The Turning Point, Simone de Beauvoir

Marseille

In October 1931, twenty-three-year-old Simone de Beauvoir paused at the top of the steps of Marseille’s Saint-Charles train station and saw the city in which she was to live spread out before her.

Marseille, I murmured. Under a clear blue sky I saw sun-warmed tiles, patches of shadow, autumnal plane trees, and in the distance hills and the azure sea. A buzz of activity drifted up from the city to me, mingled with a whiff of scorched grass. Down in those dark, sunken streets people hurried to and fro. Marseille. I was in Marseille – alone, empty-handed, cut off from my past and everything I loved. I stood staring at this vast unknown city, where I now had to make my own way, unaided, from one day to the next.

The year Simone de Beauvoir spent teaching in Marseille was pivotal. Wanting above all to write, she was ‘gluttonous for experience’ and in this spectacular city she found herself at liberty to spend most of her time as she chose. Following a difficult period in her life, she was determined to start afresh.

Meeting Sartre

Simone had just parted from her beloved Jean-Paul Sartre, who was on his way to begin teaching at Le Havre. They had met two years earlier when, in her last year at the École Normale Superérieure in Paris, she had come under the sway of his influential and rebellious clique. Initially another member of the group, Sartre’s close friend René Maheu, had caught her eye and became her first lover. He gave her the courage to explore her sensuality and helped complete her liberation from the stiff formality and prudishness of her bourgeois upbringing. Just before he died, Maheu remembered how Simone had seemed to him at the beginning:

What a heart! She was so authentic, so courageously rebellious, so genuine…And she was so distinctively attractive, her own genre, her own style, no woman has ever been like her…

Sartre, having heard reports of Simone’s loveliness, was ‘dead set on making her acquaintance’. Maheu had kept her away from his womanising friend as long as he could but eventually she was invited to join their study group. When the legendary meeting took place in July 1929, Simone was more than a little nervous. Jean-Paul Sartre was the unofficial crown prince of their school, which was the most elite learning academy in the country, and she knew of his reputation for protest and subversion: ‘a terror, but absolutely brilliant’. His antics included performing in drag at a revue; showing up naked at the student ball; dropping water bombs from the roof of the school at a dinner-jacketed crowd while yelling ‘Thus pissed Zarathustra!’

Simone found the group mercilously judgemental. They made fun of bourgeois law and order, religion and any kind of ‘soulfulness’. They were out to prove that people were not ‘rarefied spirits but bodies of flesh and bone, racked by physical needs and crudely engaged in a brutal adventure that was life.’

Looking back, she believed these slightly older men jolted her out of her ‘arrogant solitude’. She had thought herself exceptional but their cultural knowledge seemed deeper, wider and more solidly grounded than hers. While her ideas were diffuse and jumbled, theirs were methodically organised, finely honed from hours of debate amongst themselves and by the type of educational privileges that she had not received until recently. Like them, she wished to become a writer, but they already knew the types of books they wished to write. Their arguments stripped away the last vestiges of her Christian faith and helped her anticipate a future that felt more certain, full of complexity, possibility and purpose. Soon she was in her element and felt she had found her tribe.

From the moment he met Simone, Jean-Paul Sartre set about wooing her from his friend. To compensate for his physical ugliness he had cultivated great charm. Coming from a wealthy family and never short of cash, he ‘lushed’ her with cocktails and fine dining. His conversation was scintillating; he was not nicknamed Kobra for nothing. In any case, Maheu failed his final examination and was forced to return to his wife in the provinces, leaving the way clear for Sartre.

Falling in Love

In Memoirs of a Dutiful daughter (1958), Simone wrote that Sartre, this warm, generous, amusing man, was intensely alert, forever thinking. He saw things as they were, stripped of myth, association or fancy interpretations, making his perceptions fresh and exciting. She was deeply impressed by his attempt to identify a new philosophy by which to live. He encouraged Simone to talk about herself and urged her to preserve her love of personal freedom, her passion for life, her curiosity and, above all, her aspiration to become a writer. But what impressed her most about him was his own fierce desire to write. In the face of Sartre’s determination, her own literary ambition seemed timid:

how lukewarm my feverish obsessions appeared! I had thought I was an exceptional person because I couldn’t imagine living and not writing, but he only lived in order to write.

