Simone de Beauvoir on education, writing, death

The Paris Review’s website has an enormous archive of interviews with writers. Good procrastination.

“If you don’t know, now you know.” ~Biggie

 

These excerpts are from my faaaaaaaavorite, The Art of Fiction no. 35, Simone de Beauvoir

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about college and university education for a writer? You yourself were a brilliant student at the Sorbonne and people expected you to have a brilliant career as a teacher.

DE BEAUVOIR

My studies gave me only a very superficial knowledge of philosophy but sharpened my interest in it. I benefited greatly from being a teacher—that is, from being able to spend a great deal of time reading, writing and educating myself. In those days, teachers didn’t have a very heavy program. My studies gave me a solid foundation because in order to pass the state exams you have to explore areas that you wouldn’t bother about if you were concerned only with general culture. They provided me with a certain academic method that was useful when I wrote The Second Sex and that has been useful, in general, for all my studies. I mean a way of going through books very quickly, of seeing which works are important, of classifying them, of being able to reject those which are unimportant, of being able to summarize, to browse.

INTERVIEWER

Were you a good teacher?

DE BEAUVOIR

I don’t think so, because I was interested only in the bright students and not at all in the others, whereas a good teacher should be interested in everyone. But if you teach philosophy you can’t help it. There were always four or five students who did all the talking, and the others didn’t care to do anything. I didn’t bother about them very much.

INTERVIEWER

You had been writing for ten years before you were published, at the age of thirty-five. Weren’t you discouraged?

DE BEAUVOIR

No, because in my time it was unusual to be published when you were very young. Of course, there were one or two examples, such as Radiguet, who was a prodigy. Sartre himself wasn’t published until he was about thirty-five, when Nausea and The Wall were brought out. When my first more or less publishable book was rejected, I was a bit discouraged. And when the first version of She Came to Stay was rejected, it was very unpleasant. Then I thought that I ought to take my time. I knew many examples of writers who were slow in getting started. And people always spoke of the case of Stendhal, who didn’t begin to write until he was forty.

INTERVIEWER

Do your writer friends have the same habits as you?

DE BEAUVOIR

No, it’s quite a personal matter. Genet, for example, works quite differently. He puts in about twelve hours a day for six months when he’s working on something and when he has finished he can let six months go by without doing anything. As I said, I work every day except for two or three months of vacation when I travel and generally don’t work at all. I read very little during the year, and when I go away I take a big valise full of books, books that I didn’t have time to read. But if the trip lasts a month or six weeks, I do feel uncomfortable, particularly if I’m between two books. I get bored if I don’t work.

INTERVIEWER

Are your original manuscripts always in longhand? Who deciphers them? Nelson Algren says that he’s one of the few people who can read your handwriting.

DE BEAUVOIR

I don’t know how to type, but I do have two typists who manage to decipher what I write. When I work on the last version of a book, I copy the manuscript. I’m very careful. I make a great effort. My writing is fairly legible.

INTERVIEWER

In The Blood of Others and All Men Are Mortal you deal with the problem of time. Were you influenced, in this respect, by Joyce or Faulkner?

DE BEAUVOIR

No, it was a personal preoccupation. I’ve always been keenly aware of the passing of time. I’ve always thought that I was old. Even when I was twelve, I thought it was awful to be thirty. I felt that something was lost. At the same time, I was aware of what I could gain, and certain periods of my life have taught me a great deal. But, in spite of everything, I’ve always been haunted by the passing of time and by the fact that death keeps closing in on us. For me, the problem of time is linked up with that of death, with the thought that we inevitably draw closer and closer to it, with the horror of decay. It’s that, rather than the fact that things disintegrate, that love peters out. That’s horrible too, though I personally have never been troubled by it. There’s always been great continuity in my life. I’ve always lived in Paris, more or less in the same neighborhoods. My relationship with Sartre has lasted a very long time. I have very old friends whom I continue to see. So it’s not that I’ve felt that time breaks things up, but rather the fact that I always take my bearings. I mean the fact that I have so many years behind me, so many ahead of me. I count them.

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