Monday, April 23, 2007

Bloated up with life

I’ve been lugging around pieces of the life of Simone de Beauvoir for the past couple of months.

She has steered me in certain directions at various points in my life. I read Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) about ten years ago and decided it was probably a good idea to break up with His Apeness, the boyfriend of the moment, because I didn’t want to be tied to his thoughts and housed in his shadow. When I read De Beauvoir's Les Mandarins and flicked through her letters to Jean-Paul Sartre, I decided a relationship's endurance might just involve re-assessing monogamy, rolling over and making room for more people in the love-bed, with all its complications. (But I like sleeping diagonally and this is hard enough to master with just one other person in the bed.)

But it's only recently I've started to read her journals and her comprehensive memoirs. And so, for a few months now I’ve been meaning to trace my way to all her old haunts in Paris, hunt down apartments on the rue de Rennes, perhaps begin with her grave in Montparnasse cemetery. But i've been a bit nervous about beginning there, which is probably why I’ve put it off, shuffling the plans to go there each weekend, when it is just a direct metro line from my place. All this shuffling reminds me of my nervous energy shuffling Uno cards in Kraków in 1995, my inquietude before going to see the Auschwitz memorial.

Why such nervousness about seeing her tombstone? I think because she lives with me at the moment. Her love of life explodes out of the pages of her memoirs and frightens sloths out of their trees.

I'm drawn to the way Simone de Beauvoir used life. Mopping up all the words in every conversation. Darning holes and re-using life, and using it some more.

She left her tracks all over the place, whether it be exploring every patch in the French countryside, placing blistered espadrilles on every rock, or seeping ink on to page after page, squeezing hands and thighs long into the drinking hours. Her little birdie prints were everywhere, in every season, from 9 January 1908 to 14 April 1986.

It was the date of death that scared me. The idea that she (not her work which of course lives on) could be dead. This person so bloated up with knowledge and memory, so alive in her history, dead. All her verbs have dried up.

Like the grave of Francois Truffaut, the shared headstone of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre is a simple stone, befriended solely by a bunch of wrinkled flowers, not far from the main entrance to the Montparnasse cemetery. It's not at all like Serge Gainsbourg's grave, which is all tarted up with headless dolls and earless earrings and lipstick and panties and whatever someone happened to have with them and left there because they felt it might say: "respect, man".

I stood for a bit at De Beauvoir's and Sartre's grave, trying to connect her life with this stone face and thinking about how Sartre pissed on Chateaubriand's tomb at Saint Malo in defiance of what he saw as its "false simplicity".

A tourist briskly passed and ticked it off her "list of things to not bother thinking about but to take a photo of", yelling: "I took a photo of that philosopher-guy's grave, Jean-Pierre something!", before saying: "is Jim Morrison here somewhere too?"

Sorry Simone, you must get that all the time. Sartre, I know who you'd like to piss on.

Then we tried to find Brassai's grave and I walked around with that old sensation that always hits me in a cemetery, the incredible feeling of being alive, as though here the sun was hitting stronger against my skin and I could see my pink arms darkening like cooking bacon. The birds shouted louder than ever as if to compensate for all the voices that had been covered in earth. Every part of my body beat with the desire for immortality, or in the worst case scenario, a well-used life.