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Adventure in Solitude

By Seán Carlson

Art by Leon Coyle

On reading Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death sixty years later.


On Thursday, 24 October 1963, Simone de Beauvoir received a phone call at the Rome hotel where she shared a room with fellow philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “Your mother has had an accident.” A bathroom fall at home in Paris had left her mother Françoise, her Maman, with a femoral neck fracture, the bone in the hip joint responsible for latching the thigh into the pelvis. But within days of de Beauvoir’s arrival at her mother’s hospital in the 15th arrondissement, doctors also identified a cancerous intestinal tumour. In the weeks that followed, de Beauvoir maintained a conflicted vigil at her mother’s bedside as she bore both a personal and reportorial witness to the labour of “dying, when one loves life so much.”

When de Beauvoir’s book-length essay about her mother’s life and death was published as Une mort très douce the following year, Pierre-Henri Simon wrote in Le Monde that the brief chronicle deepened and universalised the experience of suffering. Sixty years later, before flying from Ireland to England for an uncle’s funeral in late 2023, I picked up the recent Fitzcarraldo Editions reissue of the work, A Very Easy Death — the French douce rendered as easy in the sense of sweet or gentle. I opened to Ali Smith’s introduction while walking along a bike path in Braintree, absorbing a few paragraphs at a time in the way I used to read as a child in America waiting for the school bus or sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car, refusing to relinquish even a moment that could be spent making the most of every last word. My wife later said I sounded like Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast wandering through life with her head in a book, but as other pedestrians around me browsed their mobile phones, scarcely smaller than the thin de Beauvoir volume in my hands, I felt as if I were carrying contraband or, at the very least, inviting provocation. A Very Easy Death — at a glance, the title could easily be misconstrued as a cry for help or a rather morbid personal interest, inviting a kind of curiosity perhaps comparable with what could be expected from walking through a public park holding The Cure’s Bloodflowers or The Smiths’ Meat is Murder on vinyl. Like other such declarative titles, A Very Easy Death teases a subject of great emotional weight, but the glimpses of sweetness and gentleness within its pages are what engender a most memorable lament. Smith points out this obvious complexity, “Can you ever really yoke together with anything other than unease the word easy and the word death?”

Rendered from the French by Patrick O’Brian, himself dying alone at Trinity College Dublin in 2000, de Beauvoir’s unflinching dispatch from her mother’s hospital halls lays bare the assumptions of a grown child: “For me, my mother had always been there, and I had never seriously thought that some day, that soon I would see her go. Her death, like her birth, had its place in some legendary time.” Encountering her mother, still living, de Beauvoir sees “a dead body under suspended sentence” that is “still thinner and more shrivelled, wizened, dried up, a pinkish twig.” She makes note of the seemingly trivial, attempting to divine her mother’s condition and questioning her own failures of past observation: “She had always had a nervous tic. (No, not always, but for a long while. Since when?) She blinked; her eyebrows went up, her forehead wrinkled.” Later, de Beauvoir walks through the simple steps that follow her mother’s operation: “I went home; I talked to Sartre; we played some Bartók.” Whether the unnamed recording of the exiled Hungarian composer and folk-music ethnographer continued to set a soundtrack or had cut into silence at the end of its rotation, de Beauvoir loses sight of herself as a subject while describing an unexpected surge of emotion, like a line from a journal entry jotted before bed: “Suddenly at eleven, an outburst of tears that almost degenerated into hysteria.”

As well as detailing medical minutiae from her mother’s bedside while she drifts in and out of sleep, de Beauvoir falls into conversations with her younger sister Henriette-Hélène, whom she refers to as Poupette, or doll — a relationship she says their mother had interrupted as an act of jealousy or protection after de Beauvoir questioned her own Catholic faith: “During the holidays she forbade us to see one another alone: we met secretly in the chestnut woods.” She observes the incongruities in the medical staff, from the nurses’ care to the doctors’ imprudence. Ultimately, when presented with the fact of her mother's cancer, she withholds the prognosis. After a surgery, she dwells on how her mother “noticed the slightest agreeable sensation” — the touch of a metal tube against her leg, the scent of talcum powder, the sight of red roses from Corrèze — in such a way that “was as though, at the age of seventy-eight, she was waking afresh to the miracle of living.”

That miracle of living, last glimpses of vitality within the darkness of “a death chamber,” as de Beauvoir describes the hospital room with its heavy blue curtains and broken blinds, allows not only for the softening of a strained relationship between mother and daughter but also an opportunity for both to break from their expectations of each other. Delineating the effect of her father’s sexual infidelities despite her parents’ continued marriage up until his death, de Beauvoir grapples with her mother’s persistence: “Cut off from the pleasures of the body, deprived of the satisfactions of vanity, tied down to wearisome tasks that bored and humiliated her, this proud and obstinate woman did not possess the gift of resignation.” This lack of empowerment in much of her mother’s life de Beauvoir sees redirected into the central tension, believing, on the basis of words and actions alike, that their mother “would have liked to have us completely in her power,” particularly pronounced as she and her sister were reaching an age when “we began to long for freedom and solitude.” And yet, despite the fissures that appeared and only widened across their relationship, de Beauvoir finds herself excavating the certainty that “nothing, ever, wipes out childhood.” She returns to the sole positive memory her mother recounted from her unspoken, seemingly unhappy, youth: the pleasantness she recalled of being in “her grandmother’s garden in a village in Lorraine, and the mirabelle plums and greengages they ate, warm from the tree.”

