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.
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).