French Writers’ New Renaissance


By Samuel Moyn

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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In Lieu of Memory: Contemporary Jewish Writing in France

By Thomas Nolden

Syracuse University Press, 264 pages, $29.95.

* * *

I n the novels of Patrick Modiano, one of his famous peers, a leading French Jewish writer once told me to look for something: telephone books. The advice seemed strange at the time: What literary power could flow from the symbolism of so mundane an object?

Yet he was right. The different novels of Modiano, including his Goncourt Prize-winning “Rue des Boutiques Obscures” of 1978 (finally now available as “Missing Person” in an American edition), often center on characters attempting to restore memory — of events they have not seen or have for some reason forgotten. And telephone books often turn out to be central to their quests: When not consigned to the trash, their yellowing and brittle leaves tell who lived in a city at one time, on one street rather than another, in one house in all its particularity and at a specific number, long useless but once all their own.

In his new study of the literary renaissance of which Modiano is still the best-known representative abroad, Thomas Nolden notes that what defines the new generation of French Jewish writers is their belatedness: They do not so much suffer from memories, like intellectuals of a prior era, but rather must reconstitute them in the first place. And while these Jewish memories have often expectably dealt with the Holocaust, they’ve also strayed to earlier times, like the Eastern European life of forebears, or to places elsewhere, like the ancestral communities of North Africa common in a Jewish culture with unusually strong Sephardic roots.

Nolden, who teaches at Wellesley College and authored a previous study of the contemporary German-language Jewish renaissance, has provided in this book a useful survey of most of the principal writers who have sprung up as part of a self-consciously “young Jewish literature” in France since 1980 or so. He begins with the origins of the movement and narrates its stages of self-consciousness in a series of debates about what makes it new and important. He goes on to cover various kinds of “autojudeography,” a term he borrows from one of his examples, to imply that the members of this new Jewish canon need to create themselves through writing rather than departing from already established identity.

“It is in writing this book… that I became Jewish,” Nolden quotes one figure as saying, “a Jew as a product of my own will, or a Jew of my own reflection.” He wisely proceeds by giving the reader vignettes of strongly different modes of self-imagination, with brief but valuable passages that allow for a survey of the field and a rich sense of artistic particularity to be combined.

No doubt the most unexpected topic for the American reader interested in renaissances abroad will be the small canon of authors whose ancestral legacies were once to be found in French colonial holdings or even further afield. Nolden shows that, in a tradition founded by Albert Cohen, the new generation has produced a spate of novels that search for their parents’ roots and that imagine their transit to a new French home that made their children’s lives so different. (He could also have mentioned Edgar Morin’s moving portrait of his Salonican father in “Vidal et les siens” of 1989, which deserves to be more widely known, like many of the other works covered here.)

Though always interesting, Nolden seldom stakes out a skeptical stance toward any of his subjects. His book does not simply constitute the French-Jewish literary renaissance as a unified project; it celebrates it, too. The approach is understandable, given Nolden’s basic interest in surveying the field: It creates a kind of telephone book of French Jewish writers for the American reader.

Yet, this new literary enterprise has its particular difficulty, which flows from the fact that the only Jewish identity many of these writers can have, as Nolden suggests, will have to be imagined. Some of the novelists, and most especially Henri Raczymow, in wonderful books like “Contes d’exil et d’oubli” of 1979 or “Quartier libre” of 1995, make this difficulty their main theme. Yet not everyone is so exquisitely self-aware. If all communities are imagined, as people now say, it is still true that some are more imagined than others. They can suffer from feeling not so much fictional as artificial, or even superficial. And they can beg the question: If Jewish identity has to be personally made up, why make it up in one way rather than another — indeed, why make oneself a Jew at all?

Alas, few of the literary creations that Nolden covers have appeared in English, and only a vibrant culture of translation would make it possible to see whether the Jewish renaissances said to be occurring in several different countries today resonate with one another or could even come to inspire one another across borders. But perhaps this can change, as some recent Modiano translations or the appearance of Gilles Rozier’s “Mercy Room” (published by Little, Brown) in America suggest. Among the many questions posed by Nolden’s intriguing but nationally based study is whether any specifically Jewish literary renaissance can claim to be wholly Jewish when it remains without connections to Jewish writers — or readers — abroad. But so far, anyway, there is no telephone book for the global city.

Samuel Moyn, who teaches European history at Columbia University, is the author of “Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas Between Revelation and Ethics”(Cornell University Press, 2005) and “A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France” (Brandeis University Press, 2005).

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