In this first volume of her memoirs, Simone de Beauvoir traces her life from birth through adolescence and into college. Her early years were a period of relative ease in material terms, owing to her family’s upper-middle-class status. She writes of the comforts she enjoyed but also reflects form her adult perspective on her then-limited understanding of what such privileges entailed. Growing up in a Catholic family, she received religious instruction. Her sharp intelligence, tremendous curiosity, and apparently natural inclination toward skepticism led her to challenge Church teachings. She writes with keen insights into her own intellectual development as it accompanied a developing sense of self and a profound questioning of the status quo.
At her parents’ parties, Simone recalls, they provided all manner of foods and drink, and her mother played the piano to accompany a singer. Simone delights in recalling the taste of fruits, associating the flavors with the colors and textures of the guests’ fancy dress and jewels. Combined with her retrospective reflection, she convinces the reader that she is drawing upon real memories rather than crafting an invented nostalgia.
I held the whole party in my mouth . . . [i]f only the universe we inhabit were completely edible, I used to think, what power we would have over it! When I was grown up I wanted to crunch flowering almond trees, and take bites out of the rainbow nougat of the sunset.
Struggling with the tenets of Christianity as she absorbed them through a Catholic education, Simone became increasingly troubled by doubt. Her probing attitude was often not well received by the teachers and priests to whom she posed challenging questions, and from a young age she resented being told she was not old enough to understand. These doubts did not abate, and finally, there came a complete break.
One night I summoned God, if He really existed, to show Himself to me. He didn't, and I never addressed another word to Him. In my heart of hearts I was very glad He didn't exist. I should have hated it if what was going on here below had had to end up in eternity.
Simone’s insatiable thirst for knowledge and tremendous intellectual gifts are apparent throughout the book. She makes it apparent that her desire to learn was as insatiable and rewarding as her fanciful craving to taste colors and lights. As she moved away from religion, she voraciously devoured books from a spectrum of disciplines and traditions; she acknowledges that she sought a substitute for religion, as these books formed her new Bible.
I memorized new canticles and new litanies, psalms, proverbs, and prophecies, and I sanctified every incident in my life by the recital of these sacred texts . . . [T]he words and the cadences, the lines and the verses were not aids to make believe: but they rescued from silent oblivion all those intimate adventures of the spirit that I couldn’t speak to anyone about . . . instead of living out my small private existence, I was participating in a great spiritual epic.