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This refusal to mentor his children especially affected her brother Laurent (1965-1999), a promising young university student who was afflicted with mental illness. After repeated psychiatric internments, Laurent died prematurely of a heart attack. Félicité writes that Herzog despised Laurent and was unable to recognize that he was struggling with a “malady of Himalayan dimensions.” To his sister, Laurent was a “hero with such a sweet smile, a mental invalid who fought an ultimate battle in spite of himself.”
By identifying her unfortunate brother as a more genuine hero than her famous father, the author locates integrity in a family unit otherwise splintered by tragedy and domestic discord. (Married in 1964, her parents would divorce a dozen years later.) There was another valorous spirit in the Herzog family, according to “A Hero.” Félicité’s mother, Marie-Pierre de Cossé-Brissac, was born in 1925 to an anti-Semitic French family of noble standing. When she was young, Marie-Pierre’s father informed her about her romantic future: “Do anything you like, but don’t marry a Jew. We’re one of the only families of the French nobility not to be Jew-ridden.” During the Nazi Occupation, Marie-Pierre’s mother approvingly gave her “Mein Kampf” to read and took her to the notorious anti-Semitic exhibit “The Jew and France” in 1941.
Despite the fact that her mother hosted high society parties for Nazi collaborators, Marie-Pierre was never indoctrinated. In 1945, she fell in love with Simon Nora, a French Jewish Resistance fighter (and brother of the eminent historian Pierre Nora). Her family reacted by having her interned in a Swiss psychiatric clinic, from which Nora and some of his Resistance comrades liberated her on the day of her 21st birthday. In January 1947, they were married, whereupon Marie-Pierre de Cossé-Brissac’s family disowned her. Her first marriage would last only seven years (she and Nora were divorced in 1954), and when she decided to remarry, she again chose a Jewish partner. Yet, Maurice Herzog, whom she wed in July 1964, enjoyed the status of a national hero and was a minister in a right-wing government, which made him more acceptable to Marie-Pierre’s parents.
Admiring her mother’s defiant philosemitism, Félicité depicts a woman of heroic resolve. As matriarch of a literate and, indeed, literary family, Marie-Pierre published a fictionalized recollection of her family’s wartime Nazi collaboration in the 2005 novel “The Ruby.” She has also written an autobiography, “Autumn Memories,” poignantly recounting the loss of her son Laurent, published in 2009. Maurice Herzog, for his part, has remained silent of late about his family’s private life, and readers should probably not expect any impassioned reply to his daughter’s “A Hero.” After all, “Pirkei Avot,” the tractate of the Mishna that is often translated as “Ethics of the Fathers,” offers one definition of a hero as someone who “controls his passion.”
Benjamin Ivry writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.