BOOKS JANUARY 11, 2012
by Robert Bober | translated by Carol Volk
The New Press, 208 pp., $15.95
ROBERT BOBER’S NEW novel, like much of his previous fiction, is preoccupied with the question of how to give proper deference to memories that are hardly memories at all. In most of Bober’s work there is at least a small role devoted to the postwar summer camps established across France for children whose parents were deported during the infamous round-up of Jews at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in 1942. The young characters in Bober’s stories who managed to escape deportation by hiding in cupboards or being sent away to Catholic schools are faced with a gaping emptiness left by the loss of parents who simply disappeared, and whom they barely remember. Bober’s children often externalize their trauma in indirect, grossly poignant ways: one young boy, newly in charge of setting up displays in the window of his uncle’s second-hand shop, dumps an enormous pile of used shoes for passers-by to look in upon, an obscene recreation of the images that came out of the camps in the East; another child defecates in the back seat of the car of his new foster parents, testing them to see if they, too, will abandon him.
Thus Bernard Appelbaum, the narrator of this “fictional memoir,” begins by stating that he has always preferred buses to trains, and that his father died when he was two years old, in 1942, though this is only a guess—in reality Bernard does not know when his father was lost. The story quickly jumps ahead to a twenty-year-old Bernard, ambling through the streets of Belleville, Paris’s old working-class neighborhood and the outer reaches of the Jewish quarter. The narrative sometimes wanders as aimlessly as Bernard himself, but its intermittent messiness is largely forgiven as the reader comes to accept it as a byproduct of the task of sorting through an opaque jumble of history and memory.
One afternoon during his wanderings, Bernard runs into Robert, his former summer camp counselor, who, through a bit of persistence and luck has become François Truffaut’s assistant. Robert is perusing the neighborhood for a café in which to film the famous “missed appointment” scene between Jeanne Moreau and Henri Serre in Jules et Jim, and he invites Bernard to participate in the shoot as an extra. Months later when the film premieres in the cinemas, Bernard and his mother attend a showing together. Jules et Jim is the story of a “pure three-way love affair,” in Truffaut’s words, and is also, as it happens, “an echo” of Bernard’s mother’s own story. For decades she has kept silent about the painful history of her two lost husbands. Now, “as if the film had brought it all back to life,” Bernard’s mother launches into a dark reminiscence.
She is not originally from Paris, but from the Jewish ghettos of Poland, and she begins by telling Bernard that she met his father and her second husband, Leizer, during the protests that followed the pogrom in Przytyk. Bernard has spent his entire life knowing hardly anything about his father, and therefore little about his mother, but such is the nature of this tragedy that Bernard’s mother has so little to give to him: “There are memories,” she says, partly to him and partly to herself, “but you can’t pray over a memory … There are photos … yes, there are photos, but in the photos they’re alive. There are also cemeteries, but when I go to the one in Bagneux for Yom Kippur, I know that my loved ones aren’t buried there.” Bernard’s mother, his father, Yankel, and his step-father Leizer all belonged to a Jewish socialist organization in Przytyk, and in attending political and social events together they became extremely close. One night they had planned to attend a dance but, by a stroke of fate, Leizer was delayed and Yankel and Bernard’s mother spent the evening as a couple for the first time. They fell in love, even deciding that night that they would marry.
Afterward, the delicate balance of the trio having been upset, Bernard’s mother and father moved away to France. When the war ended Yankel never returned, but Leizer survived the camps and came to France to step into the place left vacant by his friend. A mere few years later, Leizer went to visit his sister in New York on an airplane that crashed into the Atlantic. A widow two times over, Bernard’s mother has now devoted herself to her two sons, even while living in a world populated by the absences of the two men, sometimes stopping to look “up at the rooftops and then down at the alleys where the men she loved no longer pass.”
Bober was born to Polish Jews in Berlin in 1931. His family emigrated in 1933 to France, where it managed to outlive the war, and Bober went on to have a prolific and acclaimed career as a writer and filmmaker, starting out, like the character of Robert in Wide Awake, as an assistant to Truffaut. He eventually directed over 120 films, and published five novels. To be sure, Bober’s memories probably read like a “Who’s Who” of Parisian writers, artists, and filmmakers of the last sixty years, and one gets the sense in this “memoir” that he is sometimes merely cataloging the people he met and the works that influenced him, regularly breaking the “fourth wall” between fiction and reality—for example, in granting Truffaut a place in the story without the guise of a stand-in to maintain the veil of fiction. Perhaps the problem lies in the genre, the idea of a “fictional memoir” being inherently difficult to balance. The result is that the reader is frequently taken out of the narrative, and then forced to incorporate real-life personalities and their factual existences back into the world of the novel.
The story picks up momentum in its final chapters when the narrator embarks on a sojourn to Germany. Bernard tells his mother he is going to Rouen to visit the former home of Flaubert, but arrives, rather, in Berlin via the Zoologischer Garten Bahnhof, through which his idol Max Ophüls would have passed in the opposite direction while fleeing in the early 1930s. All this should bring to mind W. G. Sebald’s admixtures of fact and fiction, his mysterious journeys of return to the unknown. But where Sebald’s texts brim with an obliqueness that fills the reader’s consciousness to the point that he actually shares in the narrator’s revelation of his own unarticulated traumas, Bober’s lacks this depth of unheimlichkeit—eeriness—that the reader desires, or even needs, in such a tale. Perhaps this is attributable to the decided innocence of Bober’s narrator, whose light-hearted voice endows the text with a charming, aphoristic quality even in the face of such overwhelming subject matter.
Bernard arrives in Berlin only to spend most of his time wandering (again) through the zoo, pursuing an unsuccessful love affair with a German girl, and sightseeing along the recently erected wall. But the Berlin trip turns out to be merely preparatory for a succeeding trip east, this time to Poland. Indeed this second voyage is a return of sorts, as Bernard says, “back to Poland without ever having been there before.” As he writes, he is on a bus from Krakow to Auschwitz. Curiously, Bober devotes only the last three pages of the novel to this most crucial of endings, though I have heard other writers say that while they are willing to write around the Holocaust, they are unwilling to actually write the Holocaust itself. And yet these three pages are oddly sufficient. At Auschwitz, Bernard discovers a token of his missing father, a trace of something he recognizes. The text comes at last to an end as its narrator finds, with very sudden clarity, something at once haunting and comforting.
Elisabeth Zerofsky teaches in the French department at the City College of New York.