Simone de Beauvoir: Le combat au féminin by Éric Touya de Marenne
This concise Que sais-je? volume provides a superb and nuanced overview of Simone de Beauvoir, her life, influences, philosophy, novels, essays, autobiographical works, travel narratives and one play. The complexities of both [End Page 227] the woman and her writing shine through. Whether a Beauvoir scholar or a new(er) reader of her works, this well-organized, carefully researched volume offers a convincing interpretation both of the latest de Beauvoir critics (from Kristeva to collections such as L'Herne Beauvoir) and Beauvoir's own work and life.
Touya de Marenne's first chapter overviews the relation of life and writing. The death of her childhood friend Zaza, her education, her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, and especially the pivotal occurrences of her time (the Occupation, her suspension from her teaching duties by the Vichy authorities, Sartre's imprisonment, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) incite philosophical, political and autobiographical reflection. Touya de Marenne convincingly considers Beauvoir's development of feminist thought, her original philosophy, and the reverberations of her oft-cited "On ne naît pas femme, on le devient." Her questions "Qu'est-ce qu'une femme?" and "Qui suis-je?" paradoxically raise the lack of parallel for men.
Citing Danièle Sallenave's apt description in relation to Beauvoir: "La fiction est bien ce mensonge qui dit la vérité," Touya de Marenne's third chapter "Pouvoirs de la fiction" is a rapid tour de force. As he himself notes, the question of identity is at the heart of her novel(s). In addition, the discovery of the horror of the concentration camps and other contemporary events inspire both her own existential approach, and the necessity of witnessing the human experience. The fourth chapter addresses the contradictions, lack of mutual reciprocity, and other essential questions raised by Beauvoir's Le Deuxième sexe. His next chapter "Engagements politiques" develops the "combat" of the subtitle, arguing that "la liberté est au cœur de son combat," (73) while the many injustices of her time (whether those she experienced during the Occupation or others encountered through her travels to America, the USSR, China and Cuba) drive her to writing. The Resistance, the Liberation, and the War of Algeria mark her profoundly, whether in her political, autobiographical or fictional writings. Touya de Marenne argues that these pivotal events lead her to recognize the main contradictions of human existence when racism and sexism reign (77), and to declare herself a feminist (MLF). One of the many appealing aspects of Touya de Marenne's argument is his linking to our current moment (e.g., "#Me Too," present-day limitations on abortion (86) and other human rights violations). Confronting discrimination and sexism remains a leitmotif throughout Beauvoir's writings.
"Étude de reception," the sixth chapter's first section, returns to critics' often opposing interpretations of her texts. Some write of her incoherent contradictions, essentialist thought, and devaluing of women. Touya de Marenne describes the complexities of labeling Beauvoir a feminist, while letting Beauvoir have the last word on the distinction between men and women being cultural (93). Across the entire chapter, Touya de Marenne highlights Beauvoir's impact on current feminist thought.
Closing the volume, his final chapter discusses the "Héritages" which follow Beauvoir's groundbreaking work. Citing Sallenave, he queries: "Peut-on jamais conclure sur Beauvoir ? Peut-on en finir avec celle qui est certainement l'incarnation et la représentante absolue de ce XXe siècle ?" (105). Indeed, this [End Page 228] volume opens up current questions which occupy us now, leading to fascinating reflections that stretch the boundaries of gender in important ways.