Philippe Grim­bert; Pol­ly McClean, trans.
  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

It is like­ly that Philippe Grim­bert, French author of Mem­o­ry, was famil­iar with French philoso­pher Mikhail Bakhtin’s under­stand­ing of the word. Bakhtin con­tends that 

The word in lan­guage is half some­one else’s. It becomes one’s own’ only when the speak­er pop­u­lates it with his/​her own inten­tion, his/​her own accent, when s/​he appro­pri­ates the word adapt­ing it to his/​her own seman­tic and expres­sive inten­tion. (Dia­log­ic Imag­i­na­tion 293

Grimbert’s nov­el is indeed about the word: those words unspo­ken and unpop­u­lat­ed with inten­tion. And, when those words are spo­ken, are shared, the sto­ry becomes com­plete and Grimbert’s mis­sion is accom­plished. Mem­o­ry is a sto­ry about writ­ing one­self into his­to­ry and about acknowl­edg­ing those lost. It is a sto­ry about the ways in which secrets and mem­o­ry affect the imagination. 

Grim­bert, who is the nar­ra­tor, reflects upon his life as a lone­ly and sick­ly child. He dis­cuss­es his admi­ra­tion for his par­ents, but does so with bit­ter under­tones, as he con­cen­trates more on their phys­i­cal appear­ance than on their love for him. He cre­ates an imag­i­nary broth­er — an old­er, phys­i­cal­ly fit broth­er to whom he can vent his frus­tra­tions. It is not until he turns fif­teen that he learns the truth of his being, of his par­ents’ love for each oth­er, and of the exis­tence of Simon, his real brother. 

The sto­ry is poignant and heart wrench­ing, not unlike oth­er Holo­caust sto­ries of this ilk; yet Grimbert’s expres­sive inten­tions become clear as the word is shared, for it is here that Grim­bert begins to under­stand his life, him­self, his com­mit­ments, and the lost chil­dren of the Holo­caust. It is also here that he decides to give Simon the grave that is this story. 

Malv­ina D. Engel­berg, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has taught com­po­si­tion and lit­er­a­ture at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el for the past fif­teen years. She is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

Discussion Questions