Thursday, February 24, 2011

Becoming a Writer: Simone de Beauvoir's The Prime of Life

Simone de Beauvoir à la BastilleImage by zio fabio via Flickr

SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, novelist, essayist, author of The Second Sex (1949), and life-long companion of Jean-Paul Sartre, was also a diarist much concerned with leaving her legacy in her own words. To "become a writer" she wrote every day of the year. Her autobiography contains four volumes, from which (the second volume entitled The Prime of Life), the following pages are excerpted.
This selection depicts a writer in the midst of apprehension and anxiety in the eve of the Second World War. Not only are her impressions genuine, but also realistic as she attempts to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the day.

3 September
Awake at 8:30 to find it raining. My first thought: "It's really true, then." I'm not exactly miserable or unhappy, and I can't discern any feeling of resentment inside me; it's the world outside that's so horrible. Someone turns on the radio. No reply to the Final Notes from France and England; fighting still going on in Poland. Unthinkable prospect: another day after this, and another, and another-much worse, too, for then we shall be fighting. Only stopped from crying by the feeling that there would be just as many tears left to shed afterwards.

I read Gide's Journal. Time passes slowly. Eleven o'clock brings news of last-minute efforts in Berlin. The result will be known today. Hope is non-existent. I can't conceive the joy I would feel if someone told me, "There isn't going to be any war"; perhaps I wouldn't feel any­thing.

Phone call from Gege, I go over to see her on foot. This cuts actual distances everywhere considerably: to go half a mile or so still takes about ten minutes of one's time. The police have all got magnificent new tin helmets, and carry their gas masks slung in little snuff-colored satchels. Some civilians have got the same equipment. Many Metro stations are shut and barricaded, with notices announcing the nearest one available. Car headlights, painted blue, look like large precious stones. I have lunch at the Dome with Pardo (Gege's second husband, whom she married after her first marriage was annulled), Cege herself, and an Englishman who has very striking blue eyes. Pardo takes a bet, against Gege and me, that there won't be a war, and the Englishman agrees with him. All the same, there's a rumor going around that England has declared war already. Gege tells us about her trip from Limoges back to Paris: all the way an endless stream of taxis and cars going in the opposite direction, piled high with bedding. Very few cars in the vicinity of Paris: nothing but unaccompanied men, mobilized reservists. Workmen busy blacking out the windows of the Dome with thick blue curtains. Then the sudden announcement at 3.30 in Paris-Soh: "Great Britain declared war at 11 a. m. France to follow suit at five this afternoon." Despite everything, the shock is still tremendous . . .

A scuffle on the Place Montparnasse. Some woman mistook a man for a foreigner, and he slapped her face. Bystanders protested, and a military policeman grabbed the man by his hair. Fresh objections from the crowd. Policeman seemed somewhat confused and told people to move along. By and large they seemed to blame the atmosphere of hos­tility on the "foreigner."

This evening, with Gege, at the Flore. People still saying they don't believe in the war, but they look pretty panic-stricken all the same. A man who works for Hachette says all his trucks have been requisitioned and the Metro bookstalls emptied out on the sidewalk, just like that. We walk back along the Rue de Rennes: lovely effect of violet or blue head­lights in the darkness. At the Dome we find a policeman arguing with the manager, who finally has extra-thick blue curtains put over the win­dows. I catch a glimpse of Pozner, in uniform, and the Hungarian. At eleven o'clock they clear the cafe. People hang around on the pavement; nobody wants to go home. I spend the night at Gege's place. Pardo gives me a pill, and I am able to sleep.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.
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