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Colette, Beauvoir, and Duras:
Age and Women Writers
Bethany Ladimer. Colette, Beauvoir, and Duras: Age and Women Writers. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1999. x + 235 pp.
In her recent study, Colette, Beauvoir, and Duras: Age and Women Writers, Bethany Ladimer situates her work firmly within a number of critical schools, including French literary criticism and theory, French literary history, feminist literary criticism, women's studies, and age studies. But, rather than allowing these formidable fields to mire her discussion in critical jargon, her place within them authorizes Ladimer to pursue her highly ambitious goal of "adding age to the ongoing debates on difference." Ladimer engages the readings of critics and historians who have come before her to explore the larger—and she suggests still taboo—question of how age affects gender. [End Page 516]
Specifically, Ladimer uses an examination of Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, and Marguerite Duras to "shed light on the problematic relationship between femininity and aging in all Western societies, including our own." But, she goes a step further to argue that what the work and life of these three French women writers demonstrate is that age is not an essentialized, natural aspect of our identities, but is, like gender, often socially constructed. In her own words: "the way we perceive our own aging is to a great extent the result of the cultural representations that surround us."
Ladimer's book is groundbreaking in a number of important ways. Not only does she take on a subject she admits is taboo, but she also argues that aging is "an empowering force" for Colette, Beauvoir, and Duras. For Ladimer, old age becomes the space in which these women can transcend the roles that society, history, and their families have placed on them and create a truly revolutionary new identity for themselves (and potentially for other women as well). She explains that although these writers were "to some extent outside the prescribed bounds of womanly behavior all their lives, they were willing and able to let age take them all the way out of these bounds and into a newly defined place where the traditional economy of sexual difference was altered at last."
Despite the fact that their late-life texts were all "contributing to a new construction and enactment of femininity," Ladimer argues that Colette, Beauvoir, and Duras did not come easily—or even willingly—to this new "femininity." She admits that their writing, like their lives, was oftentimes ambiguous and contradictory. This is no coincidence for Ladimer, who argues that for all three writers their personal development and the development of their narrative style were inextricably linked. They blurred the lines in their lives and their writing between autobiography and fiction, self and other, heterosexuality and homosexuality.
Ladimer explains that it is precisely this "immediate physical connection between writing and the world," that Colette utilized as a means to "regain her lost sense of herself as a subject." This important chapter is also where Ladimer introduces a discussion of the central role that the relationships these three writers had with their mothers played in their writing. Ladimer explains that through her late-life writing Colette both "renunciates" her mother Sido and identifies with her in a way that allows her to actualize a new kind of feminine identity. In the following [End Page 517] chapter on Beauvoir, Ladimer confronts head-on the writer's valorization of masculine values and identities. But, rather than taking Beauvoir to task, she reads The Second Sex as a text about the mutability of feminine identity, about change that women can explore only through aging. In what is perhaps her strongest chapter, on Duras, Ladimer continues to integrate the life and texts of these writers. She carefully examines what she calls "the sociopolitical dimensions" of Duras's childhood in Indochina, her work for a Gestapo-controlled agency during World War II, and ultimately, her strong identification with the "powerless" in her life and writing.
One potential weakness of Ladimer...