French author Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) remains a controversial figure in the realms of literature, philosophy, and feminism. Scholars and speculators alike cannot seem to agree on what to think of her. There is a lot of luggage to unpack, and a lot of ongoing conversations about the philosopher-wordsmith-mother of modern feminism that haven’t yet come to an end (and perhaps might never come to an end).
There’s her polyamorous relationship with fellow philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, which arguably built the shaky foundations of such romantic arrangements in the Western world today. Her questionable bisexual affairs with her much-younger female lovers, who also happened to be her students. Her unyielding opinions, her ruthless criticism of women who chose the more traditional paths in life. Her activism, her travels. Her moral codes, her occasional hypocrisies. Her entire life, period.
However, no one can deny or argue against Beauvoir’s mastery as a professional, versatile writer of fiction, philosophical essays, and memoirs. Her contributions to the written word were fundamental in the rise of respect for nonconformist women writers in the twentieth century.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, Beauvoir’s whirlwind reputation, readers with highbrow tastes consider her repertoire of works to be a necessary syllabus for a life course in self-discovery and self-enlightenment. They seek in Beauvoir’s work not necessarily a guide, but a kindred spirit, or a muse. The common objective in reading her books is, “How can I learn to be a person like her who lived a full, unapologetic life, minus perhaps some of her more unsavory misconducts?”
Here are five Simone de Beauvoir books that will help any intimidated new reader ease their way into her highly intellectual sphere. Consider this book list of five titles ample training before tackling the author’s much revered (and much feared, due to its bulk and challenging content) magnum opus The Second Sex (1949). Or her Prix Goncourt-winning novel The Mandarins (1954).
The books listed below—and here one may breathe a sigh of relief—aren’t the size of bricks, though each may carry the emotional and mental weight of one.
She Came to Stay
This is the book that launched Beauvoir’s career as a metaphysical writer, and also the one that launched her reputation as a relentless libertine. Originally published by its French title L'Invitée, it tells the story of a bohemian set of intellectuals entangled in a deadly game of romance, sex, and competition fueled by the philosophical principles that Beauvoir’s own social circle lived by.
As this was Beauvoir’s first fully complete novel, she unsheathed her voice by dipping into her own life and producing a work that was dangerously autobiographical in a war-stricken world that wasn’t necessarily kind to subversive individuals. The main character, Françoise, is based on herself. Françoise’s lover and partner in crime, Pierre, is based on Jean-Paul Sartre. And the iconic character of the free-spirited, nymph-like Xaviere, whom both Françoise and Pierre desire and agree to share, is a hybrid of Beauvoir’s lover Olga Kosakiewicz and Jean-Paul Sartre’s lover Wanda Kosakiewicz (Olga’s younger sister).
Confused? It gets worse. Commonly misinterpreted as a love triangle, She Came to Stay is actually a love quartet. Thrown into the mix is another player based on the French journalist Jacques-Laurent Bost, who married Olga and had a long-term affair with Beauvoir. The reading public was equal parts enthralled and baffled (and, at times, disgusted) when this novel first came out.
Though its storyline may be less shocking by today’s standards, it is no less intriguing as a study of the bizarre love lives of philosophers. Readers who wish to learn more about the real-life version of events should visit the libraries and bookstores for detailed, unjudgmental, appropriately named biographies such as Hazel Rowley’s Tête-à-Tête (2005) and Carole Seymour-Jones’s A Dangerous Liaison (2009).
Pyrrhus and Cineas
This is the perfect book for anyone who wishes to take in a little philosophy on the train or bus ride home from work, or who has a few minutes to spare while waiting at the dentist’s office. At only ninety-four pages, Pyrrhus and Cineas is small enough to fit snugly into a pocket or a purse.
Like her acquaintance-turned-rival Albert Camus with his infamous The Myth of Sisyphus, Beauvoir utilizes Grecian history and mythological themes to make her point, relying on the education of her readers and their understanding of ancient antiquities in order to get her messages across.
In this critical essay, King Pyrrhus is challenged by his close friend Cineas to explain what he plans to do after he completes his campaign to conquer the world through military might. As the two debate and struggle to reach a conclusion to Cineas’s pointed inquiry, their entire worldviews unravel.
