Sunday, August 01, 2010

All Said and Done!

Our book today – after a barrage of technical problems the likes of which neither Stevereads nor all of collected human civilization has ever seen (an ongoing barrage, self-replicating and constantly adapting in positively Borg-like fashion) – is All Said and Done, one in a long string of memoirs by that premiere Gallic gasbag, Simone De Beauvoir.

All Said and Done (Tout Compte Fait), in the English translation by Patrick O'Brian, go figure, is an account – to use the loosest possible shading of that word (i.e. the Frenchest shading) – of the years 1962-1972, when De Beauvoir's glory days were long behind her and she was famous mainly for still being the original Simon De Beauvoir despite all the second-rate imitators who'd sprung up along the Rue De Rivoli since the late 1950s.

De Beauvoir was a feminist, a Marxist, and French – ordinarily a skull-and-crossbones complete set of strikes in my book, but like most intellectual women of the mid 20th century, her mediocre ideas and overweening self-importance are saved in the only way they could be: by sheer writing talent. It's true that in All Said and Done things get off to a very rocky start by intentionally invoking the Dark Prince, the very Frenchest of all French writers:
Every morning, even before I open my eyes, I know I am in my bedroom and my bed. But if I go to sleep after lunch in the room where I work, sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement – why am I myself? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?

Even if you resist your sudden craving for a madeleine, there's much more to come along these lines. The problem with almost all existentialist, Marxist, or French writing, to say nothing of existentialist Marxist French writing, is its complacent, unrelenting egotism. Even writers who have active, working brains – and De Beauvoir was certainly one of those – fall into this trap and are never seen again for all their posturing. Naturally enough, the problem is compounded by old age, that most solipsistic phase of life, when even a touch of renown can give a person delusions of godhood. By the time she wrote All Said and Done, De Beauvoir had been so long venerated (in certain circles!) that she had come to believe every single thing she thought or said was inherently interesting simply by virtue of the fact that she was the one thinking or saying it. Take this passage, in the middle of a long discussion about her reading habits:
I rarely turn to old books that I have never read. The very fact of my having neglected them so far diminishes my opinion of them – why should I find them interesting all at once? I know nothing about Paul-Louis Courier's works: they are within hand's reach, but I feel no urge to tackle them. In any case when I am in Paris I have no time to step into a world that for years I have never cared about and that is in no way connected with me. Sometimes when I am on holiday I do make up my mind to take the plunge. The stimulus is particularly strong when I am getting myself ready to see a foreign country that I want to know well. When I went to Japan I delighted in the admirable English translation of the Tale of Genji and I went through Tanizaki's books. But when I am on holiday I may also read French authors I either do not know well or have forgotten.

The sheer volume of self-regard on display there is deafening. It's not that she doesn't describe well some quintessential reader habits (who hasn't read up on the literature of a foreign land when visiting that land's present-day incarnation? An utterly useless thing to do, yet everybody does it), but she describes them as interesting only to the extent that they're true of her: other people, let alone other authors, aren't even in the picture as viable separate entities. And look at that horrifying Colonel Blimp 'rationale' for continuing to ignore authors she's always ignored! Like so much else of what she wrote, all that kind of clap-trap does is provide a faux-intellectual underpinning for every kind of lazy, pretentious posturing known to man.

But for every passage like that in All Said and Done, there's a passage that brims with the natural charm, the sharp descriptive eye, and the humane spirit that glows in virtually all the best French writing – and that glows in De Beauvoir's writing whenever she stops droning long enough to let it shine, as in this description of a 1962 trip to Khrushchev's Russia:
How gay Moscow was, under the snow and the blue sky! The branches of the trees and their delicate twigs were powdered with a sparkling whiteness. Many people went about on skis, and where the streets sloped down they glided happily along. The passers-by, carefully wrapped up, were all loaded with parcels; and in their brilliantly-coloured quilted coats the children looked as though they were going to a fancy-dress party. In the squares stood tall snowy Christmas trees. All the streets had a holiday look – an air of festivity. Simonov and his wife invited us to a Christmas Eve party in the foyer of a theatre near Mayakovksy Square. It was minus twenty degrees centigrade. When we got there, fat young women were arriving; they hurried to the cloakroom, shed their fur coats, boots, and thick wool skirts, and re-appeared, slim and elegant, in light evening dresses and slippers.

Even if I hadn't told you the translator was Patrick O'Brian, you might have been able to guess it from passages like that, and enough of them together add an extra element of surreality to the book, quite apart from its own merits – which are many, despite my admonitory tone! This book is well worth reading, as is De Beauvoir's novel The Mandarins – and her shaggy-dog magnum opus The Second Sex, if you're in need of some quick, easy laughs.

1 comment:

andy said...

harsh comments! but a lot of it justified, I have to say. Prematurely posthumous, some of B's writing. Part of the intellectual heritage industry.