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Dictionnaire testimonial et mémoriel


Damien Zanone
Translated by Sarah Voke
p. 188
This article is a translation of:
Mémorialiste [fr]

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1The memorialist bears witness to his memory. It is expected of him that he shares an exemplary experience of contemporary history, an exemplarity that his voice constructs in the representation of the relation between the particularity of an individual existence and the generality of collective history. It is a usual condition of the memorialist’s writing that he lived his own day in a remarkable way either as a witness or as an actor in decisive events, however not necessarily. The exemplarity of his experiences is worked into a narrative that illustrates the problem of the relation of an individual to a group. The memorialist does not appear alone, but connected to his contemporaries; he thinks about the aspects that have set the dominant traits of his generation and to the way he embodied them himself. His approach to writing finds itself at the intercross between collective and individual narratives, discovering the solidarity between both. In this perspective, he could wish not to dwell on the private aspects of his existence (family and sentimental relationships, deeply personal).

Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz.

Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz.

© All rights reserved.

2Ever since Memoirs have been considered as a writing form (in France, during the 12th century), both modes of relating to history have taken on appearances. We can namely mention the cardinal de Retz and the Duke of Saint-Simon, the two most well-known memorialists of the Ancien Régime. The first one participated in and gave an account of his first-hand experience of the events of the Fronde; the second was a witness and minute observer of the habits and customs of Louis XIV’s court. After the revolution, after Rousseau as well, the memorialist’s testimony progressively gained freedom. It is as much as an actor than as a witness of history, by showing the public scene than by showing what is deeply personal, to write history than to illustrate literature, that Chateaubriand writes the Memoirs that make him a memorialist of reference within French tradition. Since then, historical testimonies no longer have a prescribed composition. History, spelt with a capital H and reminding of the “hatchet” (Perec) that it waved during the entire 20th century, has finished sweeping the divisions we had for a long time held onto, by shifting the relations of the individual to the group. Each memorialist shows these relations as a new experience for which the exemplary narrative is yet to be reinvented.

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Jeannelle, Jean-Louis, Écrire ses mémoires au XXe siècle: Déclin et renouveau, Paris: Gallimard, 2008.

Jeanelle, Jean-Louis, Marc Hersant & Damien Zanone (eds.), ‘Le Sens du passé. Pour une nouvelle approche des Mémoires’, La Licorne. Revue de langue et de littérature françaises de l’Université de Poitiers 104, 2013.

Zanone, Damien, Écrire son temps. Les Mémoires en France de 1815 à 1848, Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2006.

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List of illustrations

Title Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz.
Credits © All rights reserved.
File image/jpeg, 82k
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Bibliographical reference

Damien Zanone, MemorialistTémoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire, 118 | 2014, 188.

Electronic reference

Damien Zanone, MemorialistTémoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire [Online], 118 | 2014, Online since 01 October 2015, connection on 18 May 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Damien Zanone

Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve.

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Tous droits réservés

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