Born in London and educated in Europe and Australia, Hazel Rowley, completed her PhD dissertation in Literary Studies on the topic of Existentialism. In 1976, she had the opportunity to interview Simone de Beauvoir. For thirteen years, Rowley worked as professor of Literary Studies at Deakin University in Melbourne. Her Christina Stead: A Biography (Heinemann, 1993) won the National Book Award for Nonfiction (Australia's equivalent of the Pulitzer) and received lavish international acclaim.
Rowley moved to the United States in 1997. While writing her biography of Richard Wright, she was a Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Studies at Harvard, a Rockefeller Humanities Fellow at the University of Iowa, and a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.
Richard Wright: The Life and Times (Holt, 2001) was listed among the Washington Post’s 2001 Best Books. Arnold Rampersad, the biographer of Langston Hughes, described it as “a portrait of uncommon penetration and skill – surely one of the finest literary biographies to appear in many a year.”
After the hubris of writing about a black American man, Rowley took on the most controversial couple in twentieth century France. Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (Harper Collins, 2005), another Washington Post “Best Book,” has been translated into thirteen languages. The L.A. Times calls it “compulsively readable, ... the surprise page turner of the season.” In France, Lire magazine named it the best “literary essay” of 2006.
A passionate speaker, Hazel Rowley has talked at numerous book festivals and college campuses in the US, Canada, Britain, France, and Australia.
1. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: A Passionate Relationship
Theirs was certainly a relationship based on passion – a shared passion for books and writing, for “littérature engagée” in which they debunked myths and exposed the truth, and for practicing their philosophy of freedom and responsibility in their own lives. Their “pact,” as they called it, was less a pact between lovers than a pact between writers – committed writers – writers who took sides in the important debates of their times.
Sartre and Beauvoir make us conscious that we do have choices, at least to some extent. They regarded their relationship as a conscious choice, theirs alone, something they would “re-invent” as they went along. This applied to the whole of their lives. When you read Beauvoir’s memoirs you find yourself wanting to live more courageously, to read more books, travel across the world, fall in love again, take stronger political stands, write more, work harder, play more intensely, and look more tenderly at the beauty of the natural world. If that’s not all about passion, what is?
2. Simone de Beauvoir’s Existential Feminism
What is Existentialism? And how did Simone de Beauvoir apply it to women in Le Deuxième Sèxe? In October 1945, Existentialism became an international craze, but few people understood what it actually meant. When Beauvoir applied this philosophy to her study of the female condition in 1949, the book created shock waves in France, and she received an avalanche of hate mail. I will be talking about Beauvoir’s philosophy, how it influenced her life and her writing, and why her thinking remains so profoundly relevant today.
3. Simone de Beauvoir: still scandalous, even today
Simone de Beauvoir was never a neutral figure. From her first publication, L’Invitée, in 1943, her writing aroused controversy. Her open relationship with Sartre represented a kind of provocation to the bourgeoisie. Her 1949 essay, Le deuxième sexe, which broached so many taboo subjects (women’s sexuality, lesbianism, abortion, the horror of ageing) was widely regarded as scandalous. In Une mort très douce, a tender portrait of her dying mother, Beauvoir broke another taboo: the subject of death and dying. She did it again in her essay La Vieillesse. Even today, as the reception of my own book Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre has shown, reactions to Simone de Beauvoir (and to Sartre) remain deeply polarized, often contradictory, and always highly emotionally charged. In this talk, I will be discussing, and attempting to analyze, this fascinating phenomenon.
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