Sunday, July 31, 2011

book review: Les Belles Images by Simone de Beauvoir

"'I tell you what, we'll talk about it tomorrow. But if you know any unhappy people, we'll try to do something for them. You can treat sick people, give poor ones money - there are masses of things you can do.'
'Are there really? For everybody?'
'Dear me, I should cry all day long if there were people whose unhappiness couldn't be cured at all.'"

The idea of choosing this book as a holiday read was that by the time I got to Paris I was reading about Parisians. The problem was by the time I had got to the [point when I pitched up on a campsite in the Parisian suburbs the characters of this book had quite put me off heading for the Champs Elysees.

They are meant to of course as Simone de Beauvoir portrays the vacuous world of the rich in Paris. in a way that leaves you despairing of their lack of connection with the real world. They search for happiness and fulfilment among the top class restaurants and their weekends away in the country but don't know how to respond when someone brings real pain and horror into their lives.

So they protect the bubble by running away from the news, banning their children from reading newspapers and keeping the conversation to safe naval gazing subjects of conversation.

At the heart of the story is Laurence who we are told has had a nervous breakdown five years previously and then slowly heads towards another. What sparks her off is her daughter mentioning that she is unhappy and upset by the suffering in the world. Despite the best efforts to stop her from reading newspapers the influence of a more worldly friend is difficult to stop and so the seed of unhappiness is planted in the apartment leaving the ambitious architect father and the fragile mother to cope with the consequences.

At the same time a parallel story displaying the vanity and shallowness of the older generation is running with XXX's mother being dumped by a rich aged boyfriend because the 56 year-old fancies getting involved with a 19 year-old. The mother screams at her daughter that a woman without a man is nothing and highlights that even someone who is apparently successful believes that society cannot view her in those terms unless she has a rich man on her arm.

The world this book refers to is sadly still probably there and certainly the world of the vacuous rich is one that you can certainly imagine still being like this. What keeps you reading isn't any sympathy for the characters but a sense of fascination that something so natural and innocent, the idea that not everyone is happy, can cause such distress. It proves, if it needed underlining, that regardless of your wealth and success you cannot cocoon yourself from reality.

There are also some messages here about the position of women in society, with the mother showing a desperation to be with a man in order to be accepted by society and the attitude towards Laurence as one verging on the patronising and bullying by some of the men in her life.

Not the most enjoyable read but then it was never designed to be and although it's looking a bit old in some respects the world she took the scalpel to is still there and still deserves to get this sort of literary examination.


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Landolphe D'Aquin said...

A biting study of French bourgeois life in the 1950-60s. A wonderful predecessor to this book is Elsa Triolet's "Roses a Credit", which looks at the rise of consumer culture in France after WWII.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Do you have any idea where I can get the translation to this book from? Thanks!