‘When Things of the Spirit Come First’ by Simone de Beauvoir

‘When Things of the Spirit Come First’ by Simone de Beauvoir – stories – Translated by Patrick O’Brian

The five stories in ‘When Things of the Spirit Come First’ are about several college-age young women who all know each other.  Each story focuses on one of the young women for whom the story is named – ‘Marcelle’, ‘Chantal’, ‘Lisa’, ‘Anne’, and ‘Marguerite’.  Marcelle and Marguerite are sisters, and all five of these women float in and out of each of the five stories.

The stories, written by de Beauvoir in her late twenties, all take place in the 1920s.  The traditional cultural values persist, the huge influence of the church, arranged marriages, etc.  But France has just been through the devastating World War I, and people are questioning the old values.  The young women in these stories are on the front lines of these social changes.  I use the term ‘front lines’ advisedly, because aren’t dating, mating, procreation, and new life at least as important if not more important than politics, war, destruction, and death?

Arranged marriage.  In many respects, this seems like a very sensible way to do things.  The parents can objectively determine what is at stake, the financial position and prospects as well as some inside background information about the family of the prospective groom and/or prospective bride.  But by the Twenties, arranged marriages were beginning to be replaced by the individual choices of the young men and women themselves.  One of the recurring events in these stories is the charming young man misleading the young woman and even intentionally getting her pregnant in order to get at her family’s money.  These young women all come from middle class families, so this is a concern.  And several of the young women in these stories have no idea at all of their self worth.

The main character of the last story, ‘Marguerite’, is apparently Simone de Beauvoir herself.  This story is written in the first person.  She wants to expand her freedom in ways that are brazen far beyond what the other young women would consider, and she uses her older sister Marcelle’s free-spirited erring poet husband Denis as her guide.  This story is by far the most unconventional of the five.  But all of the stories have unexpected twists in them.  My personal favorite is the first story, ‘Marcelle’ about how Marcelle wound up with Denis as her husband.  This story is one of my favorite stories I’ve read in the past few years.

Simone de Beauvoir impresses as a writer because of the vital interest she takes in these young women’s lives, her intelligence, and her insight.  For a long time I thought of Simone de Beauvoir as a feminist scholar and philosopher, but not as a fiction writer.  Even after I found out that she wrote fiction, I avoided her work, because I was afraid it would be too dogmatic, predictable, and didactic due to her feminist viewpoint.  It was only after Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf strongly recommended her work earlier this year that I decided to read de Beauvoir’s work.  This book was none of the things I was afraid it would be; instead I was struck by the vitality and originality of these five long stories.  This book is an excellent place to begin to appreciate this author. I should have known, because I made a similar mistake with her long-time companion Jean Paul Sartre.  I thought he was mainly a philosopher and didn’t read his fiction for many years.  Finally when I did read his trilogy ‘The Roads to Freedom’ (‘The Age of Reason’, The Reprieve’, and ‘Troubled Sleep’) and ‘Nausea’, I discovered he wrote great fiction.

Now if I weren’t running a regular book blog, I would probably choose the 600+ page ‘The Mandarins’ as my next Simone de Beauvoir book to read, but as it is I’ll probably pick one of her shorter books.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Oh dear … is blogging deciding what you read? Why not go for The mandarins if that’s the one you’d really read? We’ll wait.

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  2. Hi Whisperringgums,
    I try to write two blog entries a week. That gives me three and a half days to read the 600+ page “The Mandarins” . That works out to at least 172 pages a day. If “The Mandarins” is as good as I’ve been told that it is, I’ll want to savor each sentence, each phrase, each word. Perhaps you can give me some instruction on how I can accomplish this feat. Thanks!

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  3. Simone de Beauvoir is brilliant and I love her non-fiction. The Second Sex is an influential work on feminism; she also wrote memoirs and an extremely good book about aging. I haven’t gotten around to The Mandarins either.

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    • Hi Mad Housewife,
      Simone de Beauvoir is one of the rare cases where I almost wish I could drop my near-prohibition on reading non-fiction. I have this intuition that people can be more honest in their fiction than in their non-fiction, and thus very rarely read non-fiction. I can think of two cases where I counted non-fiction books on my list of books read : “Goodbye To All That” by Robert Graves and “If Not Now, When?” by Primo Levi. I’m close to making an exception with Dawn Powell’s letters. Simone de Beauvoir, I will consider.

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  4. Tony,

    First, thank you very much for the hat tip. I appreciate it. Second, thanks even more for this great review of a collection of stories I have not read. She really is a very perceptive and intelligent observer of people which makes her an outstanding author of fiction. I am thrilled you had a good experience with her. Now, I have to make the philosopher-to-novelist transition for Sartre. Odd that, having read Simone, I have a difficult time thinking of Sartre as anything but a philosopher. He has to go on the list.

    The Mandarins is one of my favorite books, so I would love to hear your thoughts. You could string together a few novellas to get ahead, then tackle Simone’s masterpiece. (Of course, I always mean to “get ahead” on my reading, but never do. So good luck with that.)

    If you do decide to try some of her non-fiction, I really enjoyed America Day by Day which is sort of a memoir/travelogue/de Toqueville kind of book. I found Simone’s perspective (French, female, European) on America very interesting.

    Now I have to go read so that I can get to some Simone.

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    • Hi Kerry,
      I see that there is a new translation of “The Second Sex” coming out soon. That could be very interesting. Simone de Beavoir is one writer whose non-fiction would be appealing. I’ll get to ‘The Mandarins’ one way or another.
      Your site has gotten me interested in the Tournament of Books which I am following daily. Hadn’t heard of it before.
      Thanks for the link to my site too!

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  5. […] at Tony’s Book World, Simone de Beauvoir stars. This makes me happy. I also appreciate the shout-out, but I am linking because the review is […]

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  6. lmao nice info bro.

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  7. […] many of you know, I read ‘When Things of the Spirit Come First’ earlier this year.   Except for the fact that the two books are written with the same Simone de […]

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  8. […] I read “When Things of the Spirit Come First”, an early work by Beauvoir.  I was completely enchanted by these stories.  That book is one of […]

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