At the cusp of adulthood I became gripped by Jean-Paul Sartre and his theories of being. The idea that man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself’ liberated me. It is my foundation. After reading all of Sartre, inevitably I was lead to Simone de Beauvoir and Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir 1926-1939 and Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre. Both are stunning and inevitably as much about Simone de Beauvoir as Sartre.
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is the first volume of de Beauvoir’s memoirs. At the age of fifty, de Beauvoir chronicles her early life from her birth to her student days at the Sorbonne. As she noted in her student diary, ‘I want life, the whole of life. I feel an avid curiosity; I desperately want to burn myself away, more brightly than any other person, and no matter with what kind of flame.’ This passion illuminates every page of this brilliant book. The perspicacity which de Beauvoir brings to the recollection of her childhood loss of faith and complicated relationships is breathtaking and insightful.
The sentiment that remains on reluctantly reading the final pages is regret that I did not know Simone de Beauvoir in person. The closest I can get is to continue reading the memoirs. Curiously, the other three volumes are no longer published by Penguin, though the next in sequence The Prime of Life is the most widely read in France.
In reading any autobiography I am always very curious about what its subject reads. Simone de Beauvoir was an avid reader, commenting, “Literature took the place in my life that had once been occupied by religion: it absorbed me entirely, and transfigured my life.” In these memoirs, de Beauvoir recalls her reading. The book that she mentions most frequently, with love, is Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, considered one of France’s literary masterpieces.