Having been fervently religious as a teen, Simone transferred her former zeal and idealism to this pan-like figure. He became her guardian of truth.

Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream-companion I had longed for since I was fifteen: he was the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence. I should always be able to share everything with him.

Sartre’s aim – which became hers too – was to ‘recreate Man’ through the agency of work. They felt that by discovering and revealing important truths, they might perhaps ‘change the world’.

After her final exams Simone became an agrégée in philosophy. She was the youngest woman up to that point to pass this most prestigious and difficult examination, and did so with flying colours, coming second only to Sartre (at his second attempt).

The Oath

In Simone’s eyes, Sartre’s existence justified her world, her happiness and security. But Sartre at twenty-four, while wanting to keep the precious woman he had, also desired the ‘fleeting riches’ of other involvements. He told Simone that monogamy was a rule of the church, designed to enforce marriage. Although their relationship was unique, and would endure for the rest of their lives, it should not preclude their enjoyment of relationships with other people. As writers, their work would benefit from this variety of lovers. ‘What we have,’ he said, ‘is an essential love; but it is a good idea for us to experience contingent love affairs.’ The contingent affairs might be long lasting, but in no way would they alter the bond of their essential love. He also suggested they should agree never to lie to one another. Everything: their work, plans, experiences, love affairs, would be an open book.

This proposal appealed to Simone as it tallied with her own convictions. She had witnessed the disintegration of her parents’ relationship and was suspicious of marriage as an institution, leading as it did so frequently to deceit and extramarital affairs. What was novel about their agreement was that she would be equally entitled to engage in affairs (a freedom her mother certainly never had).

In the early twenties, Simone’s family had lost their modest fortune and, without a dowry, she had been told she would have to earn her own living. This did not faze her in the least. As a young girl she had identified with Jo, the writer to be in Little Women, by virtue of her ‘passion for knowledge and the vigour of her thought’. Jo would have the sort of ‘unusual life’ she wished for herself. By staying unmarried, Simone felt she would fulfil her ‘proper function’. She envisaged a life that was child free, in which she earned her own living, would write and be as independent as a man. This was a radical position in 1929, when spinsters were still relegated to the margins of society. But Simone had no intention of staying on the margins of anything. She wanted both her liberty and her happiness and believed that such an unorthodox relationship with Sartre would help her achieve both. She could remain true to herself and lead an authentic life, while not facing the future alone.

Difficult Times

Shortly after making their pact, Sartre left Paris for Tours to undertake eighteen months of compulsory military service. Alone in Paris, Simone now had a much longed-for room of her own, and an income from a teaching job that allowed plenty of spare time for writing. She was free from the rules and expectations of a traditional Catholic upbringing and from the demands of years of intensive academic study.

Since her teens she had wanted to write ‘the novel of the inner life’ and had made her first attempt at the age of eighteen. Although it had not succeeded, she felt pleased with the actual process, and was sure that fiction could provide her with the means to put her ‘own experience into words.’

But without the structure of university life, she found it difficult to focus, and discovered she ‘had no idea what to write about.’ She cobbled together a story drawn heavily from two of her favourite novels, but abandoned it by the third chapter, in despair.

Paris was full of temptations and she began going out with various groups of friends, drinking or dancing into the early hours. Sex interested her even more than writing and she learned ‘to take unconstrained pleasure’ in her body. Rather quickly she had become aware of Sartre’s detachment from the act of love, later confessing to another lover that he was ‘a warm, lively man everywhere, but not in bed’. She began to seek other partners, resuming her affair with Maheu, and taking up with another former fellow student. Her memoirs imply there were others too.

