Review – Memory by Philippe Grimbert

memory“The smell of new books intoxicated me.  I got drunk on the almond fragrance of book glue, on the leather of the satchel in which I buried my face.  Exercise books accumulated in my desk drawers; I never reread them.  The vigor I lacked for physical activities became incandescent when, pen in hand, I filled whole pages with invented stories.  Sometimes they were intimately about me – family tales, parental exploits – sometimes they became horrific stories sprinkled with torture, death, and reunion: crazy games and tear-soaked sagas.” (page 43)

Last night, I went upstairs to bed with every intention of reading the first few pages of Memory and then falling asleep.  An hour and a half later, I had finished Memory and couldn’t even think about sleeping.  It was such a powerful little novel and I’m really amazed I haven’t heard much about it.  Though the cover says it is a novel, it really is more like a memoir, told as a novel.  The events described in the novel actually happened and that makes it all the more powerful.

All of his life, Philippe has felt distant from his extremely athletic parents.  He invents an older brother for himself, a stronger, healthier older brother who is the child his parents actually would have wanted.  In the attic of his home, he finds a stuffed dog, old and worn and names it “Si,” though he’s unsure why.  He can tell his mother doesn’t like this, but he doesn’t know why and she never asks him to stop so she doesn’t.  He spends his childhood inventing the lives of his parents, as they are very cryptic about their past.  The first half of the book are these inventions and describing his childhood in post-war Paris.

Eventually, a family friend named Louise can’t keep lying to Phillipe and decides to tell him the truth about his parents past.  This is the heart of the novel, and I do not want to give anything away.  What actually happened to the Grimbert family during WWII is absolutely heartbreaking.  Grimbert tells the story masterfully, weaving a complex story about his own life, allowing the reader to piece the story together in much the same way he must have as a child.

The prose is sparse and gorgeous: he never over tells the story, but instead lets the events speak for themselves in lyrical, direct storytelling that still manages to be delicate and beautiful when the story dictated, and harsher when needed.

On being forced to wear the Star of David:

Wearing the star has become compulsory.  A slap in the face for Maxime, who no longer has any argument for those he had tried to reassure.  Joseph’s concerns and the neighboring shopkeepers’ fears were justified.  The prospect of wearing the yellow badge annihilates all his effort, forcibly associating him with a community from which he would rather stand apart.  Worse, the enemy is no longer the foreign invader but his own country, lumping him in with the unwanted.  Once again, he decides not to obey; this scrap of cloth won’t dirty his expensive suits, nor humiliate his wife and child.  The tension in the family becomes highly charged.  George reproaches him for what he sees as repudiation – he and Esther will wear the star with pride; why should they be ashamed?  Every discussion turns into a row.  Joseph hardly dares speak to his son, although he does occasionally try to make him see the danger in which this decision puts his wife and son.  Maxime angrily sweeps these arguments aside: nothing distinguishes him to the enemy, so why should he be harassed?  Does he have the aquiline nose, the clawlike fingers, or the receding chin of the posters shown to Parisians at the dreadful Berlitz Palace exhibition to help them recognize France’s enemies?

Louse has complied, she has sewn the badge to her chest.  She didn’t have the strength to hide herself, but the star weighs on her, even more heavily than the chunky sole of her orthopedic shoe.  Maxime drops by to see her every day, talks with her, asks her view of the situation.  He is tempted to reproach his friend for surrendering, but her haggard face dissuades him. ” (Page 89)

On discovering Si & his invented brother:

Soon after my discovery in the attic I had insisted on going back up there, and this time my mother couldn’t stop me bringing the little dog down with me.  I moved him on to my bed that very evening.

Whenever I fell out with my brother I took refuge in my new friend, Si.  Where did I get that name?  From the dusty smell of his fur?  The silences of my mother, my father’s sadness?  Si, Si!  I walked my dog all around the flat, not wanting to notice my parents’ distress when they heard me calling his name.

The older I got, the more tense my relationship with my brother became.  I invented quarrels and rebelled against his authority.  I tried to make him yield, but I rarely came out the winner.


He had changed over the years.  From protective, he had become tyrannical, mocking, even contemptuous.  I nevertheless continued to tell him my fears and failings as I fell asleep to the rhythm of his breathing.  He received them without a word, but his gaze reduced me to nothing; he would examine my imperfections, lifting the sheets and stifling a laugh.  Then anger would overwhelm me, and I’d seize him by the throat.  Enemy brother, false brother, ghost brother, return to your night!  Fingers in his eyes, I would push down on his face as hard as I could, trying to force him into the shifting sands of the pillow.”

94% This is such a quick, beautiful read, there’s no reason for you not to go out and read it right now!

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2 thoughts on “Review – Memory by Philippe Grimbert

  1. Oooooh, this one sounds good! I love books that whisk you away and that you just can’t put down. Plus, this one sounds just a bit creepy, which I always seem to enjoy in a novel… I’m going to see if my library has this one on hand. Great review!

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