Monday, August 15, 2011

Memory by Philippe Grimbert published in French in 2004 with the title The Secret; published in English in 2007

"Memory, deserved winner of the Prix Goncourt, may well take its place among the best of the "autofictions," that particular French genre that combines the tenets of autobiography with the freedoms afforded by the novel." from a review by Alexis Soloski  in the Village Voice 2/26/08

Philippe Grimbert (b. 1948), a psychoanalyst and novelist born to Jewish French Holocaust survivors, wrote this spare but powerful autobiographical novel based on his own  life and what he learned about his parents’ lives. Like many children of survivors, he both knew and did not know the story of his family’s past. It was not discussed, but it was in the air.

As Grimbert tells the story, when he turned fifteen he inadvertently found a “clue” in the attic and from then on the story of his family’s past unraveled. Some of what he learned was that his athletic father identified more as a Frenchman than as a Jew; he did not believe until it was too late that he would suffer at the hands of the Nazis. His father was sure that the Nazis were only interested in rounding up those Jews who were foreigners, those who had fled Eastern Europe ahead of the Germans and had poured over the borders into France.

Much of the novel is the story of the extended family’s flight from Paris in France’s occupied zone south to France’s free zone. First the men of the family fled; then the women and children followed. Grimbert tells the story with much insight, and also with much suspense.

Grimbert’s psychoanalytic training seems put to good use, though it is not obtrusive. It is quite clear that he feels knowing the story helped him better understand his parents and it also helped him form a more authentic identity.

He ends the story with a contemporary anecdote about finding himself in a pet cemetery with his daughter. The beloved pets eulogized on gravestones by relatives of Laval, a collaborator in the Vichy government, elicit an anger in him that is informed by what he knows about his family’s past.

To see a trailer for the French film made from the novel, click here.
To read an interesting article in which Grimbert talks about why he wrote his family story as fiction and in which he discusses what is fictionalized, click here.

Grimbert says he has changed names in the novel. He also says he father changed the family name from Grinberg to Grimbert.

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