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Florence in Words

Memory Take 12: Philippe Grimbert’s Memory

I’ve been unusually slow about writing the last two blogs about the course that is now history in my life. And I’m glad I waited, for I can now see the course’s curve more clearly. The course moves from a focus on individual memory—from an individual’s unusually gifted memory to the total loss of a person’s memory, and various shades in between—to collective or communal memory, what we also call history. And I feel particular admiration for Professor White as he not only reminds the class of the international history of individual words, but as he also remembers the recent history of the Holocaust. Perhaps for that reason the final book was Philippe Grimbert’s Memory, and the final class was devoted to communal memory, including a film about Paris’ famous cemetery, and a host of images on a screen that many in the class could identify selectively.

I will begin with the book that I have read twice, in part because it is the kind of brief, easy read that a fast reader like me can skim and thereby lose details. And indeed, when I read the 154 pages for the second time, I saw that I had skipped over the sentences mentioning “President Laval,” at the end of the volume, the French collaborator with the Nazis, of whom Grimbert writes, “President Laval, who in his defense hearing said that he had encouraged the deportation of children under sixteen so as not to separate families.” Coincidentally, just a few weeks earlier I had seen a brilliant performance of Arthur Miller’s lesser-known play, “Incident at Vichy,” which documents in vivid drama the treatment of a dozen French Jews, ranging in age from youths to the elderly. Professor White outlined Laval’s nefarious history of collaboration with the Nazis, including the remark that “not one Jewish child will survive in France.” Laval was, in the end, brought to justice and executed in 1945.

In the novel, Grimbert, who is also a psychoanalyst, is writing part of his own family history. As an only child, he invented an older brother, not knowing that, indeed there had been one he was not to learn about until his own fifteenth year. I won’t spoil the novel for you by saying much more about its plot. But I will say again that I enjoyed the spare prose style of Polly McLean, the translator. And from Professor White I learned that Grimbert wrote the novel 20 years after the double suicide of his parents, in part to make sense of their lives. The result, Professor White insisted, is fiction, not memoir. He wrote the book, the professor said, “as an act of love for his parents and [his brother] Simon,” who died in the gas chamber at the age of eight, accompanied by his mother.

We had one more class meeting, and it was to be partly a party. As the students turned in their final papers, they picked up soda or water and some snacks, and eventually settled down to Professor White’s final gift to the class: two films. The first was a depiction of the famous cemetery outside of Paris that holds, among other treasures, the remains of Marcel Proust. We saw the Parisian women who come daily to water plants, arrange fresh flowers, and clean the marble, all in homage to the memories of the artists and other heroes of France. One section of the film depicted a taxi-driver who came often because of his love of music, and in the film, he sings movingly in his native Eastern European language. The second film was a string of photographs of famous men and women from history, film, sports, etc. And the class was called upon to identify the image. I wish I had kept track, for though I could identify all but one athlete, the majority of young people in the class could not. It was interesting to see which photos they could identify, and I regret not having the wit at the moment to take notes. It was just so much fun.

And I must end this saga with that sentence. Few experiences in my life, or perhaps any life, could be concluded with those six words. So I bless the powers that sent me into this course, and I will note that I do hope to have another such experience next fall.
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