But sex became an obsession and she wrote that she ‘fell a victim’ to desires that became ‘tyrannical’. Her body had ‘its own whims’, which she felt ‘powerless to control’. Her strict Catholic upbringing had taught her to equate sex with sin, and that physical desire was a ‘hidden disease rotting the marrow in my very bones’. On the Metro in the mornings, she used to gaze at other travellers and wonder whether they too were plagued by such desire. Even on her way home on the train from a visit to Sartre, ‘the touch of an anonymous hand along my leg could arouse feelings – against my conscious will – of quite shattering intensity.’ She wrote that she ‘dared not confess such things’ to Sartre, already breaking their ‘policy of absolute frankness’. Her body became a ‘stumbling block rather than a bond of union between us and I felt a burning resentment against it.’

No longer writing, or even keeping a diary, she felt cut off from herself and devoid of purpose. She lost her job at the lycée and spent her days aimlessly. At one point she scrawled in a notebook: ‘I have lost my pride – and that means I have lost everything.’

Sartre was worried. He felt Simone was already ‘on the way to self-betrayal and self-destruction’. Losing sight of her goal, she had become intellectually passive. As her biographer Fullbrook observes:

It was Beauvoir’s good fortune – and without it, it seems unlikely that she would be of interest today – that in Sartre she had found perhaps the only male intellectual of his generation in all of France who was not pleased to see his lover lapse into her traditional gender role.

He worked hard to revive her ambition, her hunger for ideas, and her ability to express them. He told her he missed the wealth of ideas she used to bring to their discussions and urged her not to become a ‘man’s helpmeet’. Simone was ‘furious’ with herself for disappointing him and herself.

All my life I will preserve an uneasy memory of this period, of my fear that I might betray my youthful ideals.

News of her posting to Marseille brought on anxiety at the prospect of a second separation. Sartre offered to marry her so they could become entitled under French bureaucracy to stay in the same town. But she reminded him that they were anarchists who wished to live against society. In any case, marriage doubled one’s ‘domestic responsibilities, and, indeed, all one’s social chores’, and she turned him down.

Marseille

After failing so miserably to find the self-discipline needed to become a writer, Simone swore to herself that during this year of solitude in Marseille she would write again, find her own way intellectually, and hoped to discover a deeper level of self-awareness.

In the whole of my life, I have experienced no special moment that I can label ‘decisive’; but certain occasions have become so charged with significance in retrospect that they stand out from the past as clearly as if they had been truly great events. Looking back I feel that my arrival in Marseille marked a completely new turn to my career.

Near the station she saw a ‘room to let’ sign in a window. There was a big table at which she could work and the rent was reasonable, so she took it. Two hours later she had met the headmistress of her school and received her timetable. To her delight she was required to teach for only fourteen hours per week and had Thursdays and Sundays free.

After the meeting, she explored the town.

I fell in love with it at first sight. I clambered over every rock and ferreted through every back street; I breathed in the smell of tar and dead sea urchins down at the Old Port, mingled with the crowds along the Canebière, and I sat down in tree-lined avenues and public gardens, and peaceful little squares where the peculiarly provincial smell of dead leaves eclipsed the sea wind’s tang.

A Magnificent Obsession

On her first Thursday off, Simone rode a bus to the nearby fishing village of Cassis and hiked eight miles along the cliffs (the highest in Europe) to La Ciotat. From here she had a stunning view of the Calanques, the rocky limestone inlets along that stretch of the Mediterranean. The experience ignited a deep passion for walking which turned this period of exile into more of a holiday.

Each Sunday and Thursday, she left the house before dawn, embarking on increasingly longer hikes through countryside that ‘held promise of glinting secrets’. Wearing an old dress and espadrilles, and carrying a string bag with a few bananas and bread rolls, she worked her way systematically through this enchanting part of France. ‘Each walk was a work of art.’ Like an athlete, she mapped out detailed routes which she forced herself to finish. Soon she was covering over twenty-five kilometres per day.

