How much does Simone de Beauvoir's memoir-like account of her mother's death truly belong in a month devoted to literature by women in translation? Is A Very Easy Death fiction? Is it a memoir? Is it something in between? Whatever it may be, A Very Easy Death is a woefully underrated little book that does a fantastic job of blurring the fact-fiction line and ultimately telling a story that is both powerful and utterly engaging.
"Utterly engaging" is one of those reviewer cliches - what does it mean for a book like this? To be perfectly frank, it means what it sounds like - A Very Easy Death is not a passive book, which once read no longer impacts the reader. Rather, this short text plunges the reader straight into the heart of death and family. It forces the reader to contemplate, to struggle, to ache and ultimately to feel. For a book that is so inherently personal, somehow A Very Easy Death manages to be extremely relevant to just about every possible reader.
Over the course of about 100 pages, Beauvoir lays out her mother's final days. There's a touch of fiction to the whole story, a sort of glossing-over that makes both prose and story feel like they've been sharpened somewhat (hence my hesitation to call it outright nonfiction). Regardless, in these few pages is a universal truth that will likely reach every reader. Beauvoir looks at old age, illness and ultimately death with a sort of clarity I don't think I've ever encountered in literature. In asking questions about end of life - touching on issues like whether to prolong days of illness, or have a quick death - she is probing matters that apply to every single person in the world.
The attitude towards an ailing parent, meanwhile, is likely equally relevant to most readers today. Even younger readers such as myself (who are hopefully not yet remotely near imaging their parents in such a position...) can relate, whether in regards to grandparents or their own future. Throughout most of the book, I found myself thinking about my grandmother's last months - her fight to prolong her life as much as possible, and whatever further pain that may have caused her. I thought about my living grandparents, and what they might go through in the years to come. It's these sorts of thoughts that lead me to label A Very Easy Death as "engaging" - it engaged me to apply its ideas to my own world, and to think... differently.
A Very Easy Death is more than a simple story about dying. It's also - more broadly - about family. Beauvoir describes a relationship with her mother that is, like most relationships, complicated. In one particularly moving scene, Beauvoir contemplates her different reactions to her mother's body over time: openness as a child, revulsion as a teenager, and now a sort of uncomfortable openness late in life. Her discomfort at staying in the hospital, her fears of leaving her mother, her fears of staying by her mother... these help paint a strikingly clear portrait of family ties. Beauvoir discusses her mother's response to her father's death as well: a woman who essentially reinvented herself later in life. And though neither relationship is itself given the primary focus of the book, Beauvoir's relationship with her sister also provides structure to the main-stage story.
But death - the process - really is the point here. What is the dignity of dying? Or of old age at all? How should the dying elderly be treated - coddled and protected, or told the truth every step of the way? What of the physicality of it all? Beauvoir doesn't offer answers to all these questions. I don't believe there are any. What she offers, however, is better - a perspective. And it's certainly a worthwhile one at that.
* I read this book in the Hebrew translation and was unable to track down the name of the translator into English.