Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Prime of Life III

De Beauvoir and Sartre saw each other frequently when they lived separately in Rouen and Le Havre. They developed friends and read a lot. De Beauvoir seems to have been interested in the latest styles in fiction and admired Faulkner and Kafka. They discussed why she didn't concern herself more with philosophy:

...I was well aware that the ease with which I penetrated to the heart of a text stemmed, precisely, from my lack of originality. In this field a genuinely creative talent is so rare that queries as to why I did not attempt to join the élite are surely otiose: it would be more useful to explain how certain individuals are capable of getting results from that conscious venture into lunacy known as a 'philosophical system', from which they derive that obsessional attitude which endows their tentative patterns with universal insight and applicability. As I have remarked before, women are not by nature prone to obsessions of this type....I wanted to communicate the element of originality in my own experience. In order to do this successfully I knew that it was literature towards which I must orientate myself. 

At this stage in my reading I am inclined to think that de Beauvoir was not original as a producer of literature either. She is good at clear and precise renderings of human interactions but adopted a style that reads more like nonfiction than fiction. She draws so directly from her life experiences that it's as if she simply changes "I" in her diary to "she" in her novels. There are close similarities between some of the people in this memoir to some of the characters in The Mandarins. Moreover, although I find her enjoyable to read, her writing is completely lacking in the kind of originality that one sees in writers such as Kafka or László Krasznahorkai. Her strategy as a writer seems to have been to sculpt her life so as to provide a sufficient stream of material for her fiction. There may even be an oddly calculated dimension to her choice of Sartre as a partner, because on close inspection they have little in common, and she may have seen him as a ticket to a colorful life. I notice that in her memoirs she is quick to compliment physically attractive men on their appearance, yet she leads us to believe that she also found Sartre attractive even though he was wall-eyed and practically a dwarf, features to which she never refers, perhaps to spare his feelings.

From 1933 to 1935 Sartre studied in Berlin, and he and de Beauvoir vacationed in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria. Fascism was prominent in Europe by then, and the Spanish Civil War was to begin in 1936. As you might expect, they were appalled by Hitler and Mussolini.

When he returned to his job in Le Havre, Sartre became depressive. He was extremely ambitious and was concerned, at the age of 30, that he would spend the rest of his days as an obscure philosophy teacher. He didn't like teaching and at least once had called an entire class stupid to their faces. De Beauvoir, though only 27 in 1935, was more worried about her age. Sartre was interested in dreams, and a medical friend recommended that he take mescaline in a controlled setting. Most people had found the experience pleasant, but Sartre had a classic bad trip: "umbrellas had become vultures, shoes turned into skeletons, and faces acquired monstrous characteristics, while behind him, just past the corner of his eye, swarmed crabs and polyps and grimacing Things." Although the effects of the drug quickly wore off, Sartre continued to experience hallucinations for months. It became a joke with de Beauvoir that he thought that he was being followed by a lobster. However, this was a serious episode of depression that took time to dissipate.

At the time their friends included Marco, a gay teacher and earlier acquaintance of Sartre who wanted to be an opera singer, Olga, who had been a student of de Beauvoir, and Jacques Bost, who had been a student of Sartre. Marco would dream up elaborate deceptions for fun, and once even Sartre and de Beauvoir participated. Olga was the daughter of a White Russian émigré and was being pressured by her parents to study subjects in which she had no interest. Bost was a good-looking, intelligent young man who appealed to both Sartre and de Beauvoir. Before long, Sartre got into a relationship with Olga, which did not exclude de Beauvoir, and they tried for a while, unsuccessfully, to live as three. Marco fell in love with Bost, who was not gay and rejected him. De Beauvoir had an affair with Bost. In the end, Sartre and Olga broke up, and Olga later married Bost. Perhaps out of discretion, de Beauvoir leaves out most of the details of what transpired, but she made use of the triad for her first published novel, She Came to Stay.

There was considerable controversy in de Beauvoir's life, and some of it began with Olga. Olga was the first of several young women whom she introduced to Sartre, and, depending on what you read, she was either an emancipated thinker or a pedophile-enabler who procured girls for Sartre's sexual gratification. I am reluctant to dig into this because it is time-consuming enough to read de Beauvoir's version and I am fairly confident that she would not be completely callous in these matters. What concerns me more is the possibility that de Beauvoir intentionally staged her life events, including her relationships, in order to generate material for her fiction. That seemed to be the case in her relationship with Nelson Algren as portrayed in The Mandarins. If I don't tire of reading her memoirs, that topic should come up in the next volume, which covers that period. She obviously had a formidable intellect, but I could hardly approve of her as a person if she intentionally toyed with people's lives in the interest of her personal success.

An aspect of writing fiction that you don't hear much about is the difficulty that writers face in coming up with fresh material. That can't be taught in writing programs, and this explains why, in the present day, the vacuous students who attend creative writing programs tend to produce interesting word usage more often than astute observations of any kind. De Beauvoir, for her part, knew her limitations as a writer and was intelligent enough to find a solution that worked in her case.

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