She climbed peaks, scrabbled down valleys and hiked along along ‘racked and indented’ clifftops. One spring day, on the Valensole plateau, she saw almond trees in blossom for the first time, and while walking along the reddish ochre lanes of the flat country around Aix-en-Provence, she recognised the landscapes of Cézanne. It was a joy to discover a new town or village before dawn and watch it transform before her eyes as the sun rose.

Alone I walked the mists that hung over the summit of Sainte-Victoire, and strode along the ridge of the Pilon du Roi, bracing myself against a violent wind which sent my beret spinning down into the valley below. Alone again, I got lost in a mountain ravine on the Lubéron range. Such moments, with all their warmth, tenderness, and fury, belong to me and no one else.

These solo expeditions were thought to be quite scandalous at the Lycée Montgrand. In her second memoir, Prime of Life (1958) she wrote that the staff tended to be ‘old maids with a passion for sunshine and hiking’, all set to stay in Marseille for the rest of their lives. Simone’s intention of returning to Paris attracted their suspicion and her intrepid solitary hiking, without the proper gear of rucksacks and studded boots, only intensified their distaste. Sometimes their hiking groups would pass her on the hills with disdainful smiles. Simone could not have cared less.

It became a matter of pride to push herself to extremes. In Prime of Life she described one hike that involved scaling a series of steep gorges that should have led her to a plateau, but instead the track had become increasingly difficult. Feeling she would be unable to climb down the route by which she had come, she was forced to continue and reached a fault line in the rock that ‘I dared not jump across.’ Her calls for help were met with silence. In the end, she plucked up her courage and took the leap.

She was proud of these physical achievements. Yet each new feat demanded that she achieve another: ‘how could I let myself fall from this high standard?’ Although Simone had developed an almost mystical love of nature, it was not enough simply to enjoy it. Her pleasure had to be elevated to a type of ‘sacred obligation’ that drove her body to its absolute limit. Like sex, these expeditions had an obsessive, compulsive nature. She wrote that this was a strategy she was to repeat throughout her life.

Simone’s recklessness made her dismiss her colleagues’ ‘prim’ warnings that her solitary walks could make her a target of rape. She increased the risk by hitching lifts and survived a number of dangerous encounters. On one occasion she was beaten up and thrown in a ditch. On another, she accepted the offer of a lift from two young men who headed for a remote spot but she persuaded them to release her by threatening to jump from the moving car. In what she later recognised as the naivety of youth, she wrote that these incidents only strengthened her assumption that she would be able to get herself out of any jam. She believed that such audacity had eased her way through life.

Teaching

In the staffroom Simone did not set out to be liked. ‘Ever since I was an adolescent I have had a rooted distaste for artificial smiles or carefully contrived intonation.’ Although she was young, she had the cachet of her prestigious position; teachers of philosophy were the elite and the glory of the national education system. Each morning she would march into the room without any greeting and sit in the corner.

Simone much preferred talking to her students, these ‘big hesitant girls’. She enjoyed giving her lessons, which needed no preparation since her learning was fresh. She would simply sit on a desk and begin, talking so rapidly in her slightly broken voice that the slower ones could not keep up. But Simone was interested only in the bright girls, and invited three of her top students to her home for further conversation. Although she looked barely older than her pupils, her authority was palpable. Some pupils developed a crush; one remembered her as ‘incredibly dazzling’, and another was struck by her beauty and ‘vivacious air’. The crushes were precursors to the affairs she would soon famously conduct with a number of her students, a practice that was to end her teaching career in 1943.

In the second term things unravelled a little. The elite philosophy teachers were well known to espouse republican and secular ideas. The right-wing bourgeois families whose children they taught were particularly wary of these wayward thinkers, and paid careful attention to what was being taught. When it came time to deliver ethics, Simone was forthright in her opinions about labour, colonialism, capital, and justice and she demolished the arguments the girls had borrowed from their fathers. She also deliberately challenged them by discussing unapproved authors such as Proust and Gide, who were deemed radical in the provinces. One of her best pupils, a doctor’s daughter, made a show of exchanging her seat in the front row for one at the back, where she sat with arms crossed, staring at Simone with a look of hatred. The school was soon flooded with complaints and Simone was summoned by the headmistress, who suggested she stick to the curriculum. It was the first of a number of clashes with the educational establishment.

