‘The sight of my mother’s nakedness had jarred me. No body existed less for me: none existed more. As a child I had loved it dearly; as an adolescent it had filled me with an uneasy repulsion: all this was perfectly in the ordinary course of things and it seemed reasonable to me that her body should retain its dual nature, that it should be both repugnant and holy – a taboo’.
A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir, Pg.19-20
I went through a Simone de Beauvoir phase back in February (and still am as I slowly make my way through her opus, The Second Sex) where I devoured two of her books back-to-back. She is such a fantastic writer whose pieces of work never fail to amaze me in their variedness and difference.
Published in 1964 – a year after her mother died – A Very Easy Death recounts, in detail, the day-by-day decline of her mother’s illness. Steeped in a tragic sense of realism, de Beauvoir narrates a painful, yet searingly truthful story of her mother’s diagnosis of cancer and subsequent fatality. Including the mundane details of hospital visits, the influx of doctors and nurses that clutter their lives as well as the changing relationship with her mother, de Beauvoir captures and does justice to an area of life that is all too hidden in the ‘sumptuous arrogance of a world in which death had no place’ (78).
Considered her ‘masterpiece’ by many (according to my brief research), A Very Easy Death strikes just about the right amount of balance between the emotional and the intellectual. Although this was a very personal story, close to the author’s heart, de Beauvoir is able to look at the experience from a critical point of view. As she asserts of her mother:
‘She had a very easy death; an upper-class death’.
A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir, Pg.95
De Beauvoir recognises that even in death there is privilege. Money can buy you the best medical care and facilities to make you as numb to the pain as possible and, though there comes a time when no amount of drugs will help how her mother feels, de Beauvoir recognises the effort put in to making her ‘comfortable’.
On a more emotional level, de Beauvoir recounts, with unflinching honesty, the level of communication that opened up between herself and her mother as she is inevitably approaching the end of her life:
‘I had grown very fond of this dying woman. As we talked in the half-darkness I assuaged an old unhappiness; I was renewing the dialogue that had been broken off during my adolescence and that our differences and our likenesses had never allowed us to take up again’.
A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir, Pg.76
The fact that this dialogue only opened up towards the end of her mother’s life is bitter-sweet in its tragedy. Although Simone de Beauvoir gained prominence after the publication of The Second Sex, it was to the detriment of her relationship with her mother, which was already fraught with difficulties from adolescence. Perhaps it was in their likenesses – their similarities – that expressed themselves so openly and publicly in Simone de Beauvoir but were repressed in her mother from a young age, that created this barrier of communication. It is a shame that it took her mother dying for this barrier to be broken down.
‘When someone you love dies you pay for the sin of outliving her with a thousand piercing regrets. Her death brings to light her unique quality; she grows as vast as the world that her absence annihilates for her and whose whole existence was caused by her being there; you feel that she should have had more room in your life – all the room, if need be’.
A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir
Written with hindsight, A Very Easy Death is a beautiful and searingly honest account of a very personal experience. De Beauvoir masters the art of realism in a way that is at once relatable and consolatory. I can understand why some call it her ‘masterpiece’.