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.