Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Memory by Philippe Grimbert

I made up for finishing only 2 books during the Read-a-Thon by reading all of Philippe Grimbert's novel (really a novella) Memory during my Monday morning commute. The story grabbed me from the first page, and I flew through the 153 pages in a little over an hour. There are so many layers to this story that it's really hard to put my thoughts into words, but I loved it and want you all to love it, too, so I will try.

Memory is dubbed a novel, but as the narrator shares the same name as the author and ultimately the same profession -- a psychoanalyst -- it is uncertain how much truth there is to the story. The narrator was born after World War II to French Jews who survived the Nazi Occupation by fleeing to a rural area outside the demarcation line and changed their name from Grinberg to Grimbert to disguise their Jewish roots. He knows he has an older brother who is dead but never mentioned, and he invents an imaginary brother to take his place. As a teenager, he learns that his parents have been hiding the truth about their past, and this is where the Holocaust story comes in to play. Because he is told his parents' story by a neighbor and close friend and cannot approach his parents about what he's learned, he doesn't know what his parents were doing, thinking, and feeling during the war. So he fills in the gaps, and the memory he invents ultimately becomes his truth.

Originally written in French and published with the title Secret, Memory was translated by Polly McLean. I was worried that the book might lose something in the translation, but the prose flowed beautifully and wrapped me up in a heartbreaking story of love and loss that would not let go. Here are some of my favorite passages:

We've always had that name, he would snap. That much was obvious and not to be contradicted: our name could be traced right back to the Middle Age--wasn't Grimbert a hero of the Roman de Renart? An m for an n, a t for a g; two tiny changes. But of course M for mute hid the N of Nazism, while G for ghosts vanished under taciturn T. (page 9)

My parents' story, which in my first tale I had imagined so straightforward, became tortuous. Blindly I followed its path, on an exodus that took me away from those I loved toward unfamiliar faces. I walked a road full of murmurs, now able to make out the corpses laid out on the verge. (page 59)

The enemy can no longer simply be distinguished by gray-green uniforms and long raincoats; it may also be hidden beneath the shiny cuffs of local government employees or the capes of policemen, the authority of police chiefs, or even the friendly gaze of one's neighbors. The big platform buses that took city dwellers to work and dropped passengers at parks and cinemas will soon become heavy with cargoes of men and women loaded with bundles of belongings. The small buses that used to take excited families on their holidays now stop in front of buildings in the early hours, sowing terror. (page 81)
I found Memory to be a very sad book, but I loved it because it gave me a lot to ponder. The prose is sparse; we don't get a lot of character or scene descriptions, but Grimbert says a lot about the narrator and his parents -- or at least how the narrator perceives his parents -- in so few pages. There's the Holocaust aspect to the story, lending a heaviness to the narrative, but it also raises a lot of questions about how much we really know about our families and how far we are willing to go to protect our loved ones from the pain of the truth.


Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we take time to remember the 6 million Jews killed during World War II. Serena and I wrote up a post on our War Through the Generations blog about some of the events taking place today to honor the memories of the Holocaust victims. We hope you will check it out.


Memory by Philippe Grimbert is the 7th book I've completed for our WWII Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations.


Memory also was reviewed by:

The Boston Bibliophile

If you've also reviewed it, let me know in the comments, and I'll add your link!

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of Memory.


Literary Feline said...

This sounds like an amazing book, Anna. I will have to look for it. Thank you for the great review.

Serena said...

great review...I wonder how much is real and how much is fiction...do you plan to interview the author?

bermudaonion said...

I love books like this - those that I ponder for a while after I've finished it. Great review.

Liz said...

This book sound SO interesting. I'm going to look for it -- we have book club tomorrow and I may suggest it, though it's not my month to do so! With its questions of "how could people act like that," it bookends nicely with another book, Dominance and Delusion, which seeks to answer questions of human behavior. After reading it, I no longer wonder why we have war and dictators, for example.

Ti said...

Such a tough subject matter. There is a museum here in L.A. where you are given an identity at the beginning of the tour, and then find out at the end if you survived or were sent to the gas chamber. It is such a powerful exhibit. They even separate men from women and children. Chilling really.

This book sounds like a very powerful read. Much like the experience above, it's probably a book that will stay with you.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Your description of the book's tone sounds alot like Night by Elie Wiesel, which I just finished today in the doctor's office (two very dreary things all at once!). I think in its sparsity comes power. I like the idea of a short book. I could a few of those now and again!

Kailana said...

This book sounds really good! I will have to keep my eyes peeled for it!

The Bookworm said...

this does sound like an emotional read, wow, glad you enjoyed it so much.

Staci said...

As painful as it is sometimes to read books based around the Holocaust I truly believe that we must never let anyone forget that it happened. So I'm always willing to read a good one and your review has sold me on this one! Thanks for such a thoughtful take on this book Anna!

darbyscloset said...

Great review and I have ordered my copy...thanks so much for sharing!!!
Funny how I'm not part of the WWII challenge yet I might as well be for everyone keeps sharing such great finds that I have to read them too!!!
darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

Serena said...

Ti: They used to have that similar run-through at the museum in D.C.; I was very disturbed by that portion of the tour. My identity was killed in the gas chamber and I had grown very fond of her in a short period of time....very sad.

Darby: you should sign up and join our little challenge...its all year long...so you have plenty of time to read a minimum of 5 books.

Unknown said...

Hi Anna, thanks for letting me know about this post, the book sounds wonderful.
I will be making up another post with spotlights on different blogs talking about Holocaust, WWII literature on Saturday. I will definitely include this one and also if you know of any others that you think need to be mentioned please let me know. The more the merrier :-)

Jenners said...

Sounds very interesting and with a lot of different layers. I'll have to check it out.

Anna said...

Literary Feline: I hope you get a chance to read it. It's small but packs a big punch.

Serena: I have no idea how to go about contacting the author. This isn't a new release, just something I bought a few months ago.

Bermudaonion: Thanks!

Liz: I'll have to check out the book you mentioned. It sounds interesting. Please let me know if you get a chance to read this book. I'd love to know what you think.

Ti: That museum sounds interesting. That must've been a powerful experience.

Sandy: I read Night ages ago, but I think I should read it again. I agree that some of the slimmest novels are the most powerful.

Kailana: I hope you get a chance to read it.

Naida: It was an excellent book. It gives you a glimpse of the evil and the tragedy without being too graphic.

Staci: I agree, and I hope you get a chance to read this book. It's so worth it.

Darby: You should sign up! I emailed you the information in case you're interested.

Serena: I've never been to the D.C. museum. You'll have to take me since you know I don't go to the city alone. :)

lilly: Thanks so much!

Jenners: I hope you get a chance to read this one. I'd love to know your thoughts.

Marie Cloutier said...

That's such a lovely book, and a great review. I reviewed it a while back as well. Just loved it. It won the Prix Goncourt in France as well.

avisannschild said...

This sounds like a great (and intense) book, Anna! I love the first quote you shared in particular. (I wonder what it sounds like in French though? Because the "G for ghosts" part certainly wouldn't work.)

Anna said...

Marie: Thanks! I'll have to check out your review.

avisannschild: Thanks! That's a good question...