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Vol. 42 No. 10 · 21 May 2020

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What to Do with Flowers

In the later decades of the last century I began writing about Simone de Beauvoir (LRB, 16 April). My interest had started with the first part of her autobiography from 1958, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the English rendering of Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée. I knew that word ‘rangé’, meaning ‘well brought up, well behaved’ from endless trips to – by my English standards – somewhat formal French families. Indeed, in the five years I spent visiting the same French family I heard the word many times, repeated as ‘bien rangé’, meaning that a person had negotiated the many minefields of French bourgeois society and could be trusted among the china and cutlery.

Beauvoir came from this world, a world in which, among other things, people replied to letters. She replied to one I sent her, a letter from an unknown young academic requesting a meeting. Her reply, on that curious French writing paper printed with little squares, gave me her telephone number and her address and asked that I make an appointment. Off I went, intrigued and slightly appalled that she had said yes: I wondered if I was merely indulging vulgar curiosity.

The studio in which Beauvoir lived at the time of my visit was spacious, but without much light. No stunning views over Paris here, none of those long windows with their intriguing locks or light curtains floating in the breeze. But of course, as many visitors have pointed out, stunning sculptures and paintings were on view. Divans were used for seating and also, I assumed, for sleeping. Beauvoir herself was small, slight, smiling and apparently altogether charmed to see an Englishwoman turning up on her doorstep on a Saturday afternoon. I arrived with a bunch of flowers, not knowing (then or now) what form of gift is appropriate for a global icon. She received them warmly and – a sign of the rangée – immediately put them in water.

Our conversation was similarly well behaved, but also had that very bourgeois need to identify the social characteristics of the other. Later in life, when I sat on a lot of appointment committees, I saw this dynamic endlessly at work: we want to reproduce ourselves. The men in the provincial university where I worked always wanted to appoint the man in the tweed jacket, preferably from Oxbridge. So on that weekend afternoon I was repeatedly asked if my ambitions and my tastes aligned with those Beauvoir herself had chosen. When, much later, Beauvoir wrote of the reasons for her friendship with Sylvie le Bon, she explained the relationship in terms of Le Bon’s similarity to herself: the degree in philosophy, the teaching career, the delight in travel.

I did well on some of these points with Beauvoir, and she gave her time generously – the visit lasted for several hours. But looking back on it, and reading biographies of Beauvoir, I am constantly struck by questions about who the ‘other’ is both in her work and in work about her. We’re familiar with arguments about women as the ‘other’, but suppose there are ways in which the ‘other’ too can become a determinant and definer of the lives of others. Beauvoir’s own history contained moments in which she seemed to demand of others her own version of those men in tweed jackets. Binary divisions do not allow much fluency.

The encounter with Beauvoir was, for all sorts of reasons, memorable. When I wrote to thank her (rangée once more) she asked me to visit again. I wish I had, which is to say I wish I had known how to respond to someone whose expectations I knew I couldn’t fulfil. I tried to say in that first interview how much I admired her brave public resistance to French policies on Algeria. That aspect of her politics has been underappreciated, but for me it was where Beauvoir truly stepped outside herself and saw the situation of others: a stand not just against convention but for the legitimacy of difference.

Mary Evans
London School of Economics

Polio

Further to Patrick Cockburn’s piece about poliomyelitis, I too was six years old in 1956 (LRB, 7 May). We lived in London, where some of our friends were already enduring partial paralysis. Cockburn writes that Jonas Salk ‘discovered’ a vaccine. His group was part of a co-ordinated worldwide effort to develop one, each group working on a different approach. The British vaccine was developed at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, North London, and has been kept in reserve ever since. The Salk vaccine had the very rare advantage that it could be taken by mouth, so didn’t require expensive sterile injections. It has almost eradicated the disease across the world. However, my father was a member of the team at Mill Hill and, knowing that the Salk vaccine might come too late for my brother and me, he decided to vaccinate us himself. As an immunologist but not a medic he was none too good at giving injections to small children: the experience gave me nightmares for a while, but my brother and I did not catch polio. A colleague of my father’s, in the US, lost all three (unvaccinated) children to the disease.

For now, for myself, a healthy 70-year-old who was also a test baby for the diphtheria vaccine, I would very much like to volunteer for vaccine trials in this country. Failing that, I would like to contract Covid-19 and acquire immunity in the usual way.

Lydia Hill
Ely, Cambridgeshire

Translating Camus

In responding to Jacqueline Rose’s piece about Albert Camus’s The Plague I have to declare an interest (LRB, 7 May). A little over twenty years ago, deeply dissatisfied with Stuart Gilbert’s rendering from 1948, I laboriously completed a new translation. Although my proposal was rejected by Penguin, it did at least spur them into commissioning a new version by the late Robin Buss.

