- Writing Against Death: The Autobiographies of Simone de Beauvoir
Engaging with death, no less than life, can be critical to the autobiographical enterprise, and theorists of autobiography have come to acknowledge the motivating role played by death in the production of autobiographical — or, more properly, autothanatographical — discourse. Recognizing that matters of mortality may significantly shape the themes, style and structure of autobiographical narrative, Susan Bainbrigge opts in her insightful study to read the Existentialist, feminist, documentary, mythologizing and public/private narratives encapsulated by Beauvoir's auto/biographical corpus through the prism of thanatos, rather than bios. She produces in so doing an analysis that goes far beyond the accounts of the thematic treatment of death provided by fellow Beauvoir scholars such as Elaine Marks. Bainbrigge's readings work chronologically through Beauvoir's auto/biographical production, in order to address the 'accumulative strategy' central to Beauvoir's autothanatographical drive. They furnish the reader with a fresh sense of the (fragmented) totality constituted by Beauvoir's autobiographical writings, and of its sources and causes. Moreover, in positioning elements of those writings against established autobiographical models — male-authored, Existentialist, canonical/Rousseauesque — and in unpicking the remarkable play of narrative voice, genre and structure that Beauvoir's auto/biographies evince, Bainbrigge illuminates the genuinely innovative character of a body of work critics have on occasion dismissed as unexciting. The variant modes of impact exerted by death on the content and form of Beauvoir's autothanatographical discourse are carefully anatomized. The account in Chapter One of Beauvoir's use of the death of the Other, in Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, and her deployment of voix d'outre tombe, neatly positions Beauvoir as autothanatographer. Chapter Two's exegesis of La Force de l'âge explores the text's fragmented and competing narratives of self, revealing how autothanatography overshadows an autobiography guided by an existentializing strategy that constructs the self in accordance with an affirmative Existentalist framework. Treatments of La Force des choses and Tout compte fait in Chapters Three and Four play off the invasion of the former by an anxious rhetoric of death allied to the ageing female body against the latter's embalming constructions of self: constructions that make of Tout compte fait a 'tom(b)e' wherein [End Page 540] Beauvoir the public intellectual is preserved. Discussions of Une mort très douce and La Cérémonie des adieux in Chapters Five and Six examine Beauvoir's biographically centred engagements with death, contesting, usefully, critical approaches that view those engagements as governed by acts of symbolic violence against the texts' subjects. Bainbrigge's explorations of Beauvoir's negotiations with death, not simply as an autobiographer but as a female/embodied and an Existentialist autobiographer, are compelling, as is her dissection of the narrative and generic strategies Beauvoir's thanatographical project dictates. Her study is genuinely original and makes a valuable and significant contribution to Beauvoir scholarship.