Siamese Twins

Simone and Sartre corresponded daily, which kept their ideas vivid and alive. With no home, no children and no interest in politics, they lived a life that was insulated from reality.

We had a profession, which we pursued in the correct manner, but which did not detach us from l’univer des mots, the world of words….

Theirs was a private language, composed on the spot in an endless stream of nursery rhymes, parodies, madrigals, poems and fables. Sartre unleashed the playful and joyous child that Simone had been.

Simone met him in Paris in the holidays, and on the grounds of illness she cadged extra illicit visits. Her highbrow tastes were widened by Sartre’s delight in popular culture. They saw cowboy films and cartoons: Popeye, Mickey Mouse, ‘that delicious character Betty Boop’; she caught Sartre weeping when the lights came up after watching Al Jolson singing ‘Sonny Boy’ in The Singing Fool (1928).

They listened to jazz and they read detective fiction, parried ideas and gossiped about friends. In their quest for writing material, they would make up backgrounds for people they saw in cafes and on trains, guessing people’s relationships to love, money and politics.

As their bond strengthened, the lovers pictured themselves forming a ‘single entity, placed together at the world’s centre.’ Everyone else was peripheral, a fact that became increasingly apparent to their friends. Writer Olivier Todd observed,

They seemed to think simultaneously even when they seemed to be mistaken. They were like some odd relay runners of ideas who did not need to pass the baton to continue the relay. They got in step, and followed one another in a way I have never seen any other couple in the world do. Those Siamese twins could be a little bit frightening…Simone de Beauvoir was even able to finish Sartre’s sentences and vice versa. There was even a kind of mimetism in their rasping voices…

Simone powerfully expressed this sense of oneness in her first novel, She Came to Stay (1943) in which the relationship between the protagonists Pierre and Françoise parallel aspects of her relationship with Sartre. Françoise feels compelled to tell Pierre everything; failure to express uncomfortable thoughts,

allowed a shameful subterranean vegetation to grow up under the surface of true existence, where she felt utterly alone and in danger of suffocation…Every moment of her life she had entrusted to him, and he gave it back to her clear, polished, completed, and they became moments of their shared life.

 Sartre’s love and their pact of transparency became essential to her peace of mind.

 Writing

Simone’s tough physical regime seemed to pull her out of her impasse with writing: ‘I had subdued my rebellious body, and was physically at peace once more…I no longer despised myself.’ Her reading became focused, and specific to her own situation. Like Edith Wharton (who was living part of each year in nearby Hyères at the time), she became fascinated by Katherine Mansfield, who had wintered along the coast from Marseille in 1915. Simone read her stories, journals and letters:

I had evoked her memory among the Bandol olive groves, and found her obsessive concept of the ‘solitary woman’ romantically appealing.

She related this concept back to her own life, triggering a process of self-observation that provided her with literary content. Whether lunching on the high street of Marseille’s old quarter, the Canebière; sitting by the window of the Café Cintra at the Old Port, or dining in the cool dark room at the back of Charley’s Tavern, she imagined how she, too, exemplified this ‘solitary woman’.

The sounds of Marseille would occasionally intrude on her thoughts: the clattering of a tram, a stall-holder hawking his wares, or announcements of boat departures for the Calanques…

I would gaze out at the sky, at the passers-by; then I would lower my eyes to the exercise-books I was correcting or the volume I was reading. I felt wonderful.

She began a novel. This time she completed it, and found the experience exhilarating. As she had hoped to do as a teen, she began a process of self-referencing, putting her own life into her fiction. For the first time, she felt she had something to say. She reflected on losing her way the previous year and realised she had been tempted to use Sartre to carry the burden of her own life, to rescue her. This experience informed the central theme of her book: the concept of the other. Although this novel was never published, the idea at its core became a rich seam of philosophic inquiry that was fresh and original. Over the next two decades she would develop it into a theory that profoundly influenced her own career and also that of Sartre.