Rose makes no reference to Buss’s translation, taking issue with Gilbert’s instead. She says, for instance, that his rendering of the phrase ‘travaillaient intérieurement’ loses the ambiguity of the French ‘intérieurement’ (‘internally’). This, she claims, ‘could refer equally well to the restless innards of the body or to the ructions of the unconscious mind’ – a fanciful piece of over-interpretation obviously inspired by Rose’s interest in psychoanalysis. She herself, however, renders ‘un rhume de cerveau’ (a head cold) as a ‘cold in the nose’, and translates ‘indemne’ – ‘free from’, as Gilbert correctly puts it; Buss has ‘immune’ – as ‘indemnified’ (‘indemnisé’ in French). In Rose’s reading, the anonymous character described as ‘hibou rouge’ – he has red hair – inexplicably becomes a ‘yellow owl’.

In a similar vein, Rose sees Gilbert’s failure to translate a metaphorical use of ‘révolution’ literally as ‘a real loss’, because she thinks it points towards L’Homme révolté, the translation of which as The Rebel she also deplores, because it ‘again sidesteps the key element of revolution, as well as that of disgust’. (The almost unrecognisable quotation that follows is drawn from Anthony Bower’s seriously defective 1951 translation.) But one of Camus’s central arguments in L’Homme révolté – literally ‘Man in Revolt’ – is that killing in the name of revolution betrays the rebellion in which revolution has its roots.

In The Plague, the same argument is embodied in the experience of Tarrou, who tells Rieux that (metaphorically speaking) he had the plague long before he came to Oran. According to Rose, ‘murder is state murder’ for Tarrou, who, she says, becomes an activist for the abolition of the death penalty. What Rose neglects to add is that Tarrou’s youthful activism took the form of revolutionary politics, believing that ‘the society in which I lived was based on the death penalty and that, by fighting against it, l would be fighting against killing.’ As he tells Rieux, he knew that, on occasion, his comrades would pronounce death sentences too, but he was told that these were necessary to bring about a world in which nobody would be killed. But then he witnessed a political execution – in Hungary – and realised that he had continued to be a plague-carrier (‘pestiféré’ – Buss has the misleading ‘plague victim’) throughout all the years that he thought he had been fighting against it. This can only be interpreted as a thinly veiled critique of the justification of killing – Auden’s ‘conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’ – used by the revolutionary left, a critique that Camus develops at length in L’Homme révolté. Camus/Tarrou isn’t ‘pointing the finger at the modern state’ here, but at communism.

Following Conor Cruise O’Brien and later postcolonialist critics, meanwhile, Rose sees the virtual absence of ‘Arabs’ – Algeria’s Muslim majority – from The Plague as the novel’s most significant failing. In a letter of 1951 to the Kabyle writer Mouloud Feraoun, however, Camus explained: ‘Don’t think that if I didn’t speak of the Arabs of Oran, it is because I feel separate from them. It’s because, in order to present them, you have to speak of the problem that is poisoning the lives of all of us in Algeria: you would have had to write a different book from the one that I wanted to write.’

Neil Foxlee
Lancaster

Jacqueline Rose writes: Neil Foxlee takes issue with my use of Stuart Gilbert’s 1948 translation of Camus’s The Plague, which for half a century was the only version of the novel available in English. Like him, I criticise this version at several points but missed, as he points out, the mistrans­lation of the man in the dock in Tarrou’s monologue as a ‘yellow owl’ (he is indeed red-headed).

Mostly, however, his letter seems to turn on matters of interpretation on which we disagree. As I mention in the piece, Camus’s eventual critique of communism made him many enemies on the left, including Sartre. Foxlee is right that Tarrou bemoans the justification for killing given by some who were in revolt against state power. But he unequivocally traces the origins of that revolt to the moment his 
father, as prosecuting attorney, condemn­ed a criminal to death. It does no service to Camus to suggest that he is only targeting communism: it robs him, and indeed communism itself, of their indictment of a corrupt world order and the state viol­ence that sustains it. 

Similarly, Foxlee appears to dismiss the critique of the novel for its exclusion of the Arab population of Oran as ‘postcolonialist’, citing Camus’s own explanation, which surely makes matters worse. To include them, he said, he would have had to speak of the problem ‘poisoning the lives of everyone in Algeria’ – a reference to the French occupation. But this is to gloss over the racialised disparity between colon­iser and colonised on which he himself had been so eloquent. And why, we might ask, does the depiction of one oc­cupat­ion, the Nazi occupation of France, have to blind us to the barbarity of an­other? Espec­ially now, when our willingness, or refusal, to acknowledge the greater vuln­erability of the destitute and powerless in this pandemic will determine the kind of world we will be living in once it is over.

Heath's Decision

Jonathan Steele is mistaken in attributing to a Labour government the decision to admit Ugandan Asians to the UK (LRB, 19 March). That year, 1972, Edward Heath’s Tories were in power. Against opposition from backbench Labour MPs, the preceding Labour government had set limits on ‘coloured’ immigration from Kenya by passing the 1968 Commonwealth Immig­rat­ion Act. Heath’s eventual decision was taken after attempts were made to find other destinations.

Bryn Jones
Bath

Mistake

The journalist Lyra McKee was killed last year not in Belfast, as stated in Jacque­line Rose’s piece on Camus’s The Plague, but in the Creggan area of Derry (LRB, 7 May).

Editor, ‘London Review’

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