First of all, I don’t mean this post to be a proper review of the book, because I know that it’s often used in French-lit high-schools exams, and I don’t want students to come to this post for a quick “copy-paste”. There are enough websites for that already. Souvenirs Pieux is meant to be a biography of Yourcenar’s ancestors, the first volume of her biography. She goes all the way back to the Middle-Ages (her family was noble, so I guess it made records more accurate) and describes in details a few of her more intellectually-inclined relatives, her great-uncle Octave Pirmez, her aunt and her mother who died in childbirth (that is, her own birth).
But from the very beginning, she challenges even the possibility to write such a book. That’s the reason why it’s so famous in French-lit class: she reflects on the limits of autobiography. How to write about one’s parents and one’s birth, when of course the writer can’t have been a witness of this event nor pretend to fully understand her parents? Once she made her point of writing her family’s history the best she could, but in no way exhaustively or truthfully, she treats her ancestors like literary characters, making assumptions and describing their psychology, so you never know what is fact and what is fiction (even with the best intentions). Her ancestors were modest, conformist, Catholic aristocrats very much attached to the Belgian countryside (not far from the French border where I grew up), but they’re no extraordinary characters. I guess that’s the reason why this book was so difficult to read (and added difficulty: her story isn’t linear, so I kept confusing her relatives!).
I roughly translate for you the first paragraphs (her French is old-style, grammar problems and typos are all mine!):
The being I call “I” was born on a Monday, June 8th 1903, at about 8 in the morning, in Brussels, from a French man belonging to an old family from the North, and from a Belgian woman whose ancestors had long been established in Liège, then in Hainaut. […]
After having recorded these few facts that have no meaning by themselves, and yet that for each of us reach beyond our own history and even history itself, I stop and stagger at the inextricable muddle of incidents and circumstances that determine us all more or less. This female child already situated in the frame of Christian world and 20C Europe, this little pink human being screaming in her blue cot, makes me ask formidable yet seemingly banal questions, that any educated writer never utters. That this child is myself, I can’t doubt it without putting everything in question. Yet, in order to overcome the feeling of unreality that this identification gives me, I am forced, in the same way as I would for a historical character that I would strive to recreate, to cling to pieces of memory received by others, even from remote sources, to pieces of information taken from letters or notebooks that escaped being thrown away, and that our eagerness for information makes them say more than they ever meant to express, or to go to public registers or to lawyers to get authentic papers whose administrative and legal language eliminates all human content.
It wasn’t the easiest book to start with Yourcenar (I read other books by her when I was in high-school, but I don’t remember much, so it doesn’t count), but I hope the next book of her biography (about her childhood) is less difficult. Mr. Smithereens always praises the letters she wrote to friends and colleagues, but I don’t feel confident to read that one without knowing anything else about her…