Friday, 8 March 2013

Book Review: The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir
As many may have noticed, this week my focus is on women. This is because today, 8 March, the International Women’s Day is celebrated. Until about 1977 the day has only been observed in communist countries, but then it was officially declared UN Day for Women's Rights and World Peace. However, in order to continue on a feminist tone, I picked The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir for my weekly book review. It’s an excellent and philosophical novel set in Paris during World War II, thus at a time that asked incredible strength of virtually every woman and even more so of those who took sides against the Nazi regime.

Simone de Beauvoir is known to have been a strong, unconventional and very controversial woman. Born in Paris in January 1908 into a bourgeois family, her rise to one of the most influential figures of feminism and existentialist philosophy was all but preordained. However, her father supported her ambitions. After graduation from a prestigious convent school Simone de Beauvoir went to university where she first studied mathematics and literature as well as languages and then philosophy. During her studies she got to know Jean-Paul Sartre who was going to become her lifelong companion. During World War II Simone de Beauvoir joined the French Résistance and continued her fiction writing. She Came to Stay (L’invitée) was published during the war and The Blood of Others (Le sang des autres) first appeared in 1945, immediately after World War II, but as a writer Simone de Beauvoir is best known for her feminist treatise The Second Sex (Le deuxième sexe: 1949) that was included into the Vatican’s list of forbidden books. She also wrote her four-volume autobiography: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Mémoirs d’une jeune fille rangée: 1958), The Prime of Life  (La force de l’âge: 1960), Force of Circumstance  (La force des choses: 1963) and All Said and Done (Tout compte fait: 1972). Simone de Beauvoir fought all her life for the feminist cause and died in April 1986.

In The Blood of Others Simone de Beauvoir deals with questions of freedom and individual responsibility in the setting of German-occupied France during World War II. The novel starts with Jean Blomart sitting by the side of dying Hélène who has been shot in an operation for French Résistance. The story of their lives and their love affair is told in flashbacks. When they first meet, she’s a naïve young woman who doesn’t care about anything but the moment and can’t understand the political commitment of her fiancé Paul and Jean. Hélène is attracted by Jean’s strong character that gives him the air of always knowing what is right and of being an independent mind. It’s Hélène who wishes to get involved with him although he warns her. They begin a relationship. When war breaks out, Jean volunteers as a soldier which annoys Hélène. In order to protect him she arranges – with the help of his parents – that he’s transferred to a desk job in Paris that he doesn’t want. Instead of getting married they split up. They get back together only when Hélène needs the help of Jean, who meanwhile joined the French Résistance, to get a Jewish friend across the border. At this point Hélène starts working for the resistance, too. With Hélène dying, Jean becomes fully aware that he has the blood of others on his hands because each time he triggers a bomb or commits sabotage the Germans kill hostages. But for Jean freedom is too important a value to save their lives by doing nothing.

The novel The Blood of Others is fluently written and a capturing story about life in the French Résistance that required difficult choices with sometimes horrible consequences. Freedom for one could mean death for oneself and for others. For Simone de Beauvoir it was worth the sacrifice. She was so convinced of herself that she sometimes sliped into an admonishing, almost preaching language. The characters of Jean and Hélène are a bit one-dimensional and predictible, but this doesn't ruin the pleasure of reading.

Almost seventy years after the end of World War II this novel of Simone the Beauvoir has lost nothing of its power and message. Everyone of us has to make choices every day and often our decisions have more or less dramatic effects on the lives of others. It's important to be aware of this or we might some day wake up and be shocked or ashamed by what we've done. Books like The Blood of Others remind us of our responsibility.


  1. I have previously only read The Second Sex but this sounds like a novel I really should read. Your review also made me think of Cloud Atlas which I saw over the weekend which seeks to celebrate all the drops in the ocean that make a difference in resisting that will to power that can be so destructive.

  2. Nice to hear that my review had that effect... I don't know the Cloud Atlas, but it sounds very much like something that would be in my line since the idea of being a drop in the ocean is one that I appreciate a lot and that I try to follow.


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