Monday, June 5, 2023

The Anonymous Postcard That Inspired a French Best-Seller

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“The Postcard,” a novel by the French author Anne Berest, opens on a snowy morning in a Parisian suburb: “My mother lit her first lung-charring cigarette of the morning, the one she enjoyed most, and stepped outside to admire the whiteness blanketing the entire neighborhood.”

The scene was drawn from life: in early January, 2003, Berest’s mother, Lélia, a college professor and chain-smoking structural linguist, went out to gather the mail and found, tucked among the junk mail and New Year’s greetings, an anonymous postcard. It had a picture of the Opéra Garnier in Paris on one side, and, on the other, the names Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie, and Jacques, written in an awkward, unfamiliar script. Lélia recognized the names: her grandfather Ephraïm Rabinovitch; his wife, Emma; and two of their three children, Noémie and Jacques. They were Jews who, in 1942, had been deported from France and then murdered at Auschwitz. Lélia’s late mother, Myriam—the eldest of Ephraïm and Emma’s children—had escaped her family’s fate by the slenderest of threads. In later years, Myriam almost never spoke of them, or of her own wartime experiences.

As it happened, Lélia was about to give oral testimony in a legal case, seeking compensation from the French state for property that had been confiscated from her family during the war. Had the postcard been sent as an act of remembrance, or was it a warning to her, to cease and desist?

“I was twenty-four when the postcard arrived,” Berest told me, over breakfast—blood-orange juice for her—in the dark-panelled lobby of the Bowery Hotel in Lower Manhattan last fall, in a conversation that would continue for six months over Zoom, e-mail, and WhatsApp. Growing up in the Parisian suburb of Sceaux, the middle of three daughters, she didn’t know much about her Rabinovitch relatives. “Once, in elementary school, my teacher gave us an assignment over the holidays to draw our family trees.” There were big gaps in hers. “When my mother realized that she couldn’t tell her daughters the names of her own grandparents, she felt ashamed,” Berest said. “So she began researching.”

Based in part on two decades of her mother’s research, “The Postcard,” originally published in France by Grasset in 2021, arrives in the U.S. in May in a fluid English translation by Tina Kover. Both mother and daughter play central roles in the nearly five-hundred-page novel, whose first section finds a pregnant Anne questioning her mother about Rabinovitch family history. The vivid scenes unfold in flashbacks as we follow the fluctuating fortunes and narrow escapes of the Rabinovitch clan: from Moscow in 1918, to Latvia, across Eastern Europe and the Black Sea to Palestine, on to their final adopted homeland in France, only to end in Auschwitz.

The story then jumps to Paris in 2018, where Anne’s daughter, now six years old, tells her grandmother Lélia one day over lunch, “They don’t like Jews very much at school.” (One of her classmates, it turns out, had parroted an antisemitic remark from home.) In real life, Berest was shocked. “Instead of asking my daughter what happened, or going to the school, I became totally obsessed by the postcard. For fifteen years, I hadn’t thought about it, and on that day it came back to me, like a flash. I had to find out who had sent it.”

Though not quite as rarefied as the netsuke collection in Edmund de Waal’s memoir, “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” which leads him to reconstruct the lost worlds of his ancestors, the Ephrussi family, in prewar Jewish Paris and Vienna, Lélia’s postcard sets Anne on a quest through history (even if her references are more French New Wave than fin-de-siècle). In the novel, she and her mother hunt through a French village for traces of its wartime past. Anne consults with the Duluc Detective Agency and a handwriting expert named Jésus, and confronts family tensions, all while questioning the meaning of Jewishness in her secular, assimilated life.

Dressed in a loose, dark trouser suit, Berest, who is also a screenwriter and a playwright, has a modern, understated French chic. In fact, with three friends, she co-wrote “How to Be a Parisian Wherever You Are” (2014), a tongue-in-cheek international best-seller. (Its recommendations include raising the topic of adultery to enliven dinner party conversation, and understanding the importance of the three Simones—Simone Veil, Simone de Beauvoir, and Simone Signoret—in the lives of Parisiennes.) “We laughed a lot while writing it,” Berest admitted. “We didn’t expect it to be such a success.”

Very different in tone, “The Postcard” is “un roman vrai” (“a true novel”), Berest told me, anchored in scrupulous historical research and in her own real-life experiences. She used novelistic techniques (invented dialogues, narrative compressions) to give it both a detective story’s page-turning urgency and the immediacy of life as it unfolds. The latter brings to mind “Suite Française,” Irène Némirovsky’s long-lost pair of novels that portray early-nineteen-forties France. (In “The Postcard,” Noémie Rabinovitch, a nineteen-year-old aspiring writer, very nearly crosses paths with Némirovsky in a transit camp set up by the Vichy government for Jews en route to deportation.)

“As I was writing, I had the feeling that I was living in all these different periods at once,” Berest said. “It was as if I had entered into a different relationship with time.”

Berest also changed the name of the village in Normandy where her family members were arrested. And she used pseudonyms for characters who collaborated with the Vichy regime, out of concern for their descendants. One such character is the village mayor, who is taxed with sending a report each week to the region’s prefecture, entitled “Jews Currently Living in the Municipality.” At the end of the week in which Ephraïm and Emma are taken, Berest tells us that “the mayor was able to write, in his elegantly rounded script, with the satisfaction of a job well done: ‘None.’ ”

The French love literary scandals, and the 2021 Goncourt Prize (the country’s oldest and most distinguished literary award) was no exception. “The Postcard” was among the nominees for the prize, as was “Les Enfants de Cadillac,” a début novel by the philosopher François Noudelmann. Like “The Postcard,” it’s a story of the Holocaust and Jewish exiles in France, based on the author’s family history.

Noudelman’s romantic partner, the writer Camille Laurens, was among the Goncourt Prize jurors who voted to nominate his book; the jury had decided not to consider this a conflict of interest because the couple are not married or in a civil union. But eyes widened when, a short time after the longlist of nominees was announced, Laurens published a scathing review of “The Postcard” in Le Monde, in which she accused Anne, the character in the novel, of asking her mother “inane questions.” “You feel like you’re reading Shoah for Dummies,” she wrote.

Tastes differ, of course, but in reading Laurens’s review, I couldn’t help thinking that she was mistaking Berest’s humility—before her mother’s pain, and before a history that, eighty years on, continues to shock us—for ignorance. In any case, Noudelmann’s book was withdrawn from further consideration for the prize, which was awarded to the Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr for his novel “La Plus Secrète Mémoire des Hommes,” and “The Postcard” continued to garner critical acclaim and robust sales. (From an initial print run of fourteen thousand copies, sales in France have now topped three hundred and thirty thousand.) The book appears to have connected especially well with young readers. Last April, at the Villa Albertine in New York, it was awarded the first-ever Goncourt Prize U.S., in which a jury composed of students of French at five American universities chose their own winner from among a list of Goncourt nominees.

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