MEMORY by Philippe Grimbert

Original Content...

MAY 28, 2008


Although an only child, for many years I had a brother.”

It is difficult to resist a novel that begins with such an intriguing first line. And through the paragraphs that follow, the pages and chapters, the novel Memory reveals more of the same engrossing, vivid storytelling. This is the kind of book you read standing up, in the kitchen, grocery bags unpacked, frozen items defrosting because each paragraph compels you to read on, on, on. You tell yourself you’ll finish the other tasks once you get to the boring part.

There is no boring part. At 152 pages, it is a fast, riveting read. In short, author Philippe Grimbert has crafted a small masterpiece in his story, a re-imagination of the plight of his parents during World War Two, as they fled Paris to wait out the Occupation in rural France.

One might argue that 152 pages constitutes a novella. One might argue that the story, a mix of autobiography and fiction, doesn’t have the proper trajectory for a novel. But here’s the ultimate feeling one takes away: this is a gripping, affecting story that really works. A bestseller in France, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt and Elle Magazine’s “Readers’ Prize,” the book is a translation, so credit is due as well to translator Polly McLean for her judicious choice of words and phrasing that best convey both the beauty and the haunted nature of the story.

Originally published in France as Secret, the novel Memory is the story of a young boy growing up in postwar Paris, the sickly only child of glamorous athlete parents, whose loneliness and sense of isolation within the otherwise serene family make him invent a brother—an older, tougher, protective one. A stuffed animal dog found in the attic completes this little trio of imaginary friends he has found within the household. But when, as a teen, he watches a documentary on the Holocaust in his classroom and comes to blows with a jeering classmate over it, he realizes the war affected him in ways he can’t explain. He takes his feelings to an old family friend and from her he learns about his family’s earlier history, a buried “other life,” which elicits another brilliant line:

“The day after my fifteenth birthday, I finally learned what I have always known.”

And part of the devastating truth he learns: the stuffed dog he adopted once had another owner in the family’s household. Another life came before his. Another world entirely. From information gleaned, then and in the coming days, he adds speculation and creates for himself and the reader a fictionalized account of the years his parents have chosen to look past: a time of terror, betrayal and fatal love. Grimbert, through the narrator Philippe (largely one and the same), tells his riveting tale with the nuance and evocative detailing of a fiction writer, but then continues on in a more autobiographical vein as he presents the ensuing years, not without their own drama and loss.

The fact that the story is a mixture of fiction and autobiography makes it impossible to brush off as “only fiction.” And yet, the fictional elements, the novelistic pacing, lend the story an emotional punch that remind me all over again of the power of storytelling to cut through defenses to a reader’s heart. No story ending in recent memory has left me with such a cornucopia of affecting emotions—grief and vicarious sense of terrible loss, and yet, oddly, triumph. Peace. Perhaps it is that I feel the author/narrator’s sense of closure. With answers, with exploration and the healing power of time, comes closure. (No surprise, then, to learn that Grimbert is a psychoanalyst by profession.)

I find myself reluctant to digress on “what the author might have done to make it a stronger story” or how well developed the characters are, or their motivations, or plot trajectory or pacing. The novel is what it is. It bears the stamp of truth, the lyricism of good storytelling, and the brevity to keep it from being maudlin. It illustrates how truth, even when unspoken, has a way of making itself be heard. And perhaps loss can be just a little bit less terrible when it is revealed in its entirety for what it is, and shared with others.

A small, easily digested story with a giant heart, a highly recommended read for all.

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