Wednesday, August 31, 2016

What I Read: America Day by Day

Image courtesy University of California Press

How do you review a book by one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century? It's hubris, isn't it, for me to sit here and say what I think about it. Like Simone de Beauvoir needs my praise. She's just hanging out in the existentialist afterlife, smoking a cigarette with her espresso and dryly commenting on the failures of capitalism. But anyway.

Sometime last year I'd already read, but apparently never talked about here, her novel The Mandarins. I won't quote the whole thing here but I want to highlight this part:
In short: There are more true-to-life accounts of de Beauvoir's travels in America (maybe with [Nelson] Algren?) but those are apparently out of print and hard to find; I feel like I would have enjoyed those as well (and probably better).
You were so right, Past Me! You had no way of knowing how right you were!

The long and short of it is de Beauvoir spent four months of 1947 traveling across the US and collected all of her thoughts and impressions in the book America Day by Day and it's really, really good.

Given how resistant I am to hype, I am always reluctant to hype anything myself, no matter how much I love something. Instead, let me present reasons why I am probably the ideal reader for this book. How much you would like it depends on how much these statements also apply to you.

1. I just really admire Simone de Beauvoir (even though I'm creeped out by her predilection for sleeping with students, yikes, #yourfaveisproblematic). Whenever people ask you that "Who would you invite to a dinner party?" question, I can't think of anyone besides her.

2. I love road trips.

3. I was initially indifferent to, and then grew to loathe, the quintessential road trip novel On the Road. As the New York Times Book Review puts it:

For women, and men, who want to experience vicariously Jack Kerouac's open road with less macho romanticism and more existential savvy, America Day by Day...comes to the reader like a dusty bottle of vintage French cognac, asking only to be uncorked.

4. I love taking a critical, distant eye to Americans and American culture. Now that I live in Sweden, I get to be that token ambassador who explains things like why a pompous orange with tiny hands and a bizarre haircut is actually and seriously a presidential candidate, and I relish the role. America is weird as hell and anything that tries to explain, or just describe it, is fascinating reading.

5. The writing is observant but also introspective, almost always rich and complex. This is no "simple sentence structure with SAT words" dessert reading; de Beauvoir is thoughtful (though not without a touch of poetry). I'll close with one of the many, many passages I wanted to underline and share with the world:

[Americans] respect the past, but as an embalmed monument; the idea of a living past integrated with the present is alien to them. They want to know only a present that's cut off from the flow of time, and the future they project is one that can be mechanically deduced from it, not one whose slow ripening or abrupt explosion implies unpredictable risks. They believe in the future of a bridge or an economic plan, not the future of an art or a revolution. Their time is the "physicist's time," a pure exteriority that mirrors the exteriority of space. And because they reject duration, they also reject quality. It's not just for economic reasons that there is no "craftsmanship" in America; even in the leisure activities of domestic life, they don't aim for superior quality: food is cooked and fruit is ripened as quickly as possible. In every area they rush for fear that the result will already be outdated the moment it's achieved. Cut off from the past and the future, the present has no thickness. Nothing is stranger to Americans than the idea of seeing the moment as a recapitulation of time, as a mirror of the eternal, and of anchoring themselves in it in order to grasp timeless truths or values. The contents of the moment seem to them as precarious as the moment itself. Because they don't acknowledge that truths and values are evolving, they don't know how to preserve them in the movement that surpasses them; they just deny them. History is a large cemetery here: men, works, and ideas die almost as soon as they are born. And every individual existence has a taste of death: from minute to minute, the present is merely an honorary past. It must constantly be filled with the new to conceal the curse it carries within it. That's why Americans love speed, alcohol, film "thrillings," and sensational news. They feverishly demand something more and, again, something more, never able to quell their restlessness. Yet here, as everywhere else, life repeats itself day after day, so people amuse themselves with gadgets, and lacking real projects, they cultivate hobbies. These manias allow them to pretend to take responsibility, by choice, for their daily habits. Sports, movies, and comics all offer distractions. But in the end, people are always faced with what they wanted to escape: the arid basis of American life—boredom.

This book is supposedly hard to come by, at least the American translation, but when I looked it up myself it didn't seem outrageously expensive. If your French is better than mine, feel free to tackle the original. The edition I have, translated by Carol Cosman, is only $30 on Amazon, which isn't too bad. I love this book enough to share it but too much to actually loan it to anyone; the best part about it is that it is eminently re-readable. I'm already planning at least one more read-through so I can farm it for quotes.


  1. This book sounds BRILLIANT. I think I've had the same love/hate relationship with "On the Road" as you do. Those dudes were awful to their women, but daaaaamn the adventures.

    1. What struck me right away with it was just how often Sal/Kerouac was wiring his aunt for money. It didn't seem like she was really well-off or could afford to indulge in his road trip lifestyle, but he'd feel guilty for maybe half a page and then just score some more weed and forget about it. Like, what kind of childish self-centeredness...?

  2. I too am resistant to hype. Downright suspicious even. But I go around telling people to read books I love and don't worry that my hype will turn them off (perhaps because it's often something that not everyone is talking about?) I also know books I love enough to insist others read but refuse to lend. I recall her French as clear but dense. Sounds intriguing - for a when I have time to devote to it.

    1. The English translation is great, and seems to retain that "clear but dense" aspect of her French. (I guess, I mean—its not like I've read any de Beauvoir in the original French.)

      I love this book but am never lending it out. For $30 on Amazon it's not as hard to find as I imagined, so I feel less guilty about hanging on to the used copy a friend sent me. So much sentimental value~~