incredibly young, she was twenty, 21, and with Sartre she was studying for this thing called the Agrégation, which is a philosophy exam where anyone across France can sit it and it gives you access to be able to teach philosophy in schools.

And the year that she took it, Sartre came first and she came second, but they had revised together. And in fact, it was Sartre’s second time of taking the exam. So lots of people say that actually the examiners had some discretion about where they placed people, because he had taken it twice and also because he was a Normalien, he studied at the Ecole Normale and Beauvoir was just at the Sorbonne, couldn't go to the Ecole Normale.

TJ: Women weren’t allowed to go to the Ecole Normale, isn’t that right?

JB: Yeah, exactly. At that point they weren't. And then it sort of began for her, I think. She had some sense – she always needed someone else to think her thoughts and write what she wanted to write. It was like first with Zaza and... it’s always strange to say this, but Zaza died unexpectedly, Zaza died when she was like 21-22. She caught, they don't even know what she caught, but she died within days, within a week. And that astonished, devastated, changed Beauvoir completely. And she carried this idea with her for a long time that Zaza had died so that she could be free, which in itself sounds such a Catholic idea. 
When you have feel like you have a duty to use your life in a certain way from a very young age, from 21, around the time of knowing Sartre, that must change how you think. What's the point of writing, or what's the point of being?  And I think really that can be quite good for a writer, even though of course you'd never want your best friend to die just to have that knowledge. So after the Agrégation, she started to teach philosophy in schools.This was a period where she was still with Sartre when they started this idea of a pact, which was that they were each other's essential love, but that they could have contingent lovers.

TJ: And they taught in different cities, didn't they? They weren’t together.

JB: No, they didn't live together ever, I don't think, actually. No, they didn't. They never lived together. And they were in different cities. So she was down in the South in Marseilles, and that was a period of her life I’m really interested in. She was starting to teach. She was starting to think about what she wanted to do with her life. She was starting to write, but she began to write all sorts of different things. She’d write philosophy and then she’d write a novel, and she never really liked her novels and she'd leave them aside, and then she'd carry on again. She was interested in what her independence was. So when they were divided, Sartre did say, well, why don't we get married because then we could be in the same place. And she said no. And she tried out living in completely free independent ways. So she would do these insane hikes in a pair of espadrilles carrying a basket with a banana, that was all she would carry for the day going across the Calanques, which are these inlets at the bottom of France round by Marseilles, and would try and imagine what freedom was and think things through, I guess. When they were divided by the war, when it started in ‘39, I think that's when she started to miss him and started to think things through in a different way. Again, it was another big shock that made her start to realise that some of these drafts could ... maybe she should put a bit more effort into finishing some of these books!

TJ: Where was she during the war?

JB: So she moved around, which she shouldn't really have done. She was one of those people who would be defying the Corona lockdown. She wasn't that happy to be divided from him. So she would sometimes move to the South. She would move between the Vichy across the line. Sometimes she taught for a bit. She came back to Paris when Sartre was released from prisoner of war camp. Because Sartre had really bad eyes. He didn't get caught because he had bad eyes, but he'd had a very kind of boring job, he wasn't on the front line. He was in France, I think, observing the weather, I think it was. So he was caught quite early and then managed to escape or get out of prison. So then they were reunited in Paris again towards the liberation, so kind of ‘43, ’44. And then there was this extraordinary time – and I think this is one of the reasons France bounced back really quickly after the war when they were liberated – Paris was liberated in ‘44 and they had almost a year where people would write and meet before the war was over. And  I think that was one of the reasons they produced these extraordinary books in that period, like Sartre was writing No Exit, Nausea had already come out, he was writing Being and Nothingness. She was starting to write L’Invitée – She came to stay – and so when they were finally liberated and you could print things again and could be in the world again they had all these incredible books and these parties and had a terrific time.

TJ: When was Les Temps modernes founded?

JB: That was just after the war too, and I think that they were quite good at working in groups at that time or meeting in groups. So they had this resistance group, which was sort of a bit ... well, they tried and realised that other people were doing it better, so gave up on it, but Les Temps modernes was started just after the war. The title, The Modern Times, was like, let's look at what's going on. Let's publish. That was a really important place for the beginnings of all of their writings, that circle. In fact, The Second Sex first appeared in Les Temps modernes. And the other thing about the end of the war, I guess, is this is when her life starts to change.

And another bit of her life I really like is she started to do these long trips, and the first big trip she did after the war was to America, where she did a sort of lecture tour, she went to all the women's colleges and she went to New York. There’s this brilliant piece, actually, by Michael Rogin. I've gone back to that piece millions of times and sent it to so many friends because it really captures exactly what happened to Beauvoir when she went over to America. You landed in New York and how did you kind of pass that review crew… 

TJ: That piece was in the LRB in 1998 when Beauvoir's letters to Nelson Algren were published.

