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This review is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

Cover of Becoming Beauvoir: A Life
Nicolas TredellQuestions from the Edge

Kate Kirkpatrick, Becoming Beauvoir: A Life (Bloomsbury Academic) £20; Peter Salmon, An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida (Verso) £16.99
The subjects of these informed and lucid biographies, Simone de Beauvoir and Jacques Derrida, can serve to represent two key moments in twentieth-century French intellectual life – existentialism and deconstruction – which had an impact far beyond France but which can now seem, to borrow a phrase from Donald Davie’s poem ‘Remembering the ‘Thirties’, ‘more remote than Ithaca or Rome’, belonging to those foreign countries of the relatively recent past that can appear more distant than those farther back in time. It is not that the ideas developed in those moments have wholly disappeared but rather that, like the ideas of psychoanalysis, they have been domesticated, simplified, popularized and assimilated into quite different contexts. In a sense, we are all existentialists and deconstructionists now.

Both biographies aim to stress above all the philosophical concerns of their subjects, even if they have, for differing reasons, been denied philosophical respectability in some quarters. Derrida and Beauvoir were both steeped in previous philosophy and their ideas emerged out of and against this. As Beauvoir declared in a 1947 article, ‘it is indispensable to be familiar with the long tradition on which it rests if one wants to grasp both the foundations and the originality of the new [philosophical] doctrine’. While ‘foundations’ and ‘originality’ are suspect terms from a deconstructionist perspective, Salmon contends that Derrida’s work ‘often appears to assume a thorough working knowledge of most of the history of Western philosophy’ as well as much else. Both Beauvoir and Derrida were also steeped in literature and their ...

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