Who Was Afraid of Viviane Forrester?

Remembering Iconoclastic French-Jewish Novelist and Essayist

Woolf At The Door: Viviane Forrester’s last book was a biography of Virginia Woolf (pictured above).
Getty Images
Woolf At The Door: Viviane Forrester’s last book was a biography of Virginia Woolf (pictured above).

By Robert Zaretsky

Published May 18, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

After a long battle with cancer, the French Jewish novelist and essayist Viviane Forrester died in April at the age of 87. Not everyone mourned her death: Neither the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, more commonly known under the acronym CRIF, or the Tribune Juive marked her passing. But most everyone, including her critics, will miss her. Like Stéphane Hessel, who passed away in February at the age of 95, Forrester represented a certain idea of France and her intellectuals.

What was this idea? To speak (at times too much) on issues (about which they at times knew too little) that demanded the attention of the French (who mostly had better things to do). In a sense, this kind of intellectual was less an original thinker — unlike Raymond Aron or Albert Camus — and more a biblical prophet railing against the way things are and reminding us of the way they ought to be.

In a word, they express their outrage — the title of Hessel’s best-selling essay was “Indignez-vous!” — at moments of great social, political or moral crisis. They collar us when we refuse to recognize, as Forrester’s famous essay declared, an economic horror.

While Hessel, Forrester and their fellow intellectual prophets often got details wrong, they often got the stories right — and this makes for our discomfort and their necessity.

Viviane Forrester, née Dreyfus, came of age at the very moment that her world — one part Proust, one part Oprah —was collapsing: She turned 13 in the same year that France, defeated by Nazi Germany, came under the sway of the anti-Semitic regime of Vichy. Born into a wealthy Jewish family, she grew up on the posh Avenue du Foch, in the 16th arrondissement. Her father, a successful banker, was a distant figure, while Forrester’s emotionally unstable mother maintained fraught ties with her daughter.

In her memoir “Ce soir, Après la Guerre,” Forrester merged the private hatred her mother felt toward her with Vichy’s public hatred of Jews, noting that “blame and hysterical rejection, be it intimate or published, maternal or official,” joined forces against her. In fact, Vichy made Forrester realize that while she had never thought of herself as Jewish, the world thought otherwise. Until then, “the word ‘Jew’ scarcely signified. We weren’t Catholic, that’s all.”

Come 1942 and the round-ups of foreign and French Jews, the consequences of not being Catholic in Vichy France became clear. Forrester saw Jews arrested in their homes and outside stores; she learned that French gendarmes had taken family members. The bookish adolescent saw, suddenly, the uselessness of literature: “There exists no book, no teaching, no instruction manual for people who are being hunted down.” How could a book prepare her for being struck from the ranks of humankind?

Forrester and her parents, crossing into Spain in 1943, survived. But she always carried the burden of her experience — a memory that bled into not just her fiction, but also her moral outlook. To find yourself banished from society from one day to the next, defined as less than fully human for reasons that had nothing to do with your actions or ambitions, and to become a problem, not a person, that others simply wished away, all led Forrester to cast her lot with the human detritus of history.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Yeshiva University's lawyer wanted to know why the dozens of former schoolboys now suing over a sexual abuse cover-up didn't sue decades ago. Read the judge's striking response here.
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.