The only link between two people who loved one another should be love.
– Simone De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (345)
In our current age of memoir mills, I was interested to read this early example of the popular literary form as it is a genre I don’t read often. Simone De Beauvoir’s title, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, is pointed: the entire book of some 385 pages goes into minute detail regarding her childhood as the eldest daughter of a French Catholic bourgeoisie family. Initially, I have to say, I couldn’t understand why I kept reading it. It was interesting, if nothing else because her (presumably) sedulous and copious diaries afforded an accurate look into the thoughts and states of mind that a child to adolescent to young adult progresses through. But her faith in her own uniqueness and brilliance was of some disconcerting fascination to me- I am not a French catholic bourgeoisie, and yet we shared many similar experiences, revelations and ideas- so, how unique could she possibly be? But I am always transfixed by the confident…
I sensed for the first time that one can be touched to the very heart of one’s being by a radiance from the outside. (59)
Of course there were many moments when she might allude to her age at the moment of some momentous understanding of life- when she might have been at the ripe old age of, say, eleven – that caused me vexatious chagrin, but still, her youthful arrogance was somewhat off putting and I wondered at her so freely acknowledging it and including so many instances of it throughout. Mostly her attitude towards her own brilliance was presented very matter of factually, but thankfully there were glimmers of self-deprecating knowing that is probably what allowed me to continue.
I could not possible be hurt by stupid children who demonstrated their inferiority by not liking croquet as passionately as I did. (63)
I found myself getting impatient, and yet, and yet, there is a rather beautiful and profound point to her long honest examination of growing up in a tightly controlled “moralistic” environment with all the attendant pressures to do what’s “right,” and to act “proper” while feeling…so different as to make that conformity impossible.
“Simone would rather bite her tongue out than say what she’s thinking,” [my mother] would remark in a tone of sharp vexation. That was quite true: I was prodigiously silent. (203)
The expected sexual mores of girls is a theme that runs through the entire book. And while De Beauvoir early on openly rejects the idea of (her mother’s) god, she only alludes, mentions, and keeps at a low heat what it means to be a girl in a society (or world as the case really is) where the expectations and rules are so divergent between the sexes. It’s the undercurrent to her life, and becomes her life’s work: an ignored gnawing injustice that she will (famously) fully expose later in life, after the story of her memoir ends.
That year, Zaza did not accompany me to Mont-de-Marsan; I walked around the town thinking about her as I waited for my train. I had decided to fight with all my strength to prevent her life becoming a living death. (297)
By the end of this part of her story however, it becomes apparent that the book is really about De Beauvoir’s long friendship with Zaza, a woman that never fully breaks away from her own mother’s hold, yet who yearns for independence, equanimity and freedom in love. Near the end when Zaza becomes “reacquainted” with Stendhal’s books I had a bad feeling that things were going to go south for her. If Stendhal knew anything- it was hopeless love.
But all the same, after so many years of arrogant loneliness, it was something to discover that I wasn’t the One and Only, but one among many, by no means the first, and suddenly uncertain of my true capacity. (365)
Speaking of love, as I always do, Sartre does not enter the story until very near the end, but the above quote, and change in attitude, she openly attributes to her relationship with him. Their love. But her source of purpose and clarity of meaning in her early story she attributes and dedicates to her lovely friend Zaza, whom she could not save from a sad frustrated fate. But, like any good Stendhal tale, the strengthening of our own determination to live and love fully is what we take away and try, some tragically, very hard to be true to. De Beauvoir is an inspiring woman whose unique path reveals, absolutely, her unwavering intelligence, courage, and beautiful humanity.
*translated from the French by James Kirkup
**title from De Beauvoir’s famed quote of her book The Second Sex: “One is not born a women, one becomes one.”