Tag Archives: semi-autobiographical memoir

“Inseparable” by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Sandra Smith, with Forward by Margaret Atwood

This short novel is a fictionalized autobiography of the famous French feminist and political philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who died in 1986. Inseparable was not published in English until 2021. (Amazon has caught up with this, but NOT Wikipedia! A rare delay…) 

Beauvoir’s highly influential book The Second Sex was published in 1949, the year I was born. I read it around 1972, but made no effort to read her other work, which includes several novels about which I now feel curious. 

Beauvoir’s autobiography Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958) covers the same time period as Inseparable. I just reserved it at my local library.

I was totally surprised to encounter this unfamiliar work. The first thing I noticed was its brisk, casual and somehow modern tone. The book, set among the upper class in post-World War 1 France, recounts the friendship of two girls from age 9 to early adulthood. Sylvie narrates, Andree is her adored friend. Their relationship is one of “passionate friendship”, a concept not recognized in contemporary America. They receive a challenging and impressively intellectual education that they take very seriously.

Translations always make me curious. Sometimes I look at a sentence and wonder how it might come across if the translator chose different words or expressions. For example, early in Inseparable, Sylvie describes Andree as having “character”. But the context makes me wonder if “sensitivity” might be what Beauvoir really meant. I looked up Sandra Smith, the translator of Inseparable. This led me to unfamiliar authors and works I look forward to reading. 

The book ends with Andree’s death. She and Sylvie had taken differing paths in the face of religious quandaries and social pressures. My initial reaction was that fading in the grip of an undiagnosed fever was a poor plot device in a novel. Then I reflected on the ailments that now afflict American girls and young women, like anorexia and cutting, and it makes sense. Young women lose themselves in the battle with a social environment filled with contradictions and nonsense.

This book’s introduction by Margaret Atwood is a delight! She admits to having been “terrified” of Simone de Beauvoir. Well, I was/am terrified of Atwood. The author of The Handmaid’s Tale must be dangerous, right? Do I really want to read The Edible Woman, Atwood’s first published novel? Anyway, Atwood writes compellingly about Beauvoir and her friend Elisabeth (Zaza) Locoin and trashes existentialist Jean Paul Sartre. Thanks, Ms. Atwood!

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Women’s March in Trenton (2)

If you read my previous post, you know why I passed on the big marches in DC and Philadelphia… Another reason to go to Trenton was to help out a friend who is currently “mobility impaired”. We decided to attend the rally in front of the State House.

When we arrived, I missed most of what the speaker was saying, due to the quirks of the microphone in the open air. We moved forward a little before the next speaker, an African American woman, began. I wish I could tell you her name. I’ll take the liberty of calling her Elder Sister. I believe she was 90+ years old. Elder Sister spoke about her experiences in Trenton as a young teenager. She integrated two businesses by refusing to cooperate with segregated arrangements. One was a hotdog stand, the other a movie theater. It was good to hear her recount her successes. She offered encouragement to continue the struggle for equality and justice. I wish the setting had offered a chance for us to learn more about her life.

I was reminded of another account by a young woman fighting against racism. This account comes from the writings of Maya Angelou, probably from her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’m giving you this from memory, having read the book within a few years of its publication in 1969. Maya Angelou went to live with her Grandmother in the deep South, and resented how meanly the white women in that town treated their hired housekeepers. One day she spoke up, told a woman she was unfair and that she wouldn’t work at that house any more. She returned home and, perhaps with pride (?), recounted the incident. Maya Angelou’s Grandmother took her immediately, before dark, to the train station and sent her away, back up north, for her safety.

Elder Sister and Maya Angelou were born around the same time. Their accounts differ, but I strongly suspect Trenton also resisted integration and other social changes. Maybe not as harshly as the rural South, but change can’t always have been as easy as Elder Sister’s brief discussion made it sound.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if these two women could have met, shared their experiences, poured out more advice for the younger generations! Maya Angelou, sadly, died in 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem NC. Wikipedia, in a LONG article, describes her as “…poet, memoirist and civil rights activist”. She recited poetry at the Presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, received numerous prizes and was commemorated by the US Postal Service on a stamp.

What about Elder Sister? I don’t know! An account of her life story would be such a treasure. I expect she deserves awards and honors. All I can do is say THANK YOU here.

What a blessing to us all when wise women share their stories!

Lillian Beckwith – an English woman writes about Scotland

I was browsing my shelves, desperate to find something that could be discarded. We have too many books! We part with them very reluctantly… 

This week I am taking care of cats and house for vacationing neighbors, who have even more books than we do. I looked at their shelves and wondered – what if I moved some of my books into their house? would they notice? Probably not… A silly idea!

So maybe I will buy another bookshelf.

I found three books to consider for disposal, paperbacks from Lillian Beckwith’s seven book “Skye” series. These are almost fictional memoirs from the author’s time in the West of Scotland, where she went for rest after an illness. She was so taken by the quiet life of a croft village  that she moved in and did some farming. Her accounts of the people, agriculture and landscape are vivid and often amusing. These books have been in and out of print and I don’t think Kindle editions are available.

If in a quibblesome frame of mind, one might feel that Beckwith took advantage of her (generous and eccentric) neighbors by writing about them. However, these memoirs were written two generations ago, and I think we can assume they were innocently written and published.

These memoirs are notable because they describe “croft” farming, a land use system found only in Scotland. Crofters raise some “private” crops but pasture cattle on commonly owned land. A primary landowner (laird) carries some responsibility for the community. This is a way to use land that is too steep, too rocky and too poor for conventional farming. In the past, crofting provided a meager living. The system has evolved and is still practiced in Scotland.

Beckwith also wrote an equal number of novels, some children’s books and a cookbook. I hope to read the novels at some point. I encountered a review describing her work as a “comfort read”. Yes! Now, does anyone want these three books?