Café Philo: Simone de Beauvoir, the Feminist Icon

Simone de Beauvoir: The Feminist icon

Café Philo (Debate)

French author and existentialist Simone de Beauvoir has had a considerable influence on feminist theory and gender studies around the world. Her landmark book, considered the Bible of the feminist movement, The Second Sex (1949) will soon be translated again in Hindi by Monica Singh, with the support of our PAP Tagore programme.

2020 marks the first publication in France of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Inseparables. This captivating unpublished novel from 1954 tells the first passionate and tragic friendship between two rebellious young girls, Simone de Beauvoir & Zaza. Simone de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, had discovered this manuscript in Beauvoir’s private archives. 

Beauvoir referred to women as the Second Sex because they always seemed to be defined in relation to men.

In the context of the Generation Equality Forum, the French Institute is conducting a debate to revisit the impact of Beauvoir’s works through three generations, represented by:

    • Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Philosopher and Simone de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter,
    • Divya Dwivedi, Philosopher,
    • Marine Rouch, Historian, PhD student in contemporary history (FRAMESPA),
    • Aditi Maheshwari, Publisher at Vani Prakashan,
    • Monica Singh, the Hindi translator of The Second Sex.

Moderator: renowned Indian translator and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Ashoka University, Mr. Arunava Sinha.

Date & Time : 30th June, 6:30 pm
Live Zoom Webinar – Discussion in English
Format : debate followed by a 15-minute Q&A session. The debate will be punctuated by readings of letters sent to Simone by her readership.

Register to attend the event:

Writing to Simone de Beauvoir in order to exist: letters from her readers

by Marine Rouch

“You are the star of hope that shines through the frontiers, above the gloomy chorus of so many paths [sic] of unhappy, mistreated and despised women” (September 27, 1958). This sentence, written by a reader in 1958, sums up the hopes that thousands of women have placed on Simone de Beauvoir.

The writer received nearly 20 000 letters between 1943, the year that marked the beginning of her literary career with the publication of her novel She Came to Stay, and 1986, the year of her death. When she published The Second Sex in 1949, it was a scandal. The intellectual world was outraged; François Mauriac, then a central French intellectual figure, launched a survey in Le Figaro littéraire on the decline of literature. But in the received letters, no ignition. Rather, relief, even recognition…and hope. But the book was still too theoretical, difficult to access for women – and men – who are not used to such reading. Ten years later, in 1958, Simone de Beauvoir published the first volume of her Memoirs, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. It was followed by The Prime of Life in 1960 and Force of Circumstance in 1963. The autobiographical block was then considered by women as a “work-mode of employment”, as the long-awaited demonstration of the philosophy of The Second Sex.

Thus, the letters from her women readers reveal a long and painful process of appropriation of the Beauvoirien’s work by women, even before feminist movements of the 1970s took up the theses of The Second Sex. The 1950s and 1960s therefore became the scene for the constitution of a collective space by women, with the objective of understanding and sharing a common experience.

Through my research, I wish to give voice to those who wished to testify about their condition to Simone de Beauvoir. In this collection, we come across women who struggle to reconcile their professional life with their personal life; women who are housewives, exhausted by the repetitiveness of household chores and lack recognition from their close entourage and society in general; also women belittled by their husbands, who seek at all costs to divorce at a time when the weight of tradition is still too heavy… All of them find in writing – literary or the more intimate letter to Simone de Beauvoir – a way to reflect on their condition. Writing to exist, that is the credo of these women.

Many of the letters echo our contemporary experiences despite an undeniable contextual evolution.  Simone de Beauvoir still touches, still helps. The letters she received during her lifetime are a wonderful way to (re)discover her work.

Original article in French: Ecrire à Simone de Beauvoir pour exister : le courrier de ses lectrices

Letter to Simone de Beauvoir

Première page de la première lettre de Colette Avrane à Simone de Beauvoir. Reproduite par la BnF avec l’accord de Colette Avrane et de Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir.  Cette lettre a par ailleurs été publiée en intégralité dans Marine Rouch, « ‘Vous ne me connaissez pas mais ne jetez pas tout de suite ma lettre‘. Le courrier des lecteurs et lectrices de Simone de Beauvoir », dans Françoise Blum (dir.), Genre de l’archive. Constitution et transmission des mémoires militantes, Paris, Codhos, 2017, p. 93-108.)

On The Inseparables

by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir - the InseparablesAmong the archives that Simone de Beauvoir entrusted to me, when she adopted me as her literary heir, there are many unpublished manuscripts, including a short story that she left untitled, the one that became Les inséparables (The Inseparables). She gave me guidelines for managing this collection. A writer may have his reasons for not publishing a text immediately: but if he does not destroy it, it is because he may be planning to get back to it, to correct it, to make it public even after a long time, as Simone de Beauvoir herself did when, in 1979, forty years later, she published When Things of the Spirit Come First, which dates from 1938. After her death, the perspective changed. With this long novella, I found myself before a finished work, which Simone de Beauvoir had preserved, which she had even had typed. A valuable work that deserved to exist by itself. Occupied for a long time with other publications, I was only able to devote myself to it in 2020. A title quickly became obvious: I chose a term that haunts its pages.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote it in 1954. She had just spent four years on a vast novel, The Mandarins, which had won her the Goncourt Prize, and she wanted to take a break from fiction in favor of autobiography. For a long time, she had dreamed of reviving her childhood and her youth. But strangely, in spite of herself, her pen deviated from it: she centered the story not on the desired self-writing, but on the transposed evocation of the destiny of her great childhood friend Élisabeth Lacoin, known as Zaza. Thus she found herself once again drawn to the fiction genre, which explains her dissatisfaction and why she had discarded this text. She hence dived, without any detour, into the writing of the Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), the first volume of her great autobiographical enterprise.

