Saturday, November 27, 2021

L'Art De Perdre, by Alice Zeniter


Sometimes you just don't know when a book is going to sit up and bite you and you fall in love with it, but it does, and sometimes you don't even know why. Well, it just happened to me this last month, as I read Alice Zeniter's The Art of Losing. It got a Goncourt Prize (lycée division – the committee sends out nominations to high schools and tallies up the choices – interesting....) for the author, age 31, in 2017. I read a review when the English translation appeared and I chose as part of my French project, now five years old, as I've graduated from classics to recents.

I can't do better in summarizing it than quoting Amazon:

"[An] extraordinary achievement." ―Liesl Schillinger, The Wall Street Journal

Across three generations, three wars, two continents, and the mythic waters of the Mediterranean, one family’s history leads to an inevitable question: What price do our descendants pay for the choices that we make?

Naïma knows Algeria only by the artifacts she encounters in her grandparents’ tiny apartment in Normandy: the language her grandmother speaks but Naïma can’t understand, the food her grandmother cooks, and the precious things her grandmother carried when they fled. Naïma’s father claims to remember nothing; he has made himself French. Her grandfather died before he could tell her his side of the story. But now Naïma will travel to Algeria to see for herself what was left behind―including their secrets.

The Algerian War for Independence sent Naïma’s grandfather on a journey of his own, from wealthy olive grove owner and respected veteran of the First World War, to refugee spurned as a harki by his fellow Algerians in the transit camps of southern France, to immigrant barely scratching out a living in the north. The long battle against colonial rule broke apart communities, opened deep rifts within families, and saw the whims of those in even temporary power instantly overturn the lives of ordinary people. Where does Naïma’s family fit into this history? How do they fit into France’s future?

Alice Zeniter’s The Art of Losing is a powerful, moving family novel that spans three generations across seventy years and two shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a resonant people’s history of Algeria and its diaspora. It is a story of how we carry on in the face of loss: loss of country, identity, language, connection. Most of all, it is an immersive, riveting excavation of the inescapable legacies of colonialism, immigration, family, and war.

I wondered as I read how Zeniter came to write it, and how Naïma, the present day young woman protagonist, the third generation, came to be the central force of the book. Naïma wonders, who am I, where do I fit? There's a lot of special information, and a definite point of view. I was happy to find the Daily Star commentary:

Zeniter, whose father was born in the Kabyle region of Algeria, and whose grandfather was considered a harki for supporting the French, said that while writing her novel, she had come upon many such “secret pockets where we put all those whose trajectories embarrass us.”

Which is just what I wanted to hear. It's fiction, but this outline of her facts is the same outline of the book's facts, and how can the feelings be much different?

I'm not sure where the feelings that well up inside me come from. Maybe from my own family? I remember telling the story of my father's life, as I saw it, at the service for his death at age 92 in 2007, delivered in one of the meeting rooms at his retirement home, The Quadrangle, near Haverford College outside Philadelphia, where my sibs and I had done our most meaningful growing up – when asked where they're from, I think most people will give where they went to high school, and we all went to beloved Lower Merion. I recounted how my grandparents had come to America as children from Eastern Europe and settled where Jews settled, my grandfather being the first doctor in our family (and a city champion billiards player, they say), and my grandmother's family owning a bank. My grandfather died of a brain abscess and my grandmother's bank died of the Depression, but despite the obstacles my father became a neurosurgeon, couldn't stay on at Penn despite his brilliance because he was Jewish (he was also verbally combative and probably a pain in the ass, which didn't help), but made it on his own to national and even international recognition, and finally, here at the Quadrangle, lived in a religiously integrated society, which was more American, in a way.

