by Justine Poustchi · 04/24/12
The recent shootings in Toulouse have brought the complexities of French Jewry to the forefront and inspired our own investigation into the modern literary history of the Jews in France. Since the advent of colonialism, the term “French literature” has inspired debates that argue vehemently for the rupture between French literature and Francophone literature. What then of French-Jewish literature? Since the emergence of the modern nation-state of France, both Sephardic and Ashkenazim Jews have been welcomed—so long as they wholly adapted their tongues to the language of les belles lettres. As a result, hybrid categories such as French-Jewish literature are seen to contradict the concept of a unified French identity.
Accordingly, contemporary French-Jewish literature betrays only traces of a Jewish sensibility. Such is the case of Yasmina Reza, a playwright of Hungarian Jewish and Russian-Iranian Jewish descent, who finds that the her parents’ world seeps into her plays, Art
and God of Carnage
. Though Reza writes directly to the influence of her parents in Hammerklavier
, a series of autobiographical sketches, Reza argued in a recent interview with the Guardian
for the importance of complete integration with French culture.
Though literature that speaks directly to Jewish themes is often marginal, literary critic Pierre Assouline turns his attention to the different representations of Job throughout the monotheistic tradition in his latest novel Les vie de Job. Drawing on his skills as a prolific biographer, Assouline dramatizes the biographer’s quest to piece together the different facets of the biblical character’s life, examining the intersection between the many lives of Job and the biographer’s own life.
Peering further back into French Jewish literary history, the memory of Vichy France occupies a distinct place. Patrick Modiano, an author of Jewish-Italian origins, constantly explores that terrain. Haunted by the memories of the Occupation, Modiano, in his first novel Place de l’Étoile, intertwines the specificity of his French locality with the wound of the war. Standing on the famous intersection that holds the Arc de Triomphe, the Place de l’Étoile (literally the Place of the Star), Raphaël Schlemilovitch hallucinates a parade of real and imagined Jewish characters, as Modiano probes the intersection between time, memory, and forgetting.
Similarly, Henri Racyzmow, a writer of Jewish Polish origins explores the “memory gap” which plagues European Jews. In Contes d’exil et d’oubli (Tales of Memory and Forgetting), a grandfather is unable to recover stories of shtetl life and instead chooses to invent tales about Yiddish culture.
France’s presence in Tunisia absorbed other Jewish populations into the nation’s literary history, creating a prismatic intersection between East and West. One can trace the junction between the two spheres through the works of Albert Memmi, best known for his non-fiction on the psychological effects of colonialism, but whose fiction deserves just as much attention. In The Pillar of Salt, Memmi richly evokes the atmosphere of the ghetto of Tunis, turning his attention to the relations between Arabs and Jews. Above all, Memmi investigates the difficulty of glancing back at the past, and the toils of memory that continue to fixate Jewish writers today.