JB: Yeah. That new translation they made of America Day by Day, which is Beauvoir’s book, maybe her first book in English, which was an account of her travels across America. So in that period she landed in this kind of divided – America was at an interesting point in its formation of its national literature. On one side you had Faulkner and James, which is the more New York Partisan Review side, more modernist high saying, look, America can do American literature, can be this sort of complex European style thing. And then on the other side, you had the people who became Beauvoir’s friends, so Richard Wright, and Nelson Algren, who was, I think, one of the most important people in her life, really. And the story of how they got together was quite fun. Like she was in Chicago for her lecture tour and looked him up, rang him up and he basically put the phone down on her. And she kept on ringing and he finally gave in and they went out for this proper night out, they went out and they went to the bad side of Chicago and got drunk and danced with all the bums and she was really shown a different sort of America and deeply, deeply fell in love with him. I mean, her lights were such, it was always intellectual. It lasted her whole life through but it wasn't always passionate. And the other affairs she had – I was reminded of when Michael Rogin reminded me that she broke with the other people she was sleeping with when she met Algren. And that makes sense to me. There was no one else for her in that period. For me, what's so interesting about that is that they say happiness writes white or whatever, but Beauvoir wrote Second Sex when she was in love with him, and he wrote The Man with the Golden Arm which won the national book award. Like they found something really special.

TJ: One of the really interesting things about her falling in love with him and with a side of America is we're so used to stories of Americans and English people going to Paris and the romance of France, and the idea of this incredibly glamorous, romantic French person going to America and seeing it sort of turning that journey back to front …

JB: It had a huge appeal for her, America, and not just because of its material comforts, but just how interesting and alive it was. I mean, politically, she and Sartre chose Russia over America in the kind of cold war sense, but as a country in the middle of becoming itself or in its Trente Glorieuses, she was really taken by it and she didn't just go to New York and California. She saw like New Mexico. She did loads more travelling with Nelson and she went back and forward. It's so interesting that Chicago, for me, should be the place where she really falls in love with America, kind of dirty and real and brash and big. I get it. I totally get it.

TJ: And this is maybe a moment to talk about  the photograph that I think, is it fair to say, you chose to illustrate the piece with, which appears very small in the LRB. It's only one column, but it's a photograph that was taken of her in Nelson Algren’s bathroom, wearing nothing, as you described it, nothing but heels and putting her hair up. And since the piece has been published, people including Kate Kirkpatrick have written to the editor to complain about it, beginning by saying would we ever publish a piece about a male philosopher illustrated with a nude photograph. And the other thing about it which wasn't so obvious in the photograph is that the photographer Art Shay has since said that he took the photograph without her consent. Could you talk us through why you wanted to use that photograph and also if your thoughts about it have changed.

JB: Yeah. There were so many images of Beauvoir, and since the main image when I think of her is her sitting at the cafe, that's the thing I imitated when I was 18. Like that was the main image. But I guess as I've gone on reading her and thinking about her it is the stuff that's a bit more challenging or difficult that I found appealing about her. It’s one of the reasons I think I can keep on going back to her, and that picture somehow just makes me…. when it was published on the front cover of Le Nouvel Observateur, they put 'La Scandaleuse' on the front, that's the side to her that I actually quite like, that she was willing to say that in public, in the Manifesto 343, I had an abortion.

Who knows if she actually had had an abortion, but she was willing to use her fame in certain different ways. And that seems to be another piece of her image. I actually didn't know about Art Shay having taken the photo without her consent. So the story goes that Algren didn't have a bath actually in his apartment and asked his friend Art Shay to take his French girlfriend to another apartment to have a bath.

And I don't think it was even Art Shay’s apartment! So it wasn't Algren’s, it wasn't Beauvoir’s, it wasn't Art Shay’s. And he took the photo. When you see the original, you can see that it's through the doorway and you can take the photo. He took the photo then and she turned around and said, Oh, you naughty boy. So she was clearly saying I didn't want you to do that. I didn't know that before I used the photo and I was thinking this morning, why didn't I question that? A nude photo of a woman, you should always think about who's looking at them and why and for what reason and what do they get out of it.
And part of me was thinking why I think she is really beautiful in that photograph. She looks like a late Degas, the way she's standing, she's got her heels on. It's a bit different from getting out of the bath, and it seemed to me like posed, basically, and beautiful, and almost the way it was posed recalls for me the late Degas, so it didn't make me think that she hadn’t consented to it.

