Memory: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Feb 12 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
In this slim, bleak second novel, French psychoanalyst Grimbert fictionalizes his wrenching family history, hidden for much of his youth. Born a sickly child in post-WWII Paris, Grimbert's narrator, Philippe Grimbert, develops an obsessive fascination with the lithe, muscular bodies and athletic prowess of his beautiful parents. His fantasy life extends to an imaginary brother who at first offers comfort and protection, but soon becomes a way for the young narrator to vent his frustration with his own weakness and pallor. At 15, a violent altercation with a schoolroom bully over a lesson on Holocaust victims results in the revelation of his origins: Grimbert, the narrator's family's name, was once Grinberg, and the story of his parents' romantic retreat to the country during the war is shattered by a heartbreaking story of betrayal and sacrifice in occupied France. For Grimbert, the aftermath of WWII forced survivors into prisons of their own memories and denial, bound together by an impossible grief. The story is powerful and gripping, but the juxtaposition between young Philippe's fantasy life and adult wartime realities is underdeveloped. Readers will share in the catharsis of Grimbert's revelations, but may feel a lingering emptiness once his family's secrets have been fully purged. (Feb.)
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"The comfort we get from the cold raw truths -- death and loss and longing -- is that life itself is capable of small beauties. Grimbert captures this with style, depth and grace. Memory is a stunning book which simultaneously manages to widen our sense of history and story-telling." -- Colum McCann, author of Zoli and Dancer
"Powerful and gripping" -- Publishers Weekly
"Memorable" -- Kirkus Reviews
"His allusive, spare, elliptical prose reproduces the feeling of hidden nightmares, and evokes the uncertainty of reconstructing one's life anew with only partial information -- a process undergone by Philippe within the story, and by the author in writing the book. The result is both a poignant contribution to Holocaust literature and the tragic tale of a couple whose personal history was, as Grimbert puts it, 'intertwined with History with a capital H.'" -- Nextbook
"A splendid book that gives the unspeakable written form." -- Le Monde
"'Although an only child, for many years I had a brother.' So begins this spare, remarkable novel, which reads as easily as a children's tale, yet packs a grown-up punch." -- Lisa Appignanesi, The Independent (U.K.)
"Everything about it -- style, tone, sensibility -- is just as it should be. Everything about it -- its structure, and the path it forges toward literary truth -- commands respect." -- L'Express
"A slim little book -- quick, but heavy with terror. [Memory] is marvel of a book, rendered in a fluid and flexible translation from the French by Polly McLean, and its deepest secret of all is that fact and fiction may not be rivals but long-lost brothers." -- Financial Times
"[Memory] is a spare, haunting, brilliantly poised evocation of the way experiences of war, pain, and shame, even when unspoken, percolate through the family to shape and distort new generations." -- The Independent
"A spare, minimally told story, which resonates with historical and personal meaning." -- Jewish Chronicle --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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At the outset, Philippe is the 98-pound weakling son of parents Maxime and Tania, who are both paragons of physical beauty and athletic skill. Young Philippe sees ever-present disappointment in his father's eyes, so much so that he invents an imaginary and physically robust older brother as his protector. An incident in school during a classroom discussion of the Holocaust leads fifteen year old Philippe into a fight where he is beaten by a much larger classmate. As a result, the family's long-time friend, a woman named Louise, decides to reveal to Philippe the long and complex story of his unknown past.
Needless to say, that past is full of surpises and horrors, at least one of which is reminiscent of Styron's SOPHIE'S CHOICE. Philippe's parents are not entirely who he has believed they were, and he learns further about past family members whom he never knew existed. To say any more would be to reveal spoilers unnecessarily.
Grimbert's novella is neatly packaged, a chronological coming-of-age and coming-of-personal-awareness tale wrapped around Louise's account of the Grinberg/Grimbert family experiences during World War II. Dogs - real, stuffed toy, and buried in a pet cemetery - play a symbolic role in the story, as (perhaps a bit too neatly) does Maxime's and Tania's facility with diving.
One is tempted to argue that the same Holocaust story has been told many times before, just as the Cultural Revolution story from China has been recounted in so many different ways. What can be left still to say? Yet when all is said and done, MEMORY effectively adds another small chapter to the full story and reminds us once again of the devastating choices such horrors force upon both victims and perpetrators. Perhaps what makes this book different is that we see the Holocaust events one generation removed. Grimbert displays their after-effects as imposed on a young man who was not yet born during that turbulent era and who must view everything he learns through a lens that simultaneously informs who he is and corrects his beliefs about who and what he thought he was.
These dogs stand in contrast to two dogs belonging to members of the narrator's family--one that is stuffed and is discovered hidden away in an attic; another, named Echo, who is killed by a car. The narrator, primarily through discussions with a family friend, pieces together the secret, or secrets, that haunt the family over the decades that follow the war.
At the heart of the book is a love story whose contours would merely be melancholy but common in a normal time; within its context, however, it takes on a tragic cast. That story propels the reader through this brief, affecting book.
To tell the family story, the events of WWII are portrayed as a family secret, revealed to the narrator as a 15-year-old. These missing pieces / family secrets further a coming of age theme; they also narrate a love story. But all that is secondary to the exploration of the effects of the holocaust on one extended family.
(Originally published as Secret)
A novel by Philippe Grimbert
Book Review by Jay Gilbertson
Though this novel is small (a mere 160 pages) and could easily fit into the palm of your hand--the enormity of its significance will haunt you in a very big way.
Often times, when happening upon one of these novella's, I turn to the first page with an almost I dare you attitude of just you try and make me read on. I read and read and read--twice! The story telling itself is done through beautifully woven layers of what may have been, which in turn, unwinds the terrible secrets of what truly was. This is a story of remembrance; of how a young boys coming of age and all it can bring, also has the power to destroy.
This is the sentence that grabbed me and wouldn't let go: Although an only child, for many years, I had a brother. What? How could that be? I found out and not only was that revelation wrapped in truth; the outcome came as a complete surprise. There are two stories in this one little book and both are shrouded in secrets--and as anyone worth their salt knows--secrets always come undone.
Through Louise, an old family friend, Grimbert (the thinly veiled main character is perhaps--in truth--the author?) is shown the horrible past his parents had experienced and kept from him. WWII had swept through their homeland of Paris, France. Neighbor turned against neighbor, stars sewn on woolen coats meant belonging and, for many, certain death. All this was hidden away from young Grimbert in an attempt to protect, to conceal the identities of who had escaped--and who could not.
During that time of strife and struggle, a love story swept in. Two survivors that had managed to escape--fell toward one another--and out of that desperate love came Grimbert. Yet their love couldn't ward off the ghosts of those left behind and long after the war had ended and Paris was once again the city of light, the past rushed in and took them away...
The timeless certainty of this book is that the truth of secrets we hide from, will haunt all who keep them until one day--they're once and for all--revealed. Grimbert suggests the reader consider that though we're generations removed from that horrible time lumped into the word--Holocaust--the after-effects are still with us.
This hauntingly eloquent story of how Grimbert could only move forward in his life by embracing the past is an important reminder for all generations. I highly recommend this important work be considered for use in our school system.
There are some things that we must never repeat--nor forget