The Prime of Life by Simone de Beauvoir

Halfway into The Prime of Life, Simone de Beauvoir signals to the reader of her autobiography that:

I still believe to this day in the theory of the ‘transcendental ego.’ The self (moi) has only a probable objectivity, and anyone saying ‘I’ only grasps the outer edge of it; an outsider can get a clearer and more accurate picture. Let me repeat that this personal account is not offered in any sense as an ‘explanation.’ Indeed, one of my main reasons for undertaking it is my realisation that self-knowledge is impossible, and the best one can hope for is self-revelation.

With this in mind, it is thrilling to share in her exploration of how a conscious mind examines its acts. In this volume, Simone de Beauvoir relives the achievement of her literary apprenticeship, life with Sartre and the years of Paris’s occupation by the Nazis.

The stimulation of this brilliant book comes from reading yourself into the mind of a fiercely intelligent woman attempting to interpret her earlier life with unremitting honesty. The ‘I’ that gives testimony in this autobiography clearly possesses a knowledge denied to the ‘I’ who lived through these events. As in the first volume of her autobiography Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, de Beauvoir places her younger self under the microscope with the cool rationality that only the perspective of time allows.

In my reading of Memoirs and her diary of the same period, the diary offered a more emotive reading. The same insight is available in The Prime of Life from the extracts of diaries de Beauvoir provides as narrative of the early years of the war.

It is inconceivable that The Prime of Life is out of print in an English translation. It is superior to Memoirs, a first-rate autobiography in its own right. My intention is to read the remaining volumes, but not for a while. My immersion under the skin of de Beauvoir has been all-consuming.

9 thoughts on “The Prime of Life by Simone de Beauvoir

  1. >I didn't realize The Prime of Life is out-of-print…how strange. I'm curious whether you've read de Beauvoir's fiction, can you compare it with her autobiographical writing? I've only read l'Invitée (She came to stay) and am hopefully inexperienced with the rest of her work, but your posts have gotten me quie interested. Thank you!

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  2. >Michelle, I've not yet read de Beauvoir's fiction, but plan to read 'She Came to Stay' and 'The Mandarins.' In this book she talks of the gestation and execution of the former.

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  3. >Argh, want to dive into this right away! (It's my French-language pick for next month, so I don't have long to wait in any case…) So excited that you liked it even better than Memoirs. Love your evocation of:her exploration of how a conscious mind examines its acts.That's exactly what I loved about the first volume and am now very excited to read the second.

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  4. >'She came to Stay' was a fascinating read because of my pre-conceived notions of de Beauvoir. I'd be interested to see what you think since you've read her memoirs. In any case, I can see that I will enjoy her work and will hopefully find the time later this year to start a fuller de Beauvoir read.

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  5. >Interesting post, I say that because I have tried reading Simone de Beauvoir but struggled to get into her prose. Which of her works would you recommend? I read “She Came to Stay” and found it somehow disappointing.

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  6. >I've read the first two volumes of de Beauvoir's autobiography: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and The Prime of Life, both are outstanding. I've yet to get to the fiction but plan to read She Came to Stay. Her most respected work, I think, is The Mandarins

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  7. Pingback: A Year in Reading: 2011 « Time's Flow Stemmed

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