Broken Tablets: Sarah Hammerschlag's Critical Reads

February 12th, 2017

Sarah Hammerschlag is a scholar in the area of Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture, and the author of Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida and the Literary Afterlife of Religion. Join her for a discussion of the book Tue. 2/21/2017 at the Co-op. 


Broken Tablets  is a book about two French philosophers thinking through the nature of Jewish survival in the postwar European context.  Recently for another project—a conference and accompanying volume on memory and postwar Paris-- I spent some time thinking through a different slant on the same question and reading literary sources that deal in various ways with the issue of postwar French Jewish survival.  

So here are a few novels and memoirs that take up this theme and a couple of interesting secondary sources on the topic as well: 

The recent Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano is himself preoccupied with the after-effects of WWII. Of everything I’ve read I love Dora Bruder the best. It is neither a novel nor a straightforward memoir. Its drama is ironically in the scarcity of the detail we discover about the book’s eponymous character: a young, Jewish deportee about whom Modiano has discovered a newspaper notice from twenty years earlier, the briefest of accounts of a Jewish girl who has run away from a Catholic boarding school. Like a chalk outline, the portrait that Modiano draws through painstaking research reveals only her absence. In the process of describing what must have been her path to Drancy and then to Auschwitz, the reader discovers that the very forces of her constraint are the means of Modiano's access to her story. For Modiano this is also the source of her secret, the means by which she is protected, that she can only be seized and known by the records of those institutions which detained her, forces which leave her personhood untouched, even as they are capable of destroying her life.

I’ve also been reading and teaching some Georges Perec on this theme: W or The Memory of Childhood is a strange book, one part memoir, one part dystopian fantasy novel. The memoir piece, fragmentary glimpses of Perec’s childhood as a war orphan during and after the war, proves to be less reliable than the fantasy novel as Perec’s memories lose their reliability in the telling, unravelling even as they are revealed, while the fantasy novel/anthropological account which describes an island of Olympiads proves to be relentless in its order.  As the book details its never-ending list of regulations, it comes to appear as a description of the concentrationary universe. A Void or Disparition (in French) might seem at first to have nothing to do with postwar memory or survival. Something of a whodonit, in which each of the characters trying to solve the mystery of a disappeared friend is knocked off, one after the other, the novel’s novelty is in its constraint. It is written entirely without the letter e. The constraint itself is clearly the source which generates the unfolding of the story. It is easy to read the novel as a meditation on loss and constraint and thus as metaphorically connected to Perec’s own family tragedy, but the most concrete connection is in the title itself. For those who perished during the war without a death certificate, a document of “disparition” was the substitute, a copy of which Perec received for his own mother who perished at Auschwitz. 

Sarah Kofman’s Rue Ordinaire, Rue Labat  is more explicitly a meditation on  French-Jewish memory. The memoir of the philosopher’s experience in hiding during the war with her mother and the gentile woman who shelters them, it is unflinchingly honest in its detailing of loss and a kind of domestic violence that is largely invisible if deeply scarring.  

A couple of recent scholarly studies that I’ve found illuminating on these themes are Susan Suleiman’s The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth Century France (2016) and Michael Rothberg’s Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonialization. The first of these turns to Némirovsky, the controversial author whose wartime novel became an international bestseller in 2004, over 60 years after the author’s demise. Suleiman, herself a master stylist, considers the complexity around Nemirovsky’s own relation to her Judaism, examining her life, her novels and the true story of how Suite Francaise was rediscovered as well as its impact on her two surviving daughters. Rothberg’s work, which is less recent—over five years old now--changes the paradigm for how we think about the Holocaust and its after-effects by considering the implications of its emergence as an event in European consciousness coincident with Europe's colonial conflicts, particularly the Algerian Wae. This is a narrative thus that is particularly crucial for French Jewish thought and quietly inflects the other works listed here, though they are not treated by Rothberg.