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More on Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a dutiful daughter

August 29, 2014

My recent review of Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a beautiful daughter was a little dry, focusing on some specific ideas or issues that interested me, rather than on her writing. It’s a pretty dense book, containing detailed description of her life and thoughts, but her fearless and often evocative writing carries it. I’d like to share a few examples to round out my review – but of course, in doing so, I can’t help but also discuss the book a little more too!

Nature

Beauvoir and her family would spend their summers with relations in the country – with her father’s sister at La Grillière and her father’s father at Meyrignac. In these places she developed a deep love of nature. Early in Memoirs, from when she is still a very young schoolgirl, she writes that

… I was learning things that are never taught by books or official syllabuses. I learnt to recognise the buttercup and the clover, the phlox, the fluorescent blue of the morning glory, the butterfly, the ladybird, the glow-worm, the dew, the spiders’ webs, and the strands of gossamer; I learnt that the red of holly is redder than the cherry laurel or the mountain ash, that autumn blooms the peach and bronzes the leaves, that the sun rises and sets in the sky though you cannot see it moving. The wealth of colours and scents excited me. Everywhere in the green water of the ponds, in the waving grasses of the fields, under the thorny hedgerows and in the heart of the woods were hidden treasures that I longed to discover.

This love of being in the natural world continues with her – at least until she is 21 when these memoirs end. Indeed, at one point, when she is 19 or 20 years old, she admits to a mystical experience:

… the fact of existing here and now sometimes took on a glorious splendour. During those few days, the silence of nature often plunged me into joy and horror. I went even further. In those woods and meadows undisturbed by man, I thought I touched that superhuman reality I aspired to. I knelt down to pick a flower, and suddenly I felt riveted to the earth, with all the weight of the heavens on my shoulders; I couldn’t move: it was both an agony and an ecstasy which brought eternity within my grasp.

One of the threads running thought the novel is her desire to find “the meaning of life”. With this “mystical” experience, she was tempted, she writes, to “believe that I had attained the Unknown”. However, being the intellectual she was, she continues, “I didn’t want to take myself in” so asked some respected confidantes. Their responses bring her to the conclusion that “one can’t base one’s life on such giddy notions and I did not try to bring them on again”.

“I am alone”

Sartre and Beauvoir

Sartre and Beauvoir, Balzac Memorial (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

In my review, I likened her autobiography to a bildungsroman, and nowhere is this more applicable than in her descriptions of what we would now call teenage angst. Sometimes I think I have forgotten my youth, but Beauvoir’s descriptions of her own inner conflicts brought the memories back – reminding me, as if I needed it, of one of the reasons I love to read. What teenager can’t relate to the feeling of being “alone”? Beauvoir certainly could. Being the daughter of a devout Catholic mother and an atheistic but socially conservative father, in a society in which women were (or, at least she felt) “cabined, cribbed and confined”* left her frequently feeling alone, in “exile”.

In today’s discussion of the book on ABC Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily, literary critic Geordie Williamson quoted a heart-rending section from the book (p. 188-9) in which she discusses this issue, when she realises the error of her belief that

it would be possible to rise above bourgeois mediocrity without stepping out of my own class. Its devotion to universal values was, I thought, sincere; I thought I was authorised to liquidate traditions, customs, prejudices, and all kinds of political and theological particularism in the light of reason, beauty, goodness and progress.

She thought she would be praised if she wrote a book that “trampled conformity in the dust”, but she discovers that she’s wrong, that “people did not accept me at all; instead of weaving laurel crowns for me, people were banishing me from society”.  She “would always be ostracised”. Painful, painful.

This sense of aloneness – of “exile” – continues. Part of it is, of course, typical for adolescents. She writes, when she’s 20, that “I would fall into an arid despondency of heart, and then be bounced up into happiness again”. But it’s clear too that she was different from most of her peers. Joining Sartre and his little group brought her, finally, to “her” people, and she knew at last that she didn’t have “to face [the] future all on my own”.

A novelist’s eye

In my review I suggested that Beauvoir’s autobiography has some of the sensibility of a novel – particularly in language and characterisation. At my reading group’s discussion, one member shared her favourite quote. It’s a perfect example of the fiction writer’s ability to capture a moment. Here it is (with thanks to Kate):

On the evenings when my parents held parties, the drawing-room mirrors multiplied to infinity the scintillations of a crystal chandelier. Mama would take her seat at the grand piano to accompany a lady dressed in a cloud of tulle who played the violin and a cousin who performed on a cello. I would crack between my teeth the candied shell of an artificial fruit, and a burst of light would illuminate my palate with a taste of blackcurrant or pineapple: all the colours, all the lights were mine, the gauzy scarves, the diamonds, the laces; I held the whole party in my mouth.

* Roughly quoted from Macbeth.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2014 11:46 pm

    Again I’m recalling Hazel Rowley’s biography (which I’m pretty sure you would enjoy), I remember envying Simone de Beauvoir’s strenuous summer hikes in the south of France every year. I loved the contrast between cold intellectual Paris and the warm, sensual south. She must have been a very fit lady!

    • August 30, 2014 12:24 am

      I think I would enjoy it Catherine – I did like her Franklin and Eleanor. Yes, she must have been. She did a lot of walking in Paris too.

  2. August 30, 2014 12:21 am

    I get a brilliant sense of this book from your review, Sue. Not that I didn’t get that from your first review!

    • August 30, 2014 12:24 am

      Thanks Louise … that’s great. And even now there’s more to say but I think I’ll stop here!

  3. August 30, 2014 8:47 am

    “I held the whole party in my mouth.” What a joyous sentence.
    And how beautifully she wrote of nature.

  4. Lithe lianas permalink
    August 30, 2014 11:27 am

    Two wonderful reviews, WG. Loved that she learned things ‘never taught by syllabuses’.

  5. August 30, 2014 12:09 pm

    Thank you for reminding me of this lovely book. I just love that last quote, capturing the young person’s erotic delight in the sensual beauty of the party.

  6. residentjudge permalink
    August 30, 2014 6:23 pm

    I woke up at some ungodly hour last night and heard the discussion about this book on Radio National. I was pleased to have read your reflections on the book beforehand.

    • August 30, 2014 6:55 pm

      Why thanks RJ … it was a good discussion, wasn’t it? This is the first book of their classics this year that I read just before they discussed it. It was wonderful. Did you hear them mention me? I tweeted and Michael Cathcart mentioned me – as Sue. (Well, of course you didn’t realise it was me – how many Sues are out there after all!)

      • residentjudge permalink
        August 30, 2014 10:20 pm

        No, I didn’t. I must admit that I may have drifted off during some of it …it was the middle of the night after all! I heard the part where they read out the part about being alone that you mentioned.

        • August 30, 2014 11:24 pm

          I really wouldn’t have expected you to – I tweeted about the paradox of her belief in equality but wanting/expecting the man she would love to be her “superior”. She saw herself as being “comrades” with him but that he would also be her “superior”. You can’t say much in a tweet though to tease out the finer details can you.

  7. September 3, 2014 2:29 am

    It’s too bad she was discouraged from her giddy notions about nature. I am sure she would have been able to make something interesting out of them. Thanks for sharing all these passages, now I really must read this book sometime!

    • September 3, 2014 7:43 am

      My job is done then!!

      Re nature, I wonder if she did something more in her novels … I’ve only read one and it was a long time ago.

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