While de Beauvoir casts her lens on the personal, she wrote into an early ’60s backdrop deeply mired in Cold War tensions: the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had only just walked back from the brink of mutually assured destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis; China secured its first atomic bomb; France tested nuclear weapons in recently independent Algeria. The mass death and genocide of the Second World War, its death camps and gas chambers, its vast legacy of displacements, and the complicity of the Vichy régime within de Beauvoir’s native country, tormented from less than a generation’s distance. The Vietnam War was escalating. “What is happening in Saigon?” de Beauvoir’s mother asks once after awakening from a nap, though the specifics of the 1963 coup and assassination of South Vietnam’s president remain unwritten.

Given the fact and threat of deaths in far greater numbers and more dire circumstances, de Beauvoir acknowledges “for indeed, comparatively speaking, her [mother’s] death was an easy one.” But it’s the singular stories that stand out from statistics, and the potency of de Beauvoir’s reportage reinforces the individualities behind any loss, even when they happen at exponential scale. Reading A Very Easy Death as a prelude and compendium to a funeral doesn’t offer any particular peace, but its brevity ensures an accessibility and its precision stirs empathy. Smith quotes from another de Beauvoir essay: “We must speak of failure, abomination, and death, not to drive our readers to despair, but on the contrary, to try to save them from despair.”

As the landscape surrounding mortality has always been entwined with technological and cultural expectations, one of the major developments at the time of de Beauvoir’s writing in 1964 that went on to shape how her work lands in the present was the introduction of BASIC. The simple programming language went on to transform the following decades through the advent of Microsoft and advances in home computing. As various digital platforms have risen and fallen ever since, the internet’s ever-changing landscape has facilitated a vast ease and comfort with sharing first-person experiences and observations as they happen, in written, photographic, and videographic form. While it may have seemed rather radical at one time for de Beauvoir to reveal intimate details of dying — “when it was published some journalists accused her of capitalising on her mother’s suffering and her own grief,” writes Becoming Beauvoir (2019) biographer Kate Kirkpatrick, cited by Smith — today’s streams of online updates regularly annotate deaths near and far. As much as these technological changes highlight individual and communal suffering and inequalities in both life and death, they also invite illusions of proximity. Personal losses and global catastrophes often compete for passing and splintered attention.

Readers could be forgiven for imagining A Very Easy Death as something of an exhaustive preamble to a GoFundMe in pursuit of crowdfunding her mother’s hospital bills. If her pages were to have been published in real time as a series of public social-media posts, the comment threads would certainly swell with contextless critiques, non sequiturs, and ad hominem attacks from armies of polemicists, scammers, trolls, and bots finding some advantage to themselves by tearing into everything from her hospital etiquette to her verb choice. While de Beauvoir cites Dylan Thomas in her epigraph, “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light…”, it’s the rage that now so often burns and raves at both the start and close of day.

The significance of de Beauvoir’s sober and sequential reporting from sixty years past wields all the more power and potential in the present. Like The Second Sex (1949), A Very Easy Death continues to echo in culture at large. With more idiosyncratic framing, Björk unspools similar threads around her own mother’s life and death on “Ancestress,” from Fossora (2022), wielding comparable conflict and introspection, from matrimort into mourning. In Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019), as a family travels to Changchun, China to stage a wedding while keeping their ailing matriarch’s medical diagnosis a secret in the interest of her health and happiness, the dilemma at the heart of the film fits alongside de Beauvoir’s decision to stay silent about the true source of her mother’s pain. As she sits with her knowledge and her obligations, de Beauvoir acknowledges the everyday artistry of countless care providers, in roles both chosen and inherited, many overlooked: “I had to help Maman to spit; I had to give her something to drink, arrange her pillows or her plait, move her leg, water her flowers, open the window, close it, read her the paper, answer her questions, wind up the watch that lay on her chest, hanging from a black ribbon.” For those of us who have not yet known such loss, de Beauvoir’s countdown calls out for a reconsideration of how we choose to live in the meantime.

In her introduction to A Very Easy Death, Smith asserts its sustained relevance and complexity: “In a time fixated on category and identity like our own, de Beauvoir is bound to be, as ever, both freeing and troubling.” By stitching together the fragments of her own experience, she wove a narrative whose import still defies category and identity, remaining both personal and universal despite the passage of time. Having long held open a window on the intimate and the individual, its breeze still blows amidst a collective exposure to endless scrolls of new agonies. “The misfortune is that although everyone must come to this,” de Beauvoir wrote, “each experiences the adventure in solitude.” Even so, sitting through the moments beside her mother, asleep and awake, before and after surgery, diagnosed but uninformed, when still living was also a matter of actively dying, is to be carried toward a vision of reconciliation, far from easy.

SEÁN CARLSON is a writer currently living in County Kerry, Ireland. He is working on his first book, a family memoir of migration, amongst other projects.


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