Being a harki from Algeria, despised by official Algeria for reasons that didn't match the facts, as Zeniter makes clear, going from top to bottom in his life through no fault of his own, oh the pain of Ali, the grandfather. The tragedy. He was no traitor, he was a leader in his small community trying to make things better for his people, not someone who joined the French in oppression.  And the FLN - patriots, really?  Cruel, with their own advantage to cultivate, their own property and belongings of others to confiscate, their own perks of leadership to exercise.  No fault of Ali's, but the currents of life, politics, and war. He was lucky to be alive, although is original family was fractured. The pain of Ali, who did such a good job of being father of the family in the mountains where the Kabyles live, and who was reduced to a shadow of himself in the camps, but was not pathetic, was still prideful and a leader in his little group, but tragic. His little wife Yema, married to Ali as his second wife at age 14, who never learns French but persists as a spirit and a cook and a carrier of Algerianism and who hugs tight because that's what Kabyla women do, and has about 10 kids, which Naïma can't figure out exactly how they do it because Ali is huge and Yema is about 4'9”. But that's what they do, have kids. Ali doesn't talk about his World War I experience, he doesn't talk about the pain of dislocation, but we see it and feel it.

Then comes the eldest son, Hamid, Naïma's father, squeezed between two generations of immigrant and French-born, who is clever and navigates the French world for the Kabyles, and then who marries blond Clarissa, who was 19 when they met romantically in Paris. Zeniter observes that integration of immigrants occurs when the immigrant impregnates a native born French. Maybe so. They face their problems of intimacy and acknowledging their backgrounds and their feelings and their shames and their love, they have four kids and according to Naïma, there history stops for them. They are then just parents.

Then comes Naïma, the third of the four daughters of Hamid and Clarissa, Clarissa who finds the love of Yema without their being able to speak much to each other, and Naïma who reflects that same love. Ali won't speak of the past and then he dies. Hamid won't speak much about his own immigrant experience, and of what little he knows about Kabyle. But the quest for origins lies heavy within Naïma, why that is she doesn't know, and her route to Algeria comes from an unlikely source, her boss at the art gallery where she works, and with whom she is having a long affair. He assigns her a retrospective of a Kabyle artist living near Paris, Lalla, whose works she must collect. He becomes like an intimate uncle to her, and she must go back to Algeria to collect some of his works, and meet his family, and then inevitably, even though she had thrown away the telephone number that Yema gave her of the one relative she could call, of course she must meet her own. Ali couldn't go back for legitimate fear, Hamid also from fear, but Naïma can.

I wish so much I could go over the details with you, and explain them, and savor them. It's the details that make a story whole, that make characters people and situations live, and yet here, I'm just telling you about the outlines of the story and my feelings. But that's all I can do. I'd love to read it chapter by chapter and discuss, and reflect, because the book is really that deep. I just love Naïma, and I think I love Alice Zeniter, the way you love an author who writes a book that you know it's for everyone, but isn't it especially for you? That's the way I felt about the operation on my pituitary tumor by an approach through the nose and my sinuses, not having to cut my head open. Yes, Charlie Wilson invented the operation for everyone, but I appreciated the gift as though it were only for me. And it would be especially hard for me to impart everything because I read it in French, which meant on the one hand I read it slowly and really savored every word, but on the other I was doing two things at once, story and language, so the the story came a little indirectly. Actually, though, I think reading it in French made it more direct than in English, and I loved it more. Maybe the thing is that I haven't discussed it with anyone, and I'm not going to go back and read it again and take notes.

I used to tell kids when they visited me for their pediatric check ups and summer vacation was coming up, that if I could give them an assignment for the summer, it would be this: this summer, find a book you love. That's it. If you care reading something and it doesn't really grab you, you can finish it if you want or you can put it down, but the assignment stands: find a book you love.

Well, with L'art de perdre, I completed my own assignment. And instead of learned and intense discussion of the people and the ideas and the situations and the politics and injustice and human spirit and families and the nature of love, I'm just conveying to you how I fell in love this summer, or maybe this fall, whenever it was, and maybe I'll go back sometime and read it all over again.

You can do that with books.

