Continuing on with our coverage of legendary French existentialist and trailblazing feminist Simone de Beauvoir, here we have one of her masterpieces: A Very Easy Death. Written in the early 1960s and published in 1965, it’s de Beauvoir’s account of her mother’s death following an accident, which inadvertently unearthed late-stage cancer.
Right there you can tell this isn’t a cheery or easy read. What it is, though, is a candid and heartfelt account of one individual’s sense of grief and loss. With typical intelligence, de Beauvoir approaches the subject on a day-by-day basis, making it a clear account of her life at a time of extreme difficulty. The novel is not self-indulgent, however, as the writer uses the experience to highlight the passage of time and how it affects us all.
A Very Easy Death
At the centre of the book is her mother, who is dying rapidly, and how she comes to terms with this. As such, you can’t escape the existential philosophy which de Beauvoir was aligned with, but this is more of a personal story than a furthering of her ideologies. It’s a dignified, but unhappy, account of the loss of her mother, with whom she’d had a difficult relationship.
Her account also considers the post-war generational divide and social advances that were moving at a real pace, not least for women’s liberation. The writer’s mother was at odds with some of those causes, or entirely indifferent – it’s clear she felt somewhat duty-bound to adhere to her place in society and support her husband, even though she was unhappy in marriage:
"She was very open to wounds - she was capable of chewing over a reproof or a criticism for thirty or forty years - and her diffused, indwelling resentment made itself apparent in aggressive forms of behaviour - brutal frankness, heavily ironic remarks. With regard to us, she often displayed a cruel unkindness that was more thoughtless than sadistic: her desire was not to cause us unhappines but to prove her own power to herself."
Her subservient nature is also noted – the exact opposite of her much-celebrated daughter and what she would achieve by being so forthright:
"She remained woolly-minded and she went on saying yes to everything and being surprised by nothing. In her last years she did attain some kind of coherence in her ideas, but at the time when her emotional life was at its most tormented she possessed no doctrine, no concepts, no words with which to rationalise her situation. That was the source of her bewildered uneasiness."
“Maman”, as de Beauvoir intimately referred to her, comes across as much more amiable in older age, with the family rallying around her to offer support during her illness. As mentioned, this isn’t an easy read, nor is it overly pleasant. But it is necessary.
The work allows the reader to consider the human condition, mortality, and how to care for others during a time of need. There’s a compassionate message here and one that makes for a moving book from a writer at the peak of her powers.
Philosophers Behaving Badly
To lighten the tone a touch, it’s worth comparing the writer’s life to her mother’s as times changed from the conservative first half of the 20th century into the groovier post-war mentality.
As you can see in the clip above, which takes its lead from the Second Sex, she was eager for women to reject any responsibility with the male gaze. Simone de Beauvoir presented herself in a low-key way but, proving her resolve on the matter, she was rather fetching.
She should be a style icon as she was a smart dresser, but one with an emphasis on modesty. Despite that, her radiant smile could light up any room, complemented by her extreme intelligence.
Alongside her lifelong partner, (the short, average looking Jean-Paul Sartre – the guy was a genius, don’t get ahead of yourselves), the couple and their “open marriage” looked rather unusual. But their personalities ensured they were more or less perfect for one another. Ultimately, only six years separated them in their respective deaths: 1980 and 1986.
What we’re getting at is de Beauvoir was much more sexually ambitious, confident, and gregarious than her mother. With the explosion of feminism after WWII, the philosopher took full advantage of her chance to achieve her dreams. She rapidly rose the ranks to become a leading spokesperson for her generation. She also had a fondness (note the “open marriage” above) of chatting up male or female students at her university lectures.
Regarding marriage and children as irrelevant and oppressive, there is a 2005 book called Philosophers Behaving Badly which suggests she had a rather scandalous life thanks to her freeform lifestyle. In fact, after an incident with young student Natalie Sorokin in 1943, de Beauvoir’s teaching licence was revoked and never reinstated. It’s the type of rock and roll madness that Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin tried on a few decades later.
Make of this what you may, but it should be remembered she was part of an era which had emerged from hundreds of years of subservience, so it was into a debauchery-fuelled world which she enthusiastically stepped… whilst penning some of the finest works of the 20th century, of course.