The tragedy of Zaza’s brutal death at the age of 21 had left a mark on Simone de Beauvoir and she never stopped trying to do justice to her friend. At the time when she herself was emancipated, conquered her freedom and dashed towards the future, Zaza, instead of accompanying her, was destroyed. Elsewhere she confided: “The assassination of Zaza by her environment was for me a shattering and unforgettable experience.” An experience that certainly contributed to the foundation of her philosophical enterprise of demystification, and to the development of the feminist consciousness of the future author of The Second Sex. Zaza died because, like so many other women of her time but also of today, she was not allowed to become herself. The international success of The Inseparables can be explained by the various resonances, tender and profound, that this work triggers in readers. For some, it is an initiation, the discovery of Simone de Beauvoir, for others, a fascinating document. I am happy that it serves to confirm the influence of Simone de Beauvoir.

Original article in French: La Publication des Inséparables.

About the speakers

Sylvie Le Bon Simone de Beauvoir

Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir

Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir was born in Rennes on 19th January 1941, where she studied until her baccalaureate, which she continued in Paris. She studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Sèvres and was awarded the agrégation in philosophy. She met Simone de Beauvoir, to whom she had written, in November 1960. Intimately linked for twenty-six years, they travelled together every year, before meeting Sartre in Rome. Their relationship is evoked in Tout compte fait that Simone de Beauvoir dedicated to her. She adopted Sylvie le Bon in 1981.

Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir was part of the team of the magazine Les Temps modernes until 1991.

Since 1986, she has published many unpublished works of the writer : Lettres à Sartre, Journal de guerre (1990), Lettres à Nelson Algren, un amour transatlantique (1997), Correspondance croisée entre Simone de Beauvoir et Jacques-Laurent Bost (2004), Cahiers de jeunesse (2008), Les inséparables (2020). She collaborated on Cahier de L’Herne n° 100 dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir in 2012 and is part of the editorial team of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade which published two volumes of Memoires in 2018 for Éditions Gallimard. She is currently planning other publications of unpublished works.

Divya Dwivedi Simone de Beauvoir

Divya Dwivedi

Divya Dwivedi is a philosopher based in the subcontinent. She is an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi where she teaches Philosophy and Literature. Her works have been concerned with the ontology of the literary, the formality of law, the literary, postcolonial racisms, political concepts, and speed. Dwivedi is the co-author with Shaj Mohan of Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics (Foreword by Jean-Luc Nancy; Bloomsbury, 2019). She is the editor of the journal Philosophy World Democracy . Dwivedi has recently edited “L’Inde: Colossale et Capitale,” a special issue of Revue Critique (no. 872-873, 2020) and a special issue of Revue des femmes philosophes (“Intellectuels, Philosophes, Femmes en Inde: des espèces en danger”, 2017). She is also the co-editor of Narratology and Ideology (Ohio State University Press, 2018) and Public Sphere from outside the West (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

Marine Rouch Simone de Beauvoir

Marine Rouch

Marine Rouch first discovered Simone de Beauvoir while reading The Second Sex in 2014 when she was an undergraduate student of history. It was a revelation, both on a personal and academic level. She then wanted to better understand the influence of the famous essay on women in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But she also draws on Beauvoir’s work, on an almost daily basis, for her own personal trajectory.

Simone de Beauvoir in Hindi

Aditi Maheshwari

Aditi Maheshwari-Goyal holds a masters degree in English literature, Business Management (Strathclyde Business School, Scotland) and M.Phil. degree in Social Sciences. She heads the Department of Copyrights and Translation at Vani Prakashan Group and is the Managing Trustee at Vani Foundation. She teaches publishing and editing at the University of Delhi and Seagull School of Publishing, Kolkata. She is an advisor to Jaipur BookMark- south Asia’s largest publishing platform. She also manages the award secretariat of Vani Foundation Distinguished Translator Award.

Arunava Sinha

Arunava Sinha

Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction into English, and from English into Bengali. Over fifty of his translations have been published so far. Twice the winner of the Crossword translation award, for Mani Sankar Mukherji’s Chowringhee (2007) and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen (2011), respectively, and the winner of the Muse India translation award (2013) for Buddhadeva Bose’s When The Time Is Right, he has also been shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction prize (2009) for his translation of Chowringhee and longlisted for the Best Translated Book award, USA, 2018 for his translation of Bhaskar Chakravarti’s Things That Happen and Other Poems. Besides India, his translations have been published in the UK and the US in English, and in several European and Asian countries through further translation. He is the editor of the Library of Bangladesh, a series of Bangladeshi fiction translated into English from Bengali, and of the Book of Dhaka, a collection of short stories from Bangladesh translated into English. He has conducted translation workshops at the British Centre for Literary Translation, UEA; University of Chicago; Dhaka Translation Centre; and Jadavpur University. He is an associate professor of practice in the Creative Writing department at Ashoka University.

About the editor

Vani Prakashan Group

Vani Prakashan Group is a 57 years young independent publishing group dedicated to publish best of Indian language and literature, especially in Hindi and English. Vani Prakashan's list includes 32 Sahitya Akademi awarded books and authors, 9 Nobel laureates translated into Hindi and 24 other major awarded writers and books.