Thursday, October 13, 2005

Simone de Beauvoir - 'The Woman Destoyed'

I picked up a copy of this for £1 the other week: a '70s edition, a 'Fontana Modern Novel' (others in the series include 'Doctor Zhivago' and 'The Leopard'), yellow and compact, not like paperbacks these days which act like the hardback's poor cousin and don't fit in a jacket pocket. It contains three stories, all more or less on the theme of what happens when a woman ages, and things no longer seem as bright and shiny as they did when she was young. Love fades, but circumstances fade more quickly still.

In 'The Age of Discretion', a happily married couple of academics (she in literature, he in science) feel the diminution of their powers - both feel that, after a certain age, one is bound to simply retread old ideas. 'The Monologue', which follows, is a foul mouthed invective by a woman left alone against those who have left her. Finishing the final story - 'The Woman Destroyed' - yesterday morning, I found myself writing the following to try to make sense of it.

I wasn't sure how 'The Woman Destroyed' was going to sustain itself. A bleak descent from happy marriage to loneliness, there is almost nothing about it which isn't tragic, and yet it avoids the trap (which it identifies itself) of depression being boring. At first friends don't mind because they're concerned, they think they'll be able to help, and they feel good about this. When it continues it becomes repetitive, no quick fixes are found, and this initial goodwill disappears. It must be the ever-alert insights into the workings of depression and the social context which surrounds it and enables it to occur which give the story its interest.

The diary format is perfect for observing this blow by blow: a hundred different versions of now, each in ignorance of its successors. To begin with Monique, the diarist, continues with the cultural strands in her life: the Bergman films, the jazz records. Together with the helping of unfortunate individuals (she has employed a string of useless maids for whom she felt sorry), these are what give it momentum. She takes her friend Isabelle's almost fatally laid back advice that she shouldn't make too much of a fuss about Maurice's affair with Nöellie, much less demand that he end it. According to Isabelle, Monique has all the advantages: Maurice is only after a new thrill - it is perfectly natural at his age, and bound to wear off pretty soon. Waiting for this to happen (and the increasingly stubborn refusal to accept that it won't) is what constitutes most of the story's 'action'.

Along the way conflicting values and ways of living are churned up and contrasted with one another - 'churned up' because, jolted from her habitual orbit of highbrow culture and family values, Monique is forced to contemplate other (to her less worthwhile) orbits, and to take them seriously, for the first time since she was married. Maurice and Nöellie are driven far more by work and ambition than Monique who, never having needed to worry about either, sees them as rather vulgar. Late in the story, in serious need of distraction, she will keep her job in a library for only a few days ('I have dropped this idiotic job') and can't at all see the advantage of any pursuit which doesn't give aesthetic / artistic satisfaction or involve looking after other people.

Monique and Maurice's daughters provide further contrasts: Collette, a mummy's girl, is only interested in family life and has married Jean-Pierre, who seems to have the same idea. This makes him terribly dull for his parents-in-law, who want to talk about academic things like literature and medicine. However, it is a quality she shares with Collette - an unquestioning belief in couples, families, lasting love - which is responsible for Monique's anguish.

Most of the other characters see this attitude as hopelessly naïve: of course love fades; why wouldn't Maurice want another woman, after 14 years? Monique's Parisian friends are far more accepting than she of their husbands' infidelities. She sees this as shallow, socially motivated (being so secure herself, she hasn't needed to be socially motivated for a long time.) Nothing to do with worthwhile love - such as that she thought she shared with Maurice - or the worthwhile books, films and 'lost causes' with which she fills her days.

Monique's nemesis in this regard is her daughter Lucienne ('there is evil in her' she comments, desperately) who lives a happy-go-lucky existence in New York, and who is so fiercely independent and so out of sync with her mother and sister's values (she was a daddy's girl) that she leaves a man whenever she begins to feel too attached. In visiting her at the end of the story, Monique appears to expose herself to the full force of her folly (this is perhaps what gives her the strength to ask Maurice not to meet the plane on her return), and yetit shouldn't be forgotten that it was only folly because of the way things turned out; had Maurice kept it in his trousers, it needn't have been, and for many years it wasn't. Monique hints at this, saying that statistics alone can't explain what has happened. Under different circumstances it could be Lucienne and not Monique who ends up old and alone (she may do yet) - her life with its many brief affairs is unlikely to produce the depth of attachment which exists between her parents (which can nevertheless be broken.)

This neutral interpretation of the story is slightly misleading. The ambiguities I've sketched above are certainly there, but the bias is decidedly towards the notion that it is women who suffer more for ageing. While Maurice certainly doesn't come across as happy in his philandering, he also doesn't face the blank wall of a future that confronts his wife. He has made the choices which have put both of them in this unhappy situation, and the conclusion one is ultimately driven towards is that it is Lucienne who has the right idea: keep your options open, live collectively as part of society rather than tying yourself almost exclusively into a one-on-one relationship which is statistically likely to founder somehow.

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