And now I know this – for me it's bit of a piece with all the other things I know about her that I don’t like, and I don't feel it's my role to eliminate certain things. So I don't like the fact that she seduced her pupils. I don't like the fact that she seduced people, I don’t like the fact she passed them on to Sartre, I don't like the fact that she betrayed her friend Olga with her husband for ten years. There are lots of things I find difficult about Beauvoir’s life, the way she behaved, especially when she's supposed to be a philosopher. And so I think it has to stand in a way to say as a symbol of that kind of difficulty about her life that we can't assimilate it. And in some ways you just have to accept it.

I was chatting about this with a friend who reminded me that Heidegger was really into naturism, and I thought maybe that's what the LRB should do. Next time we have a piece about Heidegger put in a picture of him with his Freikörperkultur, and maybe that would make it more even, I don't know! I still think it's a beautiful photograph, but it troubles me now when I look at it, when I put myself in the position of it. I also wondered if it was taken by – it's good to do the story, because I wondered if it was taken by Algren, because for me, it's the gaze of a lover. She looks loved, she looks admired, and that interests me, the way Algren looked at her because his story, his letters to her haven't yet been published, and I am really looking forward to reading them when they finally are. 

TJ: How long did she stay in America? 

JB: She was there just for three months, and then she just kept on going back. Michael Rogin’s piece reminded me that Algren couldn't get a passport because of his communist sympathies. So when he applied for it in ‘53 he was refused, so he couldn't really see her. But they did have this break, so she kept on going back and they would travel together and obviously they'd live for those three months when they could be together. But she didn't tell him at the beginning of one of the trips in the late forties that she had to leave a month early. She says it's stupid in her book, that she shouldn't have done that, but she didn't, and he was really hurt, and they didn't talk for quite a long time. And she always felt she had to be in Paris. That was where her life was, her intellectual life. Her actual language, like being French, being a writer, you sort of need to be in that place. I don't know if I agree with her, but I can see why she thought that.

TJ: And also to give all that up for a man would have been very disappointing. If she’d given up that side of herself and the importance of Paris.

JB: But she would still have been a writer, but a different sort of writer, I think. One might say for a man, but what about for love? Like you're supposed to give up things for love, aren't you? And she was happy and she wrote well, that's why I think why couldn't she be there? Other people say to me, oh, the fifties in Chicago was a really difficult society. She wouldn't have thrived there, and her English was kind of idiosyncratic and fun, you can see it in her letters to Algren, but it wasn't terrific. And I don't know – could she have written The Second Sex in English? I don’t know, maybe I'm more romantic than you, Tom!

TJ: If we fast forward a bit, the arrival of the sixties and sixties feminism and what that meant for her and how people thought about her and how she thought about it?

JB: It's really interesting, her in the sixties, because obviously she followed a lot of the time from the fifties through, she spent a lot of time in Russia, and she was much more interested in the internecine leftist squabbles in France and also the general internationale, where's the left going in that whole post-war period. But in the sixties, that changed quite drastically. And she really did get deeply involved with the women's liberation movement in France. And it challenged her, like reading some of these books that came out in the late sixties and the early seventies. She read loads of things. She read the SCUM Manifesto. She was fully part of the Mouvement de libération de femmes, which met at her flat. Like they did this stunt, as I've mentioned, announcing that all these women from Catherine Deneuve to normal secretaries had had abortions to try and change the abortion law. She was really involved in that, but she did have to revise her own views because in The Second Sex she said, oh, it's pretty much done, it's won, we’ve got what we wanted.

And then she was looking back at it thinking, Jesus Christ, no, we haven't got what we wanted and what do we do about it? And she was very effective actually as a campaigner because she was so famous, so she could really get audiences with people. When her and Sartre went to Egypt, they hung out with Nasser, like Nasser released prisoners because they asked for it.
And so she was able to speak to the ministers and get these things done.  She actually worked in solidarity quite well. I think old feminists don't always do that! But she really saw that she could have an Alliance with the younger ones and she could really change something.

And the laws did change at that period in France. They do have abortionists now, they have a modern abortion law, and she did a lot for that. Also it’s quite funny, considering everyday sexism is such a different thing now to modern, younger women. But she had a column in the Temps modernes called 'Everyday Sexism', and it was literally about that sort of thing of I walked down the street and got whistled at, so she had a sense of the smaller violations being as important as the bigger ones, how to get a modern divorce, a modern abortion law, or how to get a law against sex discrimination in France. So I really love that period of her life too. She was very cool then. She marched as well, like there are these cool photos of her marching.

TJ: One of the things about her constantly changing is the idea that she put forward in The Second Sex that one isn't born a woman, one becomes a woman. And that's reflected in the title of Kirkpatrick's book, it’s Becoming Beauvoir, and that it’s a continuous process. It's not as if you spend twenty years becoming a woman and then you're placed in the concrete block. It's a constant process throughout the whole of one's life.