This essay, and this clever analogy, is a thorough investigation into the nature of human ambition, power, purpose, and authenticity using characters who are disturbingly relatable. It’s a good starting point for readers wishing to become acquainted with Beauvoir’s approach of evoking specific real-life situations to demonstrate universal issues, which is also the central style of her The Second Sex.
The Blood of Others
This is another fascinating love letter Beauvoir wrote to and for a young female lover. Dedicated to her student-turned-paramour Natalie Sorokin, The Blood of Others tells the story of a rebellious young couple, Hélène and Jean, who join a French resistance movement during World War Two.
In the typical Beauvoir fashion—which she famously shared with Jean-Paul Sartre—the central conflict is not between political parties but between individuals and their consciousnesses. Both Hélène and Jean must decide between their bourgeois upbringings and their reformist desires, their duties to their families and their duties to their countries, and their commitment to each other and their mutual longing for freedom.
Beauvoir paints her fictional characters with the colors worn by her own friends at a time where the Nazis controlled Paris and sought to squash French dispositions. Beauvoir is not writing about French resistance as an observer, but as a participator, and readers may discover that her version of events is not as dramatized as some may expect from an imaginative intellectual.
The tomboyish, anarchistic, and juvenile Sorokin, the dedicatee of the book, was perhaps the most rebellious individual Beauvoir knew, and the book stands as an artifact that captures and freezes indomitable youthful spirit in the world’s most turbulent era.
All Men Are Mortal
If one regards the plot of this book and finds its premise suspiciously similar to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928), that is because Beauvoir was in fact impressed and inspired by Woolf's handling of the adaptable immortal as a character and wanted to give it a try herself.
Beauvoir’s novel is perhaps less ground-breaking in terms of gender and sexuality exploration, but it showcases Beauvoir’s little-appreciated talent as a history writer who knows how to do proper research.
Set in France in the 1930s, the opening establishes a frame narrative between the diva-ish actress Regine and the mysterious man who is considering becoming her lover, Raymond Fosca. When she pierces through his hard shell and exposes his vulnerability, he reveals to her that he is an immortal, and tells her (and the readers) his full story through flashbacks.
Readers will time travel with Fosca from thirteenth-century Italy all the way to Beauvoir’s beloved France in the first half of the twentieth century. While Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was a representative of her lover Vita-Sackville West, Beauvoir’s Fosca is a representative of herself. He is very much like her. Fosca, troubled but adventurous, traverses oceans, participates in politics and revolutions, falls in love, desires rest and reprieve, and grapples with his identity, which life has given him too much time to grapple with. Readers at the end will be left questioning the meanings of their own existence.
A Very Easy Death
Simone de Beauvoir’s relationship with her conservative mother Françoise Beauvoir (née Brasseur) was troubled and complicated, but A Very Easy Death documents how the looming spectre of death can, in some families, act as a peacemaker to mend estrangements before the chance to mend them is gone forever.
That being said, A Very Easy Death is not a very easy read. With her elderly mother stricken with a fatal illness, Beauvoir is forced to re-evaluate her perspectives on motherhood and the duty of daughters and reach deep into her soul to find forgiveness for her mother’s transgressions while Beauvoir was growing up.
And there are many: her mother’s embarrassing attempts to arrange a marriage for her with her cousin Jacques, her mother’s unwelcome intrusions into her social life, and her mother’s unwillingness to accept Beauvoir’s unconventional ambitions as an academic are all once again put before the joint judge and jury which is Beauvoir’s exacting pen.
But there is a tenderness and gentleness to the prose as well as Beauvoir, sitting vigilant by her dying mother’s bedside, learns to appreciate her mother’s more amiable qualities, such as her love of beauty, her repressed longing for individuality, and her diligence as a homemaker in the midst of a miserable marriage.
This is a book about the reconciliation of generations. This is also a book about how life tests the strength, the will, and the resolve of women. Simone de Beauvoir, even when recording a personal tragedy, never fully abandoned that particular theme.