Budd Shenkin

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Boys and Girls

When I was 14 or 15, a girl down the New Jersey shore said to me, I have a great 12 year old girl for you, who's beautiful! She said something similar to the girl, and the girl became my girl friend for a short period of time. I was awkward. I was young. Her name was Laurie Colwin.

What did I know? What did she know? Not much. I took her to a movie in Ship Bottom. (It's in the middle of Long Beach Island, which is about 18 miles long and has one road from one end to the other. Ship Bottom was right in the middle. Never thought about it much, but that's quite a name.)

Then her family moved from Chicago to Philadelphia, pretty far away from us, she was in North Philly and we were on the Main Line in the west, and I was too young to drive. How do you date when you can't drive and it's not in a city? Beats me. When we were down the shore on Long Beach Island in New Jersey that summer, Laurie's older sister Leslie started to teach me to drive on a wide, short dirt road outside the house where they were staying. Leslie was blond, bigger it seemed, certainly more developed, seemed to have real breasts, which probably scared me, certainly scared me, and she told me she had a boyfriend back in Chicago, Steve, I think, and she confided to me that she had “never been laid.” Me, what was I going to say? I nodded sagely and said, “That's good.”

Talk about wanting a do-over. I really liked Leslie. There was another older sister who liked me and we never did anything about it, back home in Lower Merion, my classmate Lynn Sherr's older sister Lois. What is it with all these L names? While I was reading Word Power Made Easy prepping for the College Boards in high school (still in print!!), I learned that L words tend toward the sensual – lascivious, lewd, lubricious (I don't think this last one was one of them that they listed) – so maybe that's it. Lynn's family was Louis, Lois, Lynn, and Shirley, Lynn liked to roll those sounds off her tongue. The tongue was actually what lay behind L's and sensuality, said the book – the tongue was thought to be the center of sensuality. I can see that.

What a great book that was, that I picked up off the rack at Leary's bookstore in downtown Philly, where my mother liked to browse. She was a book lover who foisted that love onto us, which was one of the best foists ever. She kept feeding me books, most of which were great – Patterns of Culture, Catcher in the Rye – but a lot of which were dated – Penrod by Booth Tarkington, for God's sake.

Anyway, who would want to live those years over? Maybe implant our current knowledge and experience, then it might be OK, might be, good ol' “If I knew then what I know now.”

I was attracted to girls, sure, and plenty of them were attracted to me, although I didn't really get that at the time, maybe defensively so I didn't have to do anything about it, and that didn't seem to help with awkwardness. I remember seeking some wisdom from my mother, some guidance. I confessed to her that being around boys was easy, we always had a good time and lots of things to do together, but what do you do with girls? With Laurie I tried to follow what I thought was received wisdom. I asked her to go to a football game with me. I had given up playing football in 9th grade, so here we were in the stands. We walked over to the stadium together, watched together, I bought her a Lower Merion High pennant, walked home, and I probably never saw her again. Where were the role models? It was just hard.

So I told my mother that I didn't know what to do with girls. I was hoping for some guidance, some support, some advice. But my mother didn't take to that easily. If she had time to think and to figure out what to do – she was a thinking type – she could come into my room and start a conversation and say what she thought was helpful, and it often was. It was great when I was in first grade and I would walk to the Henry C. Lea Elementary School at 47th and Spruce in West Philadelphia and play in the playground and when I came hope it seemed like I had peed in my pants a little. So my Mom got down to my level and looked me in the eyes and said, Now Buddy, when you are out in the yard and playing, I want you to think if you have to go to the bathroom, and if you do, then stop playing for a little and go. OK? I said, OK. And it worked!

But going to your mother about relationships with girls was different, awkward, and since I was the oldest child, I was teen training example, I guess, everything was new with me, and when I was 14 or 15 she was only in her late 30's, with four kids and a busy husband and trying to figure out what to do with herself and not be wasted the way intelligent women were wasted in the 1950's. So when I chose to mention this to her, I didn't have the wisdom to sit her down and give a preliminary overview of my dilemma of having urges but operating on foreign territory and telling her what I wanted from her, of course I didn't. Who would?

