Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Monologue/The Woman Destroyed

These are the other two short stories by Simone de Beauvoir in the volume I'm reading. "The Monologue" is not to my taste, because it is written in the stream of consciousness style, which I generally don't like. It describes the point of view of a woman named Murielle, whose life hasn't been going well at all. Her daughter from her first marriage, Sylvie, apparently has died, and she is separated from her second husband, who has custody of their son, Francis. She is living alone in a noisy apartment and ruminating over her life and the people who have wronged her. I found it a little confusing to follow and couldn't see the point of the awkward presentation.

I suppose that this was an experimental attempt by de Beauvoir to emulate other writers, such as William Faulkner, whom I also dislike. For me, stream of consciousness was a literary fad that ran its course without adding much to literature as an art. The only writer whom I've found to have any real facility at it was Katherine Mansfield. It requires a psychological insight beyond the level that most writers possess and otherwise reads like a gimmick. I also oppose stream of consciousness on a philosophical basis, because what occurs in someone's head, mine at least, is mostly nonverbal and can't be simulated accurately with words, sentence fragments or sentences. For me, putting things into words is a process separate from the raw mental activities occurring in my conscious brain at any given moment, and I don't think that portraying those mental activities in a verbal format represents them accurately. Mansfield succeeded better than others only because she had an uncanny ability to divine the inner experiences of others.

Although I like certain aspects of de Beauvoir's writing, I don't think that she had the right attributes to be a great writer. While intellectually aware, she lacked the depth of George Eliot, whose knowledge had originated more organically over many decades through observation, thought and reading rather than through the more artificial protocols of universities and intellectuals. Furthermore, de Beauvoir's prose reads more like essays than creative writing. She had none of Kafka's creative imagination and did not produce sentences as elegant as those of Proust, though she probably surpassed both of them intellectually.

"The Woman Destroyed," the final story and the title of the collection, is a long series of diary entries by Monique, a fortyish upper-middle-class Parisian housewife with two grown daughters and a husband, Maurice, who is a medical researcher. Maurice has been seeing Noëllie, an ambitious young lawyer, and the entire story concerns the effect that this has on Monique. Maurice won't give up Noëllie and doesn't want to give up Monique either. Monique, for her part, wants Maurice to dump Noëllie, but she makes no progress, and by the end of the story he is getting a separate apartment for himself. Most of the discussion concerns what Monique did or didn't do right, speculation on Noëllie's character and support from friends, her children and a psychiatrist. By the end of the story, Monique has lost a lot of weight, is depressed and is heavily medicated.

The writing device of "The Woman Destroyed" is not as psychologically oppressive to me as that of "The Monologue," because it includes dialogue quoted from various people and therefore is not a completely closed monologue. However, Monique's obsessions don't interest me much, and no advice that I would consider practical emerges until the very end, when Monique visits her younger daughter, Lucienne, in New York City:

"You saw our life together," I said. "And indeed you were very critical as far as I was concerned. Don't be afraid of hurting me. Try to explain why your father has stopped loving me."

She smiled rather pityingly. "But, Mama, after fifteen years of marriage it is perfectly natural to stop loving one's wife. It's the other thing that would be astonishing!" 

"There are people who love each other all their lives." 

"They pretend to." 

In the end, Monique remains fixated on Maurice, with no hope on the horizon.

This story seemed realistic to me, because there are many women like Monique who encounter this situation. The only difference I see is that affairs are more likely to be taken in stride in France than in the U.S. In this instance, Maurice had already had several affairs unbeknownst to Monique, and Monique herself had had one affair. Unfortunately, neither Monique nor Maurice seemed interesting to me, and I had to wait for Lucienne to speak up to find a character who appealed to me.

Of the three stories, I would say that "The Woman Destroyed" is the best. Nevertheless, I even found that boring. The impression I have from this book and The Mandarins is that de Beauvoir liked to write about the travails that women face. She seems sympathetic, yet doesn't really offer solutions for aggrieved women. I don't currently plan to delve further into the biographies and autobiographies of de Beauvoir, but the sense I have is that she typically took a stoic position on the hurtful behavior of the men she knew. Here, in The Mandarins and in her memoirs, men behave badly and women get upset, but de Beauvoir is reluctant to criticize them, or, for that matter, provide any discernible lessons. She is good when it comes to accepting facts, but, as far as I can tell, she does nothing to prescribe responsible behavior. In "The Woman Destroyed," the question of whether Maurice's actions and his inability to justify them are acceptable remains open. The Monique-Maurice relationship resembles the Paula-Henri relationship in The Mandarins, and in both cases the men just do what they want to do while the women crack up. There may be no intended message, but de Beauvoir clearly sympathizes with the men. She seems to enjoy deconstructing the bourgeois follies of the women she knew.

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