JB: Exactly. And what interests me in the ‘becoming’ is where do you get the ideas for the becoming from, right? So Beauvoir’s working with this kind of bourgeois Catholic notion of how women should be, and then trying to reform that at different stages and really failing at some points, and then at other points really getting somewhere. And it's the details of that, you were talking about the details of this 'Everyday Sexism' column she had, and how she pulled together those showed how sexism worked through these tiny details. And in some ways ‘becoming’ has the same sort of thing. Like where do women get the ideas of what they can be from, and how do they use them and how do they work against them? And that was the whole point of The Second Sex, to lay out all of these ideas. That this is what psychoanalysis says. This is what Marxism says. This is what our literature says. This is what our lives say, and what mothers tell daughters. Mothers have the most extraordinary power over telling their daughters what ‘becoming’ is, what becoming a woman is. And I put it in the piece, one of the most striking images, thinking of the child Beauvoir washing dishes with her mother, that's a thing I've had from my life. I remember folding sheets with my mother, and that can be quite a powerful idea of what you think a woman is, an idea that makes you think: if this is what a woman is, then do I really want to become that? You want to stay as a girl.

TJ: She described herself looking out the window and seeing the woman in the next apartment doing the same thing. You describe it as ‘mise en abyme’.

JB: Yeah, exactly. So that kind of Parisian view of this kind of closed city and just seeing every other woman doing the dishes, that wouldn't happen now. You'd see a man, or it wouldn't be the same. But that idea of God, that's where I have to fit in this little square, an ever receding sort of horror vision.

TJ: But it’s also something, this is what I need to escape from. This is what I need freedom from.

JB: Yeah, and so maybe she overstepped at points in her life, like was it a good idea to go into that pact with Sartre, or is that what freedom is? I couldn't say for sure. You can see that it didn't really make her happy. And what is the point of freedom if it doesn't make you happy?

TJ: And that pact lasted until Sartre’s death?

JB: Yeah. It really matured and changed into a purely intellectual one. So she worked in his apartment every afternoon, they still talked everything over and understood jointly that they could do a lot together. Interestingly, he wasn't that good on the feminist stuff. He never really got involved in that, and just saw it as her sort of thing. He supported her,  he was totally there at the beginning of writing The Second Sex and pushed her to look at it more carefully, but he wasn't on the marches with her. He wasn't interested in that feminist stuff.

TJ:  It’s said that when he died she climbed on to his body. She slept on his corpse. Is that right?

JB: Yeah. It was the most amazing astonishing scene. Yeah. Incredible scene. She was there. He'd been ill for a while and he had these gangrenous sores on his body, and when she realised that he'd died, she climbed onto his body. It's such a visceral image. Now death just happens ... I don’t think it happens as kind of bodily as that, somehow, especially in this whole period where we know people are dying away from the people that they love. She climbed up his body, and they had to stop her because of the gangrene! But they put a sheet over him, and she just lay on him and fell asleep with him, with his dead body.

TJ: That was in 1980 when she was 70,72.

JB: Yeah. She'd feared him dying for almost her whole life, because she’d known him since she was 21, and at the funeral she was drunk for the whole thing and then she collapsed and she had pneumonia straight after. In that way where when the intellectual support or the reason for living goes, and the body concurs, you know, the body says, yeah, you're right, let’s give up for a bit.

TJ: But she still had other people who were important to her like Sylvie in the last six years of her life. And there's this wonderful bit where you say that one of the last things she did before dying was trying to persuade her nurse not to vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen.

JB: I don’t know if she succeeded in that!

TJ: Let’s hope so! So politically active to the end. And you say that at her funeral Lanzmann read the last paragraph of Force of Circumstance, and I wondered if we could end now with you reading that.

JB: 'I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing. They made no honey, those things, they can provide no one with any nourishment. At the most, if my books are still read, the reader will think: There wasn’t much she didn’t see! But that unique sum of things, the experience that I lived, with all its order and its randomness — the Opera of Peking, the arena of Huelva, the candomblé in Bahía, the dunes of El-Oued, Wabansia Avenue, the dawns in Provence, Tiryns, Castro talking to five hundred thousand Cubans, a sulphur sky over a sea of clouds, the purple holly, the white nights of Leningrad, the bells of the Liberation, an orange moon over the Piraeus, a red sun rising over the desert, Torcello, Rome, all the things I’ve talked about, others I have left unspoken — there is no place where it will all live again.'

TJ: Thank you very much. You can read Joanna’s piece in the current issue of the LRB, along with Jeremy Harding on Extinction Rebellion and Frederick Jameson on Conrad. You can read Michael Rogan and Toril Moi’s pieces on Beauvoir in our online archive.

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