Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 13. 1969.
Books — Debacle and Decay
Debacle and Decay
Simone de Beauvoir: "The Woman Destroyed", Collins.
This latest novel or triplych by Simone de Beauvoir plunges her writing back to the depths she temporarily abandoned in Les Belles Images, Miss de Beauvoir survives better in the depths where her work may sometimes be patchy but the defects more easily disguised. It is a pity that her autobiographical scries have given us such ready identification with Mlle de Beauvoir's aquaintances that the game of identifying characters in her novels often tends to interfere with the impact she is trying to make.
The Woman Destroyed contains three stories, and in all of them a woman is facing the situation of her life crumbling about her and trying to exist in the ruins. But Simone de Beauvoir is playing a more [unclear: subtle] game than this. She is attacking the one thing which so obviously concerns her, growing old.
In her first story The Age of Discretion we are introduced to the problem head-on. The heroine, a woman of sixty or so, writer of literary tomes is married to Andre, a famous socialist scientist. Their son Philippe betrays the family's ideals by marrying a girl from a bourgeois home and trying to get a job in the Gaullist-orientated Ministry of Culture.
Unreasonably the heroine cannot bear the betrayal of her dependent son and [unclear: companies] her emotional crisis with the [unclear: alisation] that her writing has reached [unclear: agnation] and is merely repetitive. Her [unclear: ntellect] cannot come to terms with her emotional feelings. Andre, her husband, says to her concerning their son's behaviour: [unclear: you] are setting it all on a moral plane, whereas it is primarily on the emotional plane that you feel you have been be-[unclear: rayed]."
This has been Miss de Beauvoir's most [unclear: lnerable] area in her writing—to separate the intellectual and the emotional. Her world-known 'pact' with Sartre has from all accounts lead to emotional crises unconnected with its intellectual conception, and although Simone de Beauvoir recognises her error in the writing her continual stressing of the fact appears to hinder rather than help her over-come it.
Her ever increasing years have concerned her since early autobiographical days and were strong evident in A Very Easy Death, an account of her mother's death-bed scenes. Clearly Mlle de Beauvoir is worried too about the falling off of her talent for writing. She has her heroine say to her husband:—
'Still,' I said, 'it's true that old age does exist. And it's no fun telling oneself that one is done for.'
He put his hand in mine. 'Don't tell yourself any such thing. You set off with a sterile combination—the ambition of doing something quite new and of excelling yourself. That is a fatal error. To understand Rousseau and Montesquiseu and to make them understood, that was a solid plan and one that carried you a long way. If something really grips you again, you will still do good work.'
'All in all, my literary work will remain what it is: I've seen my limits'
'From a self-regarding point of view you may not go much further, that's true. But you can still interest readers, make them think and enrich them.'
After what we may think is a conciliation of de Beauvoir to the limitations of her age and writing she immediately plunges into a story entitled The Monologue, a stream of consciousness extract, immediately comparable with James Joyce, of the like of which Mlle de Beauvoir has not attempted before.
This is the monologue of a woman drowning, suffocating, stiffled in her emotions, reciting she is sick, knowing she is sick and yet prolonging the sickness. As a piece of prose it just doesn't come off. Self-pity, self-concern so dominates the woman's monologue that her meandering obscenities rarely bring any situation from her past to life. Even the rather black-comedy suicide of her teenage daughter fails to lace the monologue with any sense of purpose or explanation for her indulgence.
The last story titled The Woman Destroyed is an extremely perceptive document of the breakdown of a woman who has so totally depended on her marriage that she is powerless and defenceless when her marriage is threatened. This story is written in diary form which Miss de Beauvoir has successfully incorporated into her novels in the past. The mixture of truth and defence of pride unavoidable even in a personal diary carry us through the decline of a woman happy in her marriage, to the point where she no longer recognises her own share of responsibilities and involvement in her life.
Monique is not a stupid woman but ill-equipped to deal with her threatened security. The extremes she goes to would seem to the reader ridiculous, taking the handwriting of her husband, his mistress and herself to a graphologist, for example, but id fact she has few alternatives. Her husband's indecision rather than his so called "lies" give us sympathy with Monique until the reader too, as do her daughters and friends, becomes exasperated with the woman and abandon her to her all-enveloping misery.
The story is skilfully constructed and it is evident de Beauvoir has lost none of her skill of combining the physiological and literary detail. The three parts of her book are drawn together by thin threads of simalarity of experience. The stress on unfilled communication with others, the heightening of youth and the past, the despair, the loneliness, the uglyness of growing old. Simone de Beauvoir's first story is a challenge to herself and within her world (if this means within her 'limitations') she can still stimulate readers and make them think.