It was a theme of her first published novel, She Came to Stay, and of many others that followed. And in her revolutionary book The Second Sex (1949), one of the earliest attempts to examine human history from a feminine perspective, it became the cornerstone of her analysis.

The later development of this theory holds that men oppress women by perceiving and framing them as other. Men become both self and subject; women, as other, become object. Whereas men are essential and transcendent, women are inessential and immanent. Men impose their will on the world and create, whereas women are contained and inward. While he acts, she waits for him to save her.

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth…

Simone set out to prove that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, woman’; that females are shaped and conditioned by male imperatives and societal norms that render them dependent, inferior and passive. Denied the opportunity to attain autonomy through independent work or creative pursuits, the woman must accept her role as child bearer, entertainer, cleaner, and sexual partner. Although these roles might be satisfying, they define a woman’s existence, and leave her feeling incomplete and frustrated.

The truth is that just as—biologically—males and females are never victims of one another but both victims of the species, so man and wife together undergo the oppression of an institution they did not create. If it is asserted that men oppress women, the husband is indignant; he feels that he is the one who is oppressed—and he is; but the fact is that it is the masculine code, it is the society developed by the males and in their interest, that has established woman’s situation in a form that is at present a source of torment for both sexes.

She encouraged women step outside the stereotypical feminine roles that stifled them, (as she had done) and recognise the value of their freedom. This meant discovering what they wanted for themselves, rather than satisfying the needs of others. This meticulously researched work became become a pillar of both feminist thought and twentieth century philosophy.

Leaving

The city continued to fascinate. ‘Marseille proved inexhaustible.’ She would walk around the ‘sea-scoured, windswept jetty’, watching the fishermen against the stone rocks of the breakwater, lose herself in the ‘grim dockland wilderness’, or people watch at the Aix Gate, ‘where sunburned hucksters chaffered endlessly over rags and old shoes.’ She peeped through the half open doors of the prostitutes on rue Bouterie, a street that seemed enchanting to her.

Whether in the medieval quarter, with its alleys and flights of steps, or down at the fish market, or among the clamorous noises of the Old Port, there was always some new aspect of life to fill my eyes and ears.

Towards the end of her year in Marseille, a fellow teacher, a married woman, made passionate advances, which Simone rejected, to their mutual embarrassment. It seemed the right time to leave this ‘windswept’ city, and she accepted a new teaching post in Rouen, which would be closer to Sartre.

In Marseille, Simone had pursued and attained the goals she had set for herself. Despite gloomy, sometimes lonely evenings, she had fashioned her own happiness. She left, ridiculously fit, having written a novel, won back her self-respect and restored her equilibrium. Her new passion for nature and vigorous exercise would sustain her for decades to come, and she had formulated a concept that she would develop and draw on for her work for many years to come.

Just before she had entered her fifty-one-year-old partnership with Sartre, as the world began to open up to her, Simone de Beauvoir had written these prophetic words in her diary:

Curious certainty that this reserve of riches that I feel within me will make its mark, that I shall utter words that will be listened to, that this life of mine will be a well-spring from which others will drink…

Music

Lullaby of the Leaves, Layton and Johnstone

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used to enjoy listening to his records by Sophie Tucker, Layton and Johnstone, Jack Hylton, the Revellers, and a variety of African-American Spirituals. The lyrics of Layton and Johnstone’s version of  ‘Lullaby of the Leaves’ seems made to order for Simone’s experience in Marseille:

I’m breezing along, along with the breeze
I’m hearing a song, a song through the trees
Oh oh, oh oh, oh oh
A pine melody caressing the shore
Familiar to me, I’ve heard it before
Oh oh, oh oh, oh oh, that Southland…

And a little later:

Don’t I feel it in my soul, and don’t I know I’ve reached my goal?

