Philippe Grimbert's Memory, which comes billed as a novel, yet one undeniably based in fact, also comes laden with a number of plaudits and prizes, all of them listed prominently on the cover. We are told that the book was a bestseller in France, the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, winner of Elle magazine's readers' prize and winner of the Prix Wizo (for the best book of Jewish interest in French literature that particular year).
Then, in much smaller type, and in parentheses, we're told that the novel was originally published under the title Secret.
There's a reason why this bit of information appears to be tossed off, I think, and it has to do with the fact that the resolution of the "plot" — or what there is of it in Memory — rests on the disclosure of a secret, just as much as it hinges on specific memories. I surmise that Grimbert's American publishers, Simon & Schuster, would like readers to stick with the book to the end — no matter how short the narrative may be — and not skip ahead or read the ending first. So they've changed the title in the hope of deflecting the search for answers somewhat, with the hope of keeping the readers engaged until the final revelation.
Not that readers won't know that hidden events form the gist of the story here; and intuitive readers will quickly get a sense, long before the finale, of what the secret deals with, though, I'd imagine, they could not possibly guess the particulars. (And none of those details will be disclosed in this review.) Perhaps an editor at S&S decided, rightly, that the important thing here is the emotions — or, more to the point, the suppression of emotion — and that focusing too completely on "the secret" might take away from the power at the core of this brief, tragic story.
Author Grimbert is a psychoanalyst, living in Paris, who's written several works of nonfiction and another novel called Paul's Little Dress. The book-jacket copy never denies that a strong flow of autobiography informs the pages of Memory; we're told right off that 20 years after his parents jumped to their deaths from a balcony, Grimbert decided to investigate the hidden details that so clearly ruled their inner lives and their everyday decisions.
All we get in the opening pages is a heavy sense of dread. The narrator states that, though he was "the sole object of the love and tender care of [his] parents, [he] didn't sleep well, troubled by bad dreams."
"I would start crying as soon as my light was turned out, not knowing for whom I wept the tears that sank into my pillow and disappeared into the night. Ashamed without understanding why, and often riddled with senseless guilt, I would delay my drift into sleep. As a child, every day provided me with sorrows and fears that I fueled with my solitude. I needed someone with whom to share those tears."
We also learn in the first few pages that the narrator, an only child, out of his loneliness invents an older brother for himself, who's far stronger and brighter than he, the sickly child of two beautiful, athletic parents. He insisted to friends and acquaintances that this brother existed and that they "had no option but to take [his] word for it. I had a brother. Stronger and better looking. An older brother, invisible and glorious."
With each of the book's short unnumbered vignettes, readers receive a bit more information, another piece of the puzzle, a small patch of color that fills in the mosaic. For example, the narrator repeatedly asks his parents if the family had always had this "very French surname," and he is always assured that it was so.
"My origins didn't condemn me to certain death; I was no longer a spindly branch at the top of a family tree in need of pollarding.
"My christening took place so late that I could still remember it all: the gestures of the officiating priest, the damp cross imprinted on my forehead …
"The indelible cut to my penis became nothing more than the reminder of a necessary surgical intervention. Not a ritual but a medical decision, one among many."
Yet the truth "bubbled to the surface" at various moments, clues popping up: There were certain foods cooked, a samovar on the mantelpiece, candlesticks locked in the cupboard. And there were also the constant questions: "[P]eople were always asking me about the origins of the name Grimbert, wondering how exactly it was spelled, unearthing the n than an m had replaced, flushing out the g that a t was supposed to efface from memory. I brought these questions home; they were brushed aside by my father. We've always had that name, he would snap. That much was obvious and not to be contradicted: Our name could be traced right back to the Middle Ages — wasn't Grimbert a hero of the Roman de Renart? An m for an n, a t for a g; two tiny changes. But of course M for mute hid the N of Nazism, while G for ghosts vanished under taciturn T.
"I was constantly bashing up against the painful wall with which my parents had surrounded themselves, but loved them too much to try to climb it, reopening the wound. I had decided not to know."
Staving Off the Fears
For a certain amount of time, the narrator hides behind the strength of his imaginary brother, and so staves off the fears. And he basks in the physical beauty of his parents, "whose every muscle had been buffed and toned, like those statues in the galleries of the Louvre that I found so unsettling. High-board diving and gymnastics for my mother, wrestling and apparatus work for my father, tennis and volleyball for the two of them; their bodies made to meet, marry and reproduce."
How could so exquisite a pair create such an ugly duckling, so sickly a child, he asks — another of his repeated questions — as he stands before the mirror and ticks off his imperfections? There seemed to be no answers.
Only when he gets a bit older and begins speaking to a longtime family friend — a woman named Louise — do the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall in place. We are told that Louise, who was then in her 60s, had a face that "bore the scars of alcohol and tobacco; years of excess had given her permanent bags under the eyes, and her pale skin floated loosely on a ruined face." The young boy feels a kinship with Louise, a shared outsider status, especially since the older woman has a clubfoot and an obvious limp. Louise eventually becomes the conduit through which the narrator learns the truth buried in his parents' past.
"During the afternoons we spent together in her dimly lit consulting rooms, Louise slowly spelled out the realities of a war that had come to a close a few years before I was born. She talked and talked: the anguish and humiliation of those who were persecuted must never be forgotten. For a long time, she hid the fact of her personal experience. Until I was 15 years old, Louise respected the secret in which my parents had shrouded me, the secret that also concerned her. Perhaps she was waiting for a sign before revealing anything further, a word or allusion from me that would give her permission to nudge open the door."
Grimbert's prose, which seems to have been ably translated by Polly McLean, has a tendency in the early pages to tip over into the bathetic, to be soft and squishy even when it should be hard and resilient, describing too many "tears shed" and "secrets unspoken." But the narrative grows in strength as it proceeds, and Grimbert's depictions of his parents are always perfectly balanced — the adulation of a child who is deeply loved and loves in return, but who feels he can never measure up to their perfection and beauty — so that the final revelations, though they may not come as a total surprise to the reader, are sad and shattering enough.