24 February 2006

Rue Ordener, Rue Labat

This brief autobiography by Sarah Kofman is absolutely riveting.

Sarah Kofman was a French Jewish philosopher. I don't know much of her work, I'm sorry to say - it seems that a lot of her stuff hasn't been translated - but she apparently was highly active in the Deconstruction movement, and did a lot of work on Freud and Nietzsche. I definitely want to read some of it. This book is the story of her life during the second world war, when she and her mother were taken in and sheltered by a French woman. The real drama of the text is the relationship that she developed with this woman, who after the war wanted to keep her.
This was actually not so uncommon during the war, and was really a heart-rending issue. The parents of these Jewish children had been robbed of so much, and now, the people who had offered their children protection, saved their lives, became their enemies, trying to steal the one remaining thing they had.
Kofman writes about this in stark, unemotional prose. She doesn't dress it up in melodramatic language - she lets the events speak for themselves, in a way. The work is extremely brief, but there is so much in it. Kofman had earlier written a lot about the impossibility of autobiography, as well as the theoretical problems of writing about the Holocaust. She doesn't do the sort of critical self-questioning in the autobiography that a lot of Deconstructionists do, but these questions are nonethless there, perhaps in the things that she does not say, most of all. She writes about how, after the war, she snuck out to see Meme, or wrote her furtive letters, etc, but then, at the end of the text, she talks about how she stopped seeing her, saying "For several years I cut off all contact with Meme: I can't stand to hear her talk about the past all the time or to let her keep calling me her "little bunny" or her "little darling". When, later, I do come back to see her, I always bring a friend". This, incidentally, is the only moment in the text that is not in the strict past tense. It is this kind of writing, that says much more than it seems to on the surface, that makes the work so powerful.
Kofman doesn't give a lot of detail about her relationship with her mother, but it's clear that it's a difficult one - her mother at times beat her, locked her into the closet, etc. But she in no way paints her mother as a terrible person, or a monster. There is no judgement there at all. Interestingly, she links a lot of what she says about her mother to her later theoretical work, particularly fascinating, given that so much of her work was on Freud. Indeed, an underlying theme in the text seems to be her process of finding the roots of her later theoretical work in her own life story, or connecting her later impressions, such as her discomfort watching Hitchcock's film, The Vanishing Lady, with these early parts of her life. Again, she doesn't spell out these connections, just kind of places these reflections in the story. So the process of connecting the past and present self is an interpretive process that is left for the reader, and the author, to do on their own. This is interesting, in that it allows the author a degree of privacy that one wouldn't expect in autobiography.
Thinking about it, perhaps this says something about how autobiographies work. It's a process not only of relating the events of a life, but connecting them through narrative in a way that provides an interpretation, the result of which is a sort of image of a self, rather like a weird hologram, floating over the text. In other words, who you are isn't just what happens to you, but how you understand it and make it into a story. Kofman gives you the "what happened", but without a lot of the interpretation. Even the process of linking it into a narrative is curiously tenuous - the text isn't exactly fragmented, but it doesn't quite flow, either. The logic isn't precisely of causation, chronology, or association. Hard to say what really moves it forward.
In any case, it's an incredible book. Highly recommended.

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