Layton and Johnstone were an American piano and vocal duo in the 1920s and 1930s. They performed the popular songs of the day and sold over ten million records.

Notes

I visited Marseille twice, once partnered, the second time single. On both occasions I arrived by train. The station sits on a bluff, affording one of the best views of the city and its spectacular harbour. The staircase where Simone stood on her first day is an elaborate nineteenth-century affair, flanked by statues, which guarantees a film star’s entrance to this vibrant city. As with Simone de Beauvoir, it was love at first sight for me.

On my first visit with Peter, a porter recommended the Hotel Belle-Vue down by the Old Port, which, with its fine view of the Notre Dame de la Garde, Fort Saint Jean and the Pharo Palace, was an ideal place to stay. We spent two memorable evenings at their restaurant/bar La Caravelle on the top floor of the hotel. This atmospheric venue for jazz has been popular with locals since the 1920s.

I remember at sunrise walking the narrow streets of the Panier district, the oldest part of the city, taking in its colourful buildings, the strings of washing lines, the beat of African music from an upstairs window, as the community came alive to the day.

Since the arrival of its first settlers, the Ancient Greeks, the Panier has been home to waves of immigrants from Italy, North Africa, Vietnam. Now it is increasingly a home to artists, in a process of gentrification that began in the early eighties. Even five years after my first visit the area felt smarter, with less graffiti and crumbling facades, more cafés and ateliers. The Panier seemed a long way removed from its old reputation as a dangerous, crime-ridden haunt and I wondered how long it would be before the migrant community would be forced to shift farther out.

There had been an area just beyond the Panier, full of fascinating buildings that had once dealt in the business of the mercantile. When I returned it had been demolished to make way for the Euroméditerranéee regeneration project, which stars a vast white lattice building, new offices and concept stores, and a restaurant headed by a three star Michelin chef. Despite it being the height of summer, the area seemed quite dead, as if the people had yet to grow into the space. It looked smart and vacuous, and not much like the rest of Marseille, and the vast concrete expanse surrounding the complex seemed to suck up all the air, and attract the heat, so that I couldn’t wait to get away.

I have warm memories of watching the haggling for fish down at the Old Port and coming across a provincial market in a back street, with the fruits and vegetable of summer piled high and gleaming in the sun. Women in bright African print dresses shucked the corn before buying, and men huddled outside a nearby cafe over mint tea, water pipe hookahs, and delicate flaky pastries. We took a boat trip to see the stunning Calanques carved into the limestone cliffs, laughing into the wind and sea spray as we rode the big swells of the Mediterranean.

On my second visit, when I was still raw with grief, I returned (perhaps unwisely) to La Caravelle for lunch. The woman seated at the next table was prosperous looking, a little matronly, and seemed to be dining alone. So, too, was a young and attractive woman sitting out on the terrace. But no, I was wrong, the women had both been waiting to be joined by men.

The young man who greeted the woman next to me was clearly her son and her face lit up when he pecked her on the cheek. Dressed in a sharp business suit, he was talking on his mobile. Any minute he’ll come off and greet his mother properly, I thought. But he didn’t. He spent the entire time on his mobile and I watched his mother’s face sink into disappointment, then resignation as she ate her meal alone. She had barely finished before he whisked her out of the door – still on the phone.

The man who joined the woman on the terrace was older than her by decades. His tortoiseshell glasses, casual white shirt and chinos gave him the look of an academic. Was she his daughter? wife? lover? student? I watched as she did all of the work, speaking earnestly, smiling a lot, trying to engage him with sinuous movements, a tap on his shoulder. But all the while he gazed at the view, arms crossed, his posture screaming that he would rather be anywhere else.

How ironic that, as a solitary woman in Marseille, I should witness Simone de Beauvoir’s theory in action, and watch the ‘othering’ that diminished these women.

