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).
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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.
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Thus, in 1996 she published “The Economic Horror.” Forrester argued that work, an activity at the heart of our identity and value as human beings, had disintegrated under the hammer blows of technological and financial advances. Others had made this same point, but Forrester forced us to see the appalling consequences these changes have for the unemployed. In fact, the term “unemployment” had itself lost all meaning — a collection of letters that concealed the unremitting misery of millions of fellow human beings.

The shame the unemployed are made to feel and the sense that they are to blame for their lot: Forrester plumbed her experience as a Jew under Vichy to portray the plight of the jobless. “Erased and blotted out from society, they are said to be excluded from it. On the contrary, they are… included in it to the marrow. They are absorbed and eaten up by it… deported where they stand, repudiated where they stand —and so cumbersome, such a nuisance!” For those who still have jobs, we have grown accustomed to these statistics. And we swallow the official explanations, reminding us that those laws protecting us from the violence of turbo-capitalism — pensions, unemployment insurance or job guarantees — are, in fact, the reasons for our current impasse. Just as Jews in Vichy France had no one else to blame but themselves for their predicament, so, too, with the unemployed: The fault is theirs.

With the book’s publication came a cascade of fierce criticism. Economists pointed out that Forrester was at sea with statistics and theory, while activists in search of solutions came up empty-handed. But the book’s global success spoke to a deeper truth, which Forrester nailed: The number of unemployed grows, their despair deepens, yet we whistle in the dark, content with the “masterly deception” of our governments and financial institutions that this is how things have to be.

At times, though, Forrester’s moral compass missed True North. Her book “Le Crime Occidental” rightly placed the moral onus on the West for the destruction of European Jewry. But her portrayal of the Palestinians as the “victims” of this crime, as patients rather than actors who are made to suffer the creation of Israel, is less history than parody. Remarkably, Forrester did the same to “Arabs” and “Zionists” that anti-Semites do to Jews, presenting them as monolithic groups with a single set of aims and values.

Of course, Forrester should have known better: Her last book was a biography of Virginia Woolf. And it was the author of “Jacob’s Room” who wrote of the “senselessness? of trying to sum people up” — a rule that applies no less to nations than it does to individuals like Forrester. But this can safely be summed up: France, and French Jewry, has lost a powerful and persistent voice on behalf of the powerless.

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College, University of Houston, and is the author of the forthcoming “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Belknap Press).


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