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  • In Lieu of Memory: Contemporary Jewish Writing in France
  • Ralph Schoolcraft III
In Lieu of Memory: Contemporary Jewish Writing in France, by Thomas Nolden. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006. 254 pp. $29.95.

In light of the splintering of perspectives and populations that characterize contemporary Jewish writing in France, American scholar and pioneer in the field Alan Astro has wondered whether "a French Jewish literature"—the use of the singular being the key—indeed still exists (p. xiii). Thomas Nolden answers in the affirmative and assembles more than two dozen authors to support his claim.

Francophone Jewish writers born after the Shoah constitute the corpus of his study. A few are well-established—notably Patrick Modiano, but also, to a lesser extent, Myriam Anissimov, Pierre Goldman, and Henri Racyzmow. Most remain untranslated and virtually unknown to English readers. Moreover, Nolden willingly acknowledges that this new generation of Jewish French writers cannot be divided up into movements (in a political sense) or schools (in esthetic terms). However, even if their specificity has been reduced externally by the fact that they increasingly share concerns with other communities or internally because their variety of experiences, approaches, and opinions diverge more than they overlap, these writers nonetheless are distinguished by a number of common points of departure which allow such a grouping to continue to possess meaning.

Far from regretting this dispersal of voices, Nolden embraces it. It points to the persistence of a central role for Jewish figures in French letters but, also, more importantly, helps disable amalgamations or reductive views of Jews in the Francophone world (p. xiv). However, given that the output cannot be grouped into a series of trends, the role for synchronic or diachronic argumentation is reduced in Nolden's book. No phenomenon equivalent to the "Vichy [End Page 216] Syndrome" or "mode rétro" emerges neatly from this ensemble. In other words, Nolden's study is not so much a critical history of ideas as a survey that attempts to convey the wealth of perspectives and literary approaches employed by these novelists.

It is, of course, difficult to resist the urge to seek unifying traits, however, and, if Nolden has answers for us, it would be in his cataloguing of the new generation's shared points of departure. As suggested by Nolden's title, In Lieu of Memory posits as the most important distinction for these writers a generational rupture (p. 69). Their immediate predecessors directly or indirectly witnessed the horrors of the Shoah and thus had to address the urgent dilemmas it posed (the limits of representation, preservation of testimony, commemorative efforts for those silenced, etc.). Others penned multi-generational sagas showing the evolution of Jewish French identity from European ostracization to seemingly successful assimilation in the "Hexagon" to Vichy's stunning betrayal. In both instances, a literary legacy of Jewish lieux de mé moire (sites of memory) quite understandably predominated. For more recent generations who have no personal memory of the Shoah and often have had limited contact with their elders, they are witnesses, too, but of the aftermath and its repercussions. Thus, while prior authors confronted a staggeringly traumatic past, current writers look more readily to the challenges of the future. What strategies can they devise in response to skepticism among French Ashkenazi activists about France's sincerity in assimilationist politics or to the multiple levels of exclusion facing Sephardic immigrants? And what are the consequences of this generation gap within Jewish communities and families themselves?

As a result, after a sociohistorical overview in the first chapter, Chapter Two examines prominent writers (mentioned above) who "heralded Jewish literature in the aftermath of politicization" (p. xv). Chapter Three regroups fictional accounts that "remember" events which their authors (Marlène Amar, Robert Ouaknine, Gérard Wajcman, et al.) did not experience themselves in an attempt to come to terms with the burden of those dark years that weighed so heavily upon their parents. Works of fiction that draw frequently on an autobiographical vein are the focus of Chapter Four (Nickie Golse, Norbert Czarny, Agnès Desarthe, etc.); these, however, rarely seek to speak in the name of an entire community and instead grapple with...


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