Review: Toril Moi on the new translation of The Second Sex

The new issue of the London Review of Books contains a review, written by Toril Moi (Duke University), of the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. To access the review online, please click here.

Here is how Prof. Moi’s review begins:

In June 1946 Simone de Beauvoir was 38. She had just finished The Ethics of Ambiguity, and was wondering what to write next. Urged by Jean Genet, she went to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, on show for the first time after the war. Citizen Kane was also being shown in Paris for the first time, and Beauvoir was impressed: Orson Welles had revolutionised cinema. Politics was not an all-encompassing consideration, for the Occupation was over, and the Cold War had not quite begun. In the short space of time since the Liberation, Beauvoir had established herself as a writer and intellectual. Her first philosophical essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, had been well received, and in 1945, her second novel, The Blood of Others, had been praised as the first novel of the Resistance. In the public realm, her name was firmly linked to Jean-Paul Sartre’s, and to existentialism, which was becoming so fashionable that Sartre had to hire a secretary. No longer a beginner, no longer unknown, Beauvoir had nothing to prove; she could write about anything.

She decided to write about herself. She was inspired by Michel Leiris’s Manhood, which had just been reissued in Paris with a new introduction comparing writing to bullfighting (the torero and the writer need the same kind of courage). She would write a confession. Thinking about the project, she realised she had to begin by asking: ‘What has it meant to me to be a woman?’ At first, she thought of the question as a formality, a preliminary exercise to get her into the real work: ‘I had never had any feeling of inferiority, no one had ever said to me, “You think that way because you are a woman”; my femaleness had never bothered me in any way. “In my case,” I said to Sartre, “it hasn’t really mattered.”’ Sartre urged her to think again: ‘But still, you weren’t brought up in the same way as a boy: you should take a closer look.’ She did, and was amazed:

It was a revelation. This world was a masculine world, my childhood was nourished by myths concocted by men, and I hadn’t reacted to them in the same way I should have done if I had been a boy. I became so interested that I gave up the project of a personal confession in order to focus on women’s condition in general. I went to do some reading at the Bibliothèque nationale and studied myths of femininity.

The roots of The Second Sex are here, in Beauvoir’s realisation that her life had been affected in countless ways by her having been born a girl. This massive book was written fast: the first volume appeared in Paris in June 1949, the second five months later. But Beauvoir did not spend all the intervening time on her analysis of women’s condition. In January 1947 she travelled to the United States for the first time, and in 1948 she published America Day by Day, a deeply perceptive book about the experience. Moreover, she met Nelson Algren there. The writing of The Second Sex thus coincided with her discovery of America and with her passionate affair with Algren. It also coincided with Sartre’s transatlantic affair with the New York-based Frenchwoman Dolorès Vanetti, which caused Beauvoir much pain.

That much of Beauvoir’s personal experience went into the making of her investigation of the situation of women is beyond doubt. Judith Okely has drawn attention to Beauvoir’s ‘hidden use of herself as a case study’ in The Second Sex. The urgency of her style, the conviction that every scrap of evidence must be piled up to show the world the truth about women’s condition, surely comes from a sense that she was, after all, writing a kind of confession, offering the public intimate and unsettling truths about herself, and about other women.

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