Lisa Appignanesi is a writer, novelist and president of English PEN. Her new book, Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 (Virago/Little Brown) comes out in February. Her latest novel, The Memory Man (Arcadia) is published at the same time in paperback. Amongst her other books is the acclaimed family memoir, Losing the Dead (Vintage). Her Simone de Beauvoir is a gripping portrait of the woman and her times.
“I think I must have been around 18 when I first dipped into the pages of The Second Sex and was mesmerised by Simone de Beauvoir’s terrifyingly lucid account of how one is not so much born, but rather becomes, a woman. Her judicious presence and bold intelligence have been with me ever since, not only in her many books. In a sense the very arc of her life gave us all permission: we could think for ourselves, be actors in the public sphere, and write across the genres – fiction, non-fiction and memoir. Here are some of my favourites.”
1. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
This is the book that set the agenda for the women’s movement in our times. It provides an encyclopaedic and sometimes shocking account of woman’s condition as ‘other’ in a world dominated by male descriptions and power. Not for nothing did the book find its way onto the Papal black list. You can dip. My favourite sections describe the young girl, sexual initiation, marriage, the narcissist and the woman in love. De Beauvoir is particularly good at describing women’s complicity in their state. At a time when religious hierarchies are once more on the ascendant, it’s a salutary read.
2. The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir
This panoramic novel, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, takes us into the heart of the left bank during what has now become its mythical post-war epoch. Camus and Sartre appear, loosely veiled, as do their political conflicts. De Beauvoir’s heroine is a psychoanalyst and her own passionate affair with the American novelist, Nelson Algren, is key both to the action and to her understanding of the choices women can make.
3. She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir
This is de Beauvoir’s first novel and it grapples with the problem of sexual jealousy. At its centre is the triangle between an older woman, a younger attractive woman she befriends and with whom her partner falls in love. De Beauvoir’s shocking finale almost catapults one into genre fiction.
4. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir
This first volume of de Beauvoir’s autobiography is a vivid account of growing up female within the confines of a respectable bourgeois family in the early years of the 20th century. Simone’s rebellion against a constricting faith and family, the psychological acumen de Beauvoir brings to her portrait of a girl who loves life and books and eventually men, makes this a classic in the genre.
5. The Prime of Life by Simone de Beauvoir
This second volume of de Beauvoir’s autobiography covers the early part of her relationship with Sartre and the war years. It is both a chronicle of the times and an intimate portrait, the bare facts of which find their elaboration and are sometimes undermined, by letters that were published later. But de Beauvoir’s description here of life under the Nazi occupation, the exodus from Paris and her return on foot to the city, are equalled only by Iréne Nemirovsky in Suite Francaise.
6. A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir
Nowhere is de Beauvoir’s rigorous honesty more visible than in this haunting account of the death of her mother, a woman she often hated, but to whom she was so deeply attached that, in the despair of her dying, she finds herself taking on her gestures. As she charts her last weeks and her abasement at the hands of doctors and illness, both hostility and unexpected love play themselves out on the page.
7. Old Age by Simone de Beauvoir
In this devastating study of what it means to be old in a world which is focused on the young, Simone de Beauvoir does for old age what she did for women in The Second Sex. The first book to break the silence about the humiliations of age, it is even more pertinent now than in 1970, when it originally appeared. De Beauvoir shrinks from none of the horrors, even probing the sexuality and desires of the old, ‘that shameful secret’.
8. Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre by Simone de Beauvoir
The strange, experimental twosome which de Beauvoir and the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre formed and which lasted with various permutations over 50 years, finds its apogee in this ‘Farewell’. At once a record of Sartre’s last years and an expression of Simone’s mourning, it also contains a series of conversations in which Sartre, prodded by de Beauvoir, elaborates his views on politics, on women, on childhood and religion.
9. Beloved Chicago Man. Letters to Nelson Algren 1947-64 by Simone de Beauvoir
While, with her characteristic honed precision, de Beauvoir was writing The Second Sex, she was also engaged in a passionate affair with the ‘beloved Chicago man’ of these tender, playful, troubled letters. If in the first she tells us that the women in love “lives on her knees” and few crimes “entail worse punishment than the generous fault of putting oneself entirely in another’s hands”, here we see the struggle with the raw emotion which did, indeed, have her on her knees. Written in English and stripped of the logical rigour of her usual French, the letters reveal a far different and oddly endearing woman.
10. Simone de Beauvoir by Deirdre Bair
This is the most detailed biography of de Beauvoir to date, though a double biography of Sartre and de Beauvoir is soon to appear. Bair spent some 10 years researching this book and interviewing a co-operative Simone towards the end of her life.