I caught a taxi to the station. The driver spoke proudly about how much his city had changed in the last four years: the new museum by the quay completed, the place cleaned up, lots of money spent. But I couldn’t help feeling that in the process, a little of its vibrancy and history had been chipped away.

Weblinks

Simone de Beauvoir is interviewed here about her views on feminism.

A clip from a documentary about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Simone de Beauvoir’s contribution is currently being reappraised, as this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy attests.

This article examines the relevance of The Second Sex, seventy years after it was written.

Simone de Beauvoir unwittingly became an agony aunt for people with relationship difficulties.

A novel by Simone de Beauvoir that was deemed too intimate to release in her lifetime was published for the first time in 2020.

Footage of Marseille taken in 1931, the year when Simone lived there.

Marseille is not without significant problems. This article looks at the complexity of this ‘outsider’ city.

Marseille Tourism.

Sources:

Appignanesi, Lisa. Simone de Beauvoir, Haus, 2005.

Blair, Dierdre. Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me. Atlantic Books, 2020

de Beauvoir, Simone. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, translated by James Kirkup, Penguin, 1963

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green, Penguin, 1965

Francis, Claude. Simone de Beauvoir, St Martin’s Press, 1988

Fullbrook, Kate. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth Century Legend, Basic Books, 1994

Seymour-Jones, Carole. A Dangerous Liaison: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Random House, 2008

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  1. Barbara Cail on

    Absolutely marvellous story. Beautifully written and it picked me up and took me down memory lane. The Second Sex was the book which I read when I was
    unhappily married. It opened up a window on a world I knew was there and her thoughts and writing helped me climb through it to another world of discovery.

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  2. Jo Wing on

    Wonderful to hear that book reached you at a time you needed it, Barbara. It was one of the earliest feminist books I read and it’s always stayed with me. It’s just so sad that it’s still very relevant today.

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  3. paula ashworth on

    Jo….

    This posting was a revelation to me. I’m slightly ashamed to say that I knew so little about her other than the titles of one or two of her books which (again shame!) I’ve never read. I had been under the illusion that Sartre had treated her badly but now realise the relationship was far more complex, as was she as an individual. I loved both your photographs (smiling at those of Bonnieux:-) and the recognition of her feelings when sitting in a cafe blessed by the sounds of Marseilles, gazing up at the sky and the passers by, and feeling wonderful…. That is a sense of bliss I have felt alone in many cafes in the world – and I know you have, too.

    Another “thank you”, Jo. I look forward to delving into the links later on this rain washed day in Hoxne. It was such a delight to be transported to the sights, sounds and smells of France…. and recall that magical day we had in Sete with Christine….

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  4. Jo Wing on

    Yes, I was under the illusion that Sartre was the ‘bad’ guy in the relationship too. That was a surprise. So too was the discovery of Beauvoir’s physicality. She would have been an exhausting travel companion.

    An afternoon spent looking at some of my photographs of Provence was a tonic in the middle of this winter lockdown. And I warmly remember that day with you too, dear Paula. Thanks as ever for your support.

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  5. Sandra Shields on

    Hi Jo
    I am a friend of Paula and Bob and am delighted to have been included in this mailing. I am a fan of de Beauvoir and I always love being reminded that she too was a inspired by Jo in Little Women. Simone and Jo were both early heroines for me in my dreams for my life. And I had forgotten Simone’s year in Marseilles – my 23 year old granddaughter has just returned from a year there and I think has found it a very influential time. . So wish I could have visited with your article and retrodden Simone’s adventures with her . The gentler ones anyway. Thankyou so much – wonderful pictures and writing. Sandra Shields

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    • Jo Wing on

      Hello and a warm welcome Sandra. I’m a fan of de Beauvoir and Jo in Little Women too – a book that was like a rite of passage for generations of women I suspect. I hadn’t realised that year in Marseilles had been so formative for Simone. But the city’s vibrancy and southern sun lend themselves to a certain expansiveness. And the landscapes beyond the city are sublime! Not surprised your granddaughter has found it so influential. Thank so much you for your lovely comments.

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