I think the French have a word for the genre of Sarah Kofman’s next-to-last book: the récit, an account. Perhaps that implies more of a narrative through-line than this book offers. It could be called a memoir, though it is too fragmentary to be one. It is autobiographical without being an autobiography. Maybe sketch is the best term? There’s always that useful term the French like to use: the text.
Rue Ordener, Rue Labat asks us to think about what to call it because it is always pushing against the very idea of form, as if it were a pure manifestation of the unconscious, of its author’s deepest recesses.
I first read this intriguing little work when it came out in English translation in the late 1990s. I returned to it yesterday as part of my efforts to create the syllabus (or at least the reading list) for a new course I’m teaching in the fall, Literature after Auschwitz. Lately I’ve dipped into lots of books, looking for ones that will fit the story I want the course to tell and that will be effective pedagogically. All the while I know that I won’t really know what I want from the course until I’ve taught it at least once.
My first thought was that Rue Orderer, Rue Labat probably won’t serve my purposes. But I’ve found myself returning to it over and over again in the twenty-four hours since finishing it. So maybe there is something in it I need to listen to.
In eighty pages and twenty-three chapters Kofman tells us about some of the things that happened to her as a child in and around Paris during the war and its aftermath.
Her father was arrested in the infamous roundups of July 16th, 1942, when the French police brought 13,000 Jews to a velodrome on the outskirts of Paris before deporting them, via the transit camp at Drancy, to Auschwitz.
The book begins with that day, the last time Kofman ever saw her father. More precisely, it begins with a description of his fountain pen, which Kofman kept with her throughout her life. The pen, she suggests, was the impetus for all her subsequent work, not least these pages.
I’ve been dipping into Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist lately and I thought about “the squat pen” in “Digging.” That pen, though, is so much more ambivalent, so much more a weapon (however ambivalently wielded) than Kofman’s father’s. Her book is full of ambiguity, but none of that attaches to her father, an Orthodox, unassimilated rabbi who had arrived in France in 1929 and who Kofman clearly adored. He appears in the book only through his traces—that pen, a photo, a single postcard written from Drancy asking for cigarettes and sending love to the baby, presumably the one Kofman’s mother pretended to be pregnant with in a futile attempt to save her husband from deportation, though perhaps Kofman herself—and his daughter’s memories. She remembers his inveterate smoking: because he kept Shabbat he couldn’t smoke until sundown on the Sabbath and so, towards the end of the day, he would soothe his cravings by humming melodies with the family. Kofman later recognizes one in Mahler symphony.
The father is gentle, wise, capable. The mother is another story. Most of the book is about her, and her substitute. From that day n July when so many were disappeared, life got harder for the remaining Jews of Paris. Kofman describes wearing the star, suffering abuse at school, living in increasing fear. Her mother tries to save her six children. (Interestingly, Kofman tells us almost nothing about her siblings.) Each is given another, Gentile name. Together they are sent to the countryside. But Kofman makes trouble. She loves her new school—her love for her teachers before and after the war is a repeated theme in the book—but hates everything else. She won’t eat pork, she cries for her mother. Her eldest sister writes home to say that Kofman can’t stay, she’ll give them all away. Her mother tries to hide her in other places, both outside and inside Paris. Kofman always cries, and her mother always has to take her back. One day in February mother and daughter receive word that they must leave their apartment immediately; the police will be coming that night. Desperate, Kofman’s mother visits “the lady on Rue Labat,” a former neighbour with whom she had become friendly, largely over the woman’s affection for Kofman and her siblings.
Rue Labat is two metro stops from Rue Ordener. Kofman vomits repeatedly on the way there. In fact, she vomits over and over again in these memories. The restrictions on eating in Leviticus, the laws of kashrut, symbolize Kofman’s refusal to incorporate otherness, to accommodate to situations beyond that of the family. This bodily instability is a sign of Kofman’s resistance, a refusal to compromise her identity. It is also dangerous, the result of an intransigence and recklessness to herself and to others, even or especially those who want to help her, who are in fact risking their lives for her. And of course it is also, perhaps primarily a sign of her conflict with her mother, which intensifies over time.
As a child Kofman had been so attached to her mother that she could hardly bear to part from her for even a short time. Now, hidden in the apartment in Rue Labat, devouring the books she finds there, eventually eating the foods the lady is convinced she needs for her health, Kofman repudiates her mother and becomes attached to this other maternal figure, who she calls “Mémé.” Mémé saves Kofman from deportation, but that doesn’t mean she particularly likes Jews. She disparages Kofman’s Jewish nose, for example. Under her care, Kofman forgets her Yiddish (the language she spoke with her mother).
The liberation comes. Unlike many wartime memoirs, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat doesn’t end here. One of the things I like about the book is that the war is really the least of it, here. Which isn’t to say that the events depicted here are simply universal psychological dramas. Here is a Holocaust memoir in which the Holocaust as we usually consider it barely figures. Without the heavy-handed language of “second generation” or “postmemory” created at around the same time by critics like Marianne Hirsch, Kofman tells a story of the psychological ambivalences of assimilation in which the war is necessary but not sufficient.
Kofman’s mother takes her back to live with her. Kofman doesn’t want to, she wants to be with Mémé. She runs away to her repeatedly. Hard to imagine Kofman’s mother’s frustration and despair; Kofman doesn’t try to. Instead she lists the mother’s responses: beating the child, negotiating desperately with her: she can have one hour a day with Mémé. Nothing works, the child always wants the surrogate. Eventually the mother takes the other woman to court. But the court sides with Mémé. The mother hires two strong men who lay in wait for the child and steal her back. But some time later, the mother must go to the country for an extended time to collect her other children. Remarkably, she entrusts Kofman to Mémé. The back and forth between the women continues for some time. In a brief moment of theoretical reflection, Kofman refers to Melanie Klein to explain the situation, using Klein’s distinction between the good and bad breast to speak of her experience of these two mothers. (The breasts are just a metonymy: the “good” one is bounteous, plentiful, always ready whenever the child needs anything; the “bad” one is unavailing, desiccated, not there when the child wants it. The child—an infant—has no sense yet that the mother is an independent person. Some people never learn this, to their peril.) But in the Kleinian narrative of development, the child must learn that the good breast and the bad breast, the good mother and the bad mother, are the same; in other words, the child must learn how to handle ambivalence. (The one you love can—and will—be the one you hate.) It’s unclear whether Kofman does, though she eventually exits the orbit of both women, once again through books and education, the things that had most sustained her during the war.
We sense, more than see, because the end of the book is particularly fragmentary, that Kofman comes to dislike both women. The enigmatic, almost perfunctory last lines are:
I was unable to attend her funeral. But I know that at her grave the priest recalled how she had saved a little girl during the war.
How ironically should we understand this? Does it matter that Kofman killed herself the year after writing them?
In her otherwise admirable introduction, Ann Smock says something you would never expect from a translator. Contrasting this autobiographical writing with Kofman’s other, philosophical works she says: “That splendid mask of feminine brilliance is not apparent at all in Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, which, I would say, does without literary qualities,” adding that “It is simple, but it does not have a simple style or any style.” Surely Smock of all people—trained in the French intellectual tradition of Barthes & Blanchot—doesn’t imagine that there could be such a thing as writing without style. The style is unadorned, definitely, and the book is not obviously patterned. But its qualities are certainly literary. The sense that there is so much more at work here than its author can understand is one of its chief attractions.
The more I think about Rue Ordener, Rue Labat the more I think it would pair interestingly with Sebald’s Austerlitz. Maybe I will teach it after all.