Saturday, 24 May 2014

Den inbjudna (She came to stay) by Simone de Beauvoir

I have had this novel for a couple of years and was always afraid to read it, mostly because I was not sure whether it would be so theoretical that it was really above me. On the contrary, it turns out, this is a fantastic book, utterly fascinating. The book is partly based on the relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and her life-long companion Jean-Paul Sartre. To understand the book I think we have to have a short resumé of their lives.

Simone de Beauvoir was born in 1908, and was a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist. She wrote novels, essays, biographies, an autobiography and papers on philosophy, politics and social issues. Her best known novels are She Came to Stay, The Mandarins and The Second Sex. She was born into a wealthy family which lost most of their wealth after World War I. She started to study and  she was only the ninth woman who received an exam from the Sorbonne. Women had just recently been allowed into higher education. She went on to study philosophy and that is where she met Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Nizan and René Maheu. She passed her exam as second after Sartre.

Beauvoir and Sartre became a couple, but they never married. Beauvoir said later she could not accept his proposal since she had no dowry! The couple always read each others work and there has been discussions who has influenced who and written what in several of their works. Beauvoir was known to have relationships with women. It was rumoured that she seduced her students and in 1943 she was suspended from teaching due to an accusation of having seduced a 17-year-old student.

In 1943 Beauvoir published She Came to Stay which was her first novel. It is a fiction of her's and Sartre's relationship with the sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz. Olga was one of Beauvoir's students and she grew fond of her. Sartre tried to pursue Olga but was refused so he began a relationship with Wanda. When he died Sartre was still supporting Wanda and had also supported Olga for years. She later married Jacques-Laurent Bost, one of Beauvoir's lovers.

As you see, quite a complicated life. The book is based on this drama, but Olga and Wanda are changed into one young girl, Xaivère. The novel is a fictive metaphysical novel and it treats the questions of existentialistic thoughts about freedom, anxiety and 'The Other'. We have to go to Wikipedia to have an explanation of these things (at least me).

Metaphysics is a traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it. Traditionally, it tries to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms: 1. What is ultimately there? 2. What is it like?

The Other opposes the Same. Other is identified as "different". It has been used in social science to understand the processes by which societies and groups exclude 'Others' whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society. de Beauvoir changed the Hegelian notion of the Other and used it in describing a male-dominated culture. This treats woman as the Other in relation to man. That indicates that the Other is an important concept for studies of the sex-gender system. In the world of Beauvoir the Other is the minority, the least favoured one and often a woman.

Now to the book. The book takes place just before France is forced into the World War II. Françoise is a writer and Pierre a director/writer who sets up theatre productions. They share everything; life, love, secrets, passion for the theatre. They are one, separately they are nothing. They have a free relationship and is closely connected intellectually. Everything works very well until Xavière comes into their lives. It is not clear how Françoise got to know her but at the start of the book she is visiting Paris from Rouen where she lives with her aunt and uncle. She is young, has no education and no work. Françoise and Pierre decide to invite her to Paris and they will pay for her until she can get a job. Both of them are attracted to Xavière and she likes both of them. However, she does not understand their relationship and tries to separate them. Françoise who always was very content with her life now sees that she is the weakest partner. All of a sudden she is just one among the crowd. Her jealousy almost kills her and she must be free, although she sees now how this can be.

The book follows them during a little bit less then a year and there is their daily lives, cafés, restaurants, dances, drinks and night-life. How they have the energy to work I don't know! But they do, except Xavière. She doesn't want to do anything. She is not interested in any of the educations that they try to convince her to take, she does not want to work because she is not interested in any work. She tries acting, but tires rather fast. She sleeps during the day and sees them during the night. She is lazy, nonchalant, sloppy and self-absorbed, she has no will or ambition but still wants to become famous. A rather unsympathetic type in other words.

The open relationship that Françoise and Pierre have changes when Xavière comes into their lives. The book is written from Françoise's point of view and it is her thoughts on existentialism, anxiety, jealousy and the meaning of life that we come to share. The menage à trois affects all three of them and not in a very positive way. It is difficult to see what it is that makes these two highly, intellectual, freely thinking and independent people so dependent on this young girl. They follow all her whims, all her moods. Even when they are by themselves they discuss how she is and what her moods will be when they meet. Xavière is jealous on Pierre's special love for Françoise. Françoise notices this and feels that Pierre does not care or notice. Pierre spends much less time with Françoise and when he does they seem to discuss only Xavière.

The philosophical thoughts in the book about life in general, relationships, the threat of the imposing war is very interesting and gives you something to think about. It is fascinating to say the least. You wonder where this will all lead in the end. Well, for me, it lead in a direction that I could not have imagined! You have to read this book.

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