So I guess I kind of ambushed her out of my confusion, and my embarrassment probably, it's not an easy thing to say, and not the kind of thing my father handled well, although he was a very sensitive man, but not a great communicator, we would say now. He was a neurosurgeon, very. I think I might have even been on the short stairway of our split level house, six stairs up to the four bedrooms in a row with bathrooms at each end, a new development house with 12 or 14 other houses pretty much the same, pretty much all Jewish invading the gentile Main Line, I remember the real estate agent and the developer meeting with my parents and going over who the others were in the development, the Lipshutz's, the Lowe's, the London's, the Simon's, and the crusty old but humorous real estate agent asking, “Where are the Kelly's and the O'Donnell's?” To some laughter, knowing looks, but that was the way it was, and it paid off with a wonderful mixed high school.

But I think I must have caught my mother off guard, of course I did, and as a result she didn't have time to think and to consider, and I must have been frustrating to her in many ways, we had temperaments that were a little off, she could decide on a dime and I took a long time deciding between competing brands of shaving cream. So she reverted to what she had somewhere learned was an admirable thing to do, to give a terse and telling retort. So what she said to me was, “Well, you'd better learn,” with a kind of sarcastic sense, and she moved on with what she was doing.

Well, that's what she did. The quick hit. When she and my Dad and I were away for a few days at an adult camp in Rangeley, Maine, “a true four-season paradise tucked away in the mountains of western Maine,” I wanted them to stay up a little later one night. I told my Mom, “You two each have each other, but I don't have anyone.” I was maybe 20, my sisters were at one camp and my brother at another in Vermont, and they had visiting weekends one after the other, so we were at Rangeley in the interim. My Mom was on the way to bed, so she met my entreaty by turning around and observing to me, “Who's fault is that?”

And then when I told them years and years later that I was going to forego anything in academia or government and go into the practice of pediatrics, she said, “So you are choosing a little life.”

Yes, it was little, that's for sure. But I was able to meet lots of people and try to help them. I was able to reflect on the dilemma of mothers raising sons, how they wish the best for their boys, but their experience is as a girl, and it's hard not to look at a son and think how he is going to treat girls, and what you would want if you were that girl. Girls have their own wounds. In other words, it's a split loyalty. It came home to me early when I visited one of my mothers, a single mother, as I was taking care of her newborn son, and she said to me, “I'm going to teach him how women should be treated right!” Woof. Split loyalty.

You know, life ain't easy. My parents were on the whole wonderful. I never doubted their full love, full, full, full. They gave me terrific support. Yes, expectations, too, carrying on their mission of succeeding in the world at large, not just the confined Jewish world of recent immigrants they had been born into. Nothing was more important to them than their children. They had to have a lot of patience with me, although they took great pride, and invested great hopes, in what an achiever I was and good at lots of things – my Dad said, “If it's a multiple choice test, Buddy can do well in it even if he knows nothing about it.” That's pride. And there was great generosity. Great support. I have absolutely nothing to complain about. I wish they were here. I wish I could pay them back, somehow. I did what I could, I was a good son, I am a good father, I support my wife well in her illness now, I try to help the world, I think you could say I have generally been a good boy, although I did experiment around for a while to see what it was like to be an asshole, but it was just trying to find myself and escape being guilty, is the way I put it to myself now, etc. etc. etc.

But, I have to say, when it came to girls, I really could have used a little help. Laurie Colwin, Laurie Colwin, the first of many failures. That's the way I think of it now. She was a pretty little girl, it certainly was fun down the shore, somehow I got along with her sister better than with her but there was nothing to do about it because my mother had told me, by way of orientation, that boys usually like younger girls better, that was the way it went, which was true, so it wasn't a bad road map. But it would probably have helped me to hear, who knows the way of the heart?

Budd Shenkin