Becoming Beauvoir: A Life, by Kate Kirkpatrick

Catherine Rottenberg is inspired by a major new study of the great French feminist  

November 28, 2019
Simone de Beauvoir
Source: Getty

Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir, Becoming, concludes with a brief discussion of how she understands the book’s title. Becoming, she writes, is about the power of “allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice”. Indeed, in many ways, the memoir reads as Obama’s endeavour to create her own narrative about how she managed to carve a place in the world.

Michelle Obama’s Becoming came to mind when reading Becoming Beauvoir, Kate Kirkpatrick’s new biography of the famous author, philosopher and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir. Obviously, the association has to do with the similar titles and the way in which both women have often been overshadowed by the extremely famous men in their lives. But it also stems from the fact that both texts provide alternative “herstories”.

Kirkpatrick’s biography is an exercise in meticulous research. Using newly published diaries – only recently made available to researchers – it refuses simple characterisations and reveals de Beauvoir in all her brilliance and complexity. She emerges in these pages as a woman plagued by self-doubt yet confident enough to insist on her originality in the face of constant and scathing attacks. She is a woman who loves and lives passionately. And while de Beauvoir’s lifelong devotion to Jean-Paul Sartre is not challenged, this devotion, Kirkpatrick convincingly shows, cannot be understood within any conventional narrative of heteronormativity. Rather, for readers less acquainted with the scandals following the publication of de Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre in the early 1990s, we learn that de Beauvoir had a number of lovers and great loves – with men and women – and that her relationship with Sartre was ultimately one of “incomparable” friendship based on a matching of minds.

Moreover, the biography underscores that de Beauvoir was an indisputably original thinker. Kirkpatrick carefully debunks the notion that she was a disciple of existentialism, highlighting her profound disagreements with central aspects of Sartre’s philosophy. The fact that she devoted much of her life to writing novels was not due to her sense of inferiority as a philosopher but rather arose from her ideas about philosophy, particularly her desire to create a “philosophy that could be lived”. Literature, for her, was a way to make philosophy liveable and accessible to a wider audience.

Becoming Beauvoir is a beautiful tribute to a remarkable woman. Yet Kirkpatrick’s biography does not shy away from describing de Beauvoir’s questionable choices, emphasising the inexplicable discrepancy between the public image she cultivated through her bestselling memoirs and the life and loves she describes in her diaries and letters. In the end, the reader cannot claim to know the authentic de Beauvoir, since Kirkpatrick renders her opaque, as all human beings ultimately are. Who one becomes and how one becomes known to the world, she intimates, is a never-ending process.

“If there is one thing to learn from the life of Simone de Beauvoir,” Kirkpatrick argues, “it’s this: No one becomes herself alone.” So while both Obama and de Beauvoir have lived incredible lives, there is something radically different about their sense of becoming. Whereas Obama emphasises individual voice, Becoming Beauvoir reminds us that becoming Michelle Obama cannot be understood without taking de Beauvoir’s profound legacy into account.

Catherine Rottenberg is associate professor in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham and the author of The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism (2018).

Becoming Beauvoir: A Life
By Kate Kirkpatrick
Bloomsbury, 496pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781350047174
Published 22 August 2019

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