You probably know of her as the longtime arm candy of game-changing existential French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. But ideally, you would have read sometimes-fiction writer-but-mostly-philosophical-essayist-aussi Simone de Beauvoir by her memorable works Le Deuxième Sexe (that’s The Second Sex for you non-francophiles) or The Mandarins. And aside from being thusly known as the year of the Polar Vortex, 2014 also marks the 50-year anniversary of A Very Easy Death, De Beauvoir’s acclaimed semi-stream-of-consciousness memoir recounting the painstakingly slow death of her mother. So in honor of the Queen, I hereby give to you, avid reader, my next weekly book recommendation that will, to the average Metro passenger or Starbucks bystander, make you look like the highbrow postmodern French intellectual structuralist you’ve always wanted to be.
Let us begin.
Some initial notes on why this book is a must-read:
1. Normal human beings find approximately 80% of French things sexy (I dedicate the other 20% to the decidedly unsexy Napoleon Bonaparte, foie gras, and the fact that the French equivalent to ‘humor’ [the uber-original l’humor] wasn’t even recognized as a word until 1932. Get it together France).
2. Get a kick start (because it’s no secret that, aside from drunkenly crying into your on-tap glass of Pacifico, or whatever, you have not actively made any progress) on your New Years’ resolution to “be in a real relationship” by collecting your intellectual shit and become educated. It is a fact that people like intelligent people, and it is probably wise to be well-versed in the classics.
3. The foreward’s author calls A Lover’s Discourse a “jar of nuances: trapped fireflies.” Because if your life isn’t complex enough, or you are emotionally unsatisfied, bearing witness to somebody else’s very painful declarations of amour is enough to cheer you up.
Love sucks, and French linguist/book critic/cultural anthropologist Roland Barthes agrees with you. It’s why he wrote an entire book, aptly titled A Lover’s Discourse, deconstructing every potential feeling that could/has ever wash over you while in love (or lust, no judgement here), with personal anxieties peppered throughout its pages:
“Either woe or well-being, sometimes I have a craving to be engulfed; it alters nothing; I am dissolved, not dismembered; I fall, I flow, I melt. Such thoughts–grazed, touched, tested [the way you test the water with your foot]–can occur. Nothing solemn about them. This is exactly what gentleness is.”
Listen to the cadence of his syntax. Let it wash over you, stroke you, and chant its fantastical semicolon lullabies until you fall sleep.
And since the guy semi-invented semiotics, you’re getting the ultimate education in highbrow. Give me even one reason why reading a book by a guy who basically created an entire branch of philosophy-that is basically the lovechild of at least eight different forms of verbal and nonverbal communication-will not make you look like a certifiable, real-life Parisian as you sip your cafe au lait at some pseudo-authentic outdoor coffee shop in Dupont or something.
Bonus reason to read the book: You can intelligently talk about it without ever reading it in its entirety (tbt to every reading assignment ever) because of its structure–each chapter averages on 3-4 pages each and presents a different “figure,” or feeling/phrase/gesture-alphabetically arranged for your aesthetic ease-associated with love. Treat guests at a dinner party to Barthes’ discussion of nighttime’s metaphorical evocation of violent passion. Woo your significant other with talk of “being kept like a superior prostitute.”
Extreme bonus reason to read the book: Under every heading each chapter, Barthes provides us with the French infinitive version of each figure he discusses. Imagine the look on your lover’s face as you whisper “s’abîmer” or “ravissement.” Lesson in the most emotionally charged, seductive words in the language of love as well as the semantic-y goodness of Barthes? Yes. All of the yesses.