- Juifs Imaginaires
There should be a good scholarly book covering the range of modern French-Jewish literature, but there isn't. Notable contributions to the history of French-speaking Jewry continue to reach both French and English readers, but a literary-critical work of commensurate scope and quality has not yet appeared.1 Such a book would require an attention to historical and sociological detail as well as to aesthetic considerations, as French-Jewish literature is enmeshed, like so much of modern Jewish writing, in the tempestuous dramas of acculturation and cultural dislocation. Indeed, the most compelling works of twentieth-century French-Jewish literature have arisen, in their nervous brilliance, within the context of a series of crises to the two-hundred-year-old project of assimilation within the modern European state.
Such works would, of course, include the dazzling Jewish ethnography in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, which is as marked by the Dreyfus Affair as the more militant, though far less accomplished, work of Edmond Fleg and André [End Page 255] Spire.2 Also of note is Jean-Richard Bloch's dynamic novel & Cie. (1918), which grippingly chronicles the saga of an Alsatian Jewish family of textile producers, uprooted in the Franco-Prussian War, who attempt to hold on to their way of life in western France. Consider, too, Albert Cohen's brilliant novel Solal (1930), in which the clash between Jewish and European worlds resounds like a bomb blast and the Christ-like title character suffers the project of assimilation as a Passion. Similarly struggling with identity, Albert Memmi frames his autobiographical Le Statue de sel (1955), the coming-of-age story of a profoundly, inevitably conflicted Tunisian Jewish intellectual in the 1930s and 1940s, as the pages defiantly scrawled by the protagonist during a day-long exam at a French university. Rather than answer the question "What is the influence of Condillac on John Stuart Mill?" the narrator tells the story of his life, enacting in the opening pages the novel's central and unresolved tension between the Occident and the Orient, what in Kafka's phrasing would be expressed as the dual impossibility of writing either as a Frenchman or as a Jew. At the extreme end of these identity questions, we have Le Sabbat (first published in 1960), the Rousseauian confession of Maurice Sachs. Sachs was a gifted and charismatic debauchee who exchanged his tenuous sense of Judaism for a devout and brief affair with Catholicism, and then a cheerfully opportunistic conversion to Protestantism, in his picaresque and ultimately tragic search for a "solid human community."3 He ended his life as a Gestapo collaborator, and the manuscript of his engrossing memoirs was sent to Gallimard with a 1942 postscript that affirmed: "I no longer desire to be grand, not famous, nor perfect—oh! candor—But I want to go where I can be, unobtrusively, someone who does not disgust me" (443). Sachs's chameleonlike metamorphoses were certainly one inspiration for Patrick Modiano's striking first novel, La Place de l'Étoile (1968), whose self-deconstructing antihero is a kaleidoscopic composition of all the antisemitic images in modern French writing, from Drumont to Céline.
As a whole, French-Jewish literature uses the subject and motifs of antisemitism more integrally than the Jewish literature of any other language, often walking (and stumbling over) a fine line between the darkly parodic and the self-hating. This is one reason that the analytical tools for a good study of the subject should not be taken unreflectively from the canon of French poststructuralist theory. When speaking of the Jew, French intellectual discourse, from the existentialists to the [End Page 256] postmoderns, frequently reenacts prejudices and stereotypes rather than analyzing them. We remember Sartre's problematic (if, to many assimilated Jewish intellectuals, also galvanizing) judgment that Jewishness is at bottom an existential condition created by antisemitism. This perspective was echoed in a more offensive register forty...