When I met Simone de Beauvoir…
By Alice Caffarel-Cayron
It was the year 1985. I had been living in Australia for two years and was finally able to return to France to visit my mother. The images of that return are simultaneously foggy and precise. I cannot really remember arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport or seeing my mother waiting for me: I had drank a few wines on the plane in the hope of falling asleep but I think the memory of the arrival has been eclipsed not by the alcohol but by what my mother said soon after I landed: “Would you mind if I drop you for a couple of hours at Simone de Beauvoir’s apartment, I have to meet with my publishers”? “Would I mind”?? I had not slept for 30 hours, and had a mild hangover but did that matter? Of course, not. “That would be fine, Maman, I replied, I hope SHE won’t mind”. “SHE is really looking forward to meeting you”, my mother said. They had had an epistolary relationship for two decades and my mother had sporadically recounted to Beauvoir some of my sayings & doings as a child, which my mother thought to be a sure sign of intelligence. I would discover my mother’s correspondence to Beauvoir some 45 years later scattered across boxes in the archives at the National Library in Paris.
I cannot remember how we got to Beauvoir’s flat: we most likely took the RER, the metro to Raspail and then walked to 12 bis rue Schoelcher. If my mother accompanied me, it is very fuzzy, but she must have. When I entered the apartment, Simone de Beauvoir, one the most influential writer of the 20th century welcomed me with a big smile and a hug. She said that it was nice to finally meet me in person. Did I tell her that my favourite book as a child was ‘All men are mortal’ and that it defined the way I approached life from then on? I am not sure. She was so eager for me to tell her about my new life in Australia, she seemed to want to listen to me, to my overseas stories. She had been invited to come to Australia a few years back by a women’s rights organisation in Queensland but by then she was not up to travelling so far and it was one of her regrets. She had travelled across Europe, Africa, China, Latin America and the US and she seemed to want to travel across Australia through my stories.
Would you like a whisky? Simone de Beauvoir asked. ‘Oui, merci’, I replied in a timid voice. A whisky would just be perfect, I thought. We sat across from each other on the two sofas that were there. In the corner of the little flat was her desk surrounded by photos on the walls, many of Sartre and of their travels together. I kept on staring at the wall while Simone de Beauvoir served the whiskies. I didn’t know then she would die a few months later in April the following year and that this was an extraordinary experience that my mother had enabled, the chance to spend time with the woman who had changed the world for so many women.
So here I was sitting face to face with Simone de Beauvoir drinking whisky and chatting as if we were old friends, despite the 53 years age gap. She made me feel at ease, she felt like family, and she was in some ways: she had been a literary mother to my mother, an influential mentor and her friend since I was 3 years old. In the Beauvoir archives in Paris, I had found amongst the letters, photos of myself when I was just a toddler, photos Beauvoir had kept all her life. I remember the emotion overcoming me and thinking I cannot cry on archival manuscripts; I will be kicked out of the National Library.
I had so much to tell HER, she made me want to talk, tell her about my crazy Australian adventures. She had an incredible ability at making people open-up and her readers had felt that in her books, that they could write to her, tell her about their thoughts and feelings, reveal their lives to her.
So, I began talking about my trip the previous year travelling in a van with two Australian bands, from Sydney to Perth with many stops in between…
Alice Caffarel-Cayron is the daughter of Claire Cayron. She is currently Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Sydney. Prior to that she taught French and Linguistics in the Department of French Studies for 23 years. Her main research interests are the grammar and semantics of French, Discourse analysis, language typology, stylistics and the analysis and translation of symbolic meanings (i.e. social, ideological and philosophical meanings). She developed a systemic functional description of the grammar of French (Bloomsbury 2006) which she has applied to the teaching of French and French linguistics, discourse analysis and the analysis of literary texts. She is currently conducting research on the language of Simone de Beauvoir and the impact her writings had on readers. She is also undertaking a comparative analysis of the two English translations of Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Le Deuxième Sexe’ (The Second Sex).
To cite this article: Alice Caffarel-Cayron, “When I met Simone de Beauvoir…”, Chère Simone de Beauvoir, September 2021, URL: https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/3588
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