By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is email@example.com
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
By Franz-Olivier Giesbert
Translated from the French by Barbara Johnson
Pantheon. 151 pp. $21
On June 6, 1944, a young American soldier named Frederick Giesbert landed on the Normandy coast, having just "spent hours on his boat puking his guts into his helmet." The water through which he waded ashore was red with blood: "He advanced like everyone else, shivering down to his bones, his mouth open, his eyes dull, with an expression of stupid astonishment like that of certain corpses on their beds." He survived, but the memory of that day never left him:
"He was in a state of shock for the rest of his life, hardly capable of smiling, wounded to the quick at having survived so many friends he saw dying and had to leave behind. . . . On June 6, 1944, he decided that life is a lie and death is the only truth. That day, too, he decided he would spend the rest of his time in Normandy."
This, with the exception of a few years in the States with his French bride, is exactly what he did. A talented artist who believed he could do good if not great things, he went to work for his father-in-law's business in Normandy as a designer, and ever thereafter was furious that, in his view, he had sold out. But then Frederick Giesbert was almost always furious, especially with his wife, Marie-Berthe, "called Mab, saint and martyr." She "loved him and felt for him," to which he responded by beating her, repeatedly and brutally. He thought she was "castrating" him, when the truth was that she "was just trying to protect him, from himself and from the outside world, since his clumsiness could get him into trouble."
These are the words of their first-born child, Franz-Olivier, who tells this sad, wrenching story in his memoir, "The American." Now in his mid-fifties, a successful journalist (for a time he served as Washington correspondent for Le Nouvel Observateur and as editor in chief of Le Figaro) and author of novels and biographies, he is as haunted by his childhood as his father was by D-Day. He spent his entire childhood detesting his father, mainly because of the beatings his mother suffered but also because of those inflicted on him and his four siblings, and as a small boy he devoted much time to plotting "the important mission I had assigned myself, always the same one: to kill my father."
Patricide is scarcely a new theme in the world's literature, but mostly it has been treated in fiction or in the theater. "The American," by contrast, is the testament of a man who actually wanted to kill his own father. He didn't do so -- indeed, he never even came close -- but the loathing that impels this book is as real as any patricide the younger Giesbert might have committed, and so too is the sense of longing and loss, the knowledge that "not the least of my regrets is never to have tried to make peace with him." After his father's death, "of a heart attack, one fine day when the world smelled like newly mown hay, in the emergency room of Elbeuf hospital," he realized that the chance for reconciliation was lost forever:
"I've recounted [my story] in order to free myself from the grief of never having given my father a chance to talk to me or myself a chance to forgive him. I want for nothing, only a future and a clear conscience, which amounts, perhaps, to the same thing. After having left remorse wherever I took my hatred, I have decided to love everyone, even my enemies, and to live every day, every encounter, every conversation, as though it were my last. That's what my father's death taught me."
Frederick Giesbert was a strange man, "not born for happiness." He "was perpetually eaten up by a strange malady: part melancholy, part social resentment, part metaphysical migraine." He detested his native America, what he called its "decadence and silliness," a place "materialist, ugly, and empty," and insisted that his family "be immunized against all the ills propagated by that putrefying sewer, the West, in its phase of terminal decadence."
He was also formidably intelligent and learned, "a polyglot encyclopedist" who was fluent in seven languages, deeply knowledgeable about ancient civilizations and the world's literature. He had a soft spot for animals and occasionally let slip a kindness toward young Franz that suggested "my father loved me much more than he let on." He must have been almost unbearably unhappy, tormented by memories and demons, dominated by impulses beyond his control. His wife saw something in him to love -- "He was her penitence and her redemption. I'm sure she felt sorry for him while he beat her" -- and in his way, he loved her, and their children, too.
He was a fatalist, and he taught his son to be one as well. The farm where they lived near the Seine was Franz's school: "One never learns as fast as on a farm everyone's truth, from humans to worms, which is to become the layer of earth that our descendants will step on, before they are covered, in turn, one day or another, by another layer, and so on to the end of time." And a related lesson: "I'm convinced that my father believed, like me, in the universal kinship of all beings and in the transmigration of souls, which, since the dawn of time, are circulating on earth as they pass from one appearance to another."
These are not lessons, the first most specifically, with which many Americans are comfortable. They reflect an Old World stoicism and fancifulness that do not sit well with our New World naivete and optimism. The author, who was born in Delaware during the brief time his father returned to the United States and retains an affection for this country -- "To love America was another way to hate Papa" -- learned his father's lessons. Our parents shape us whether we love them or loathe them, which is one lesson the reader can take away from Giesbert's painfully honest book. Another is that one's feelings about one's parents are never precisely what one believes them to be, that the relationship between parent and child is even more complex than the relationship between husband and wife. Giesbert does not say it in so many ways, but for the rest of his life, he will be what he is now: his father's son. In his case, that is an especially heavy burden, but for all of us, it carries a lot more weight than we realize.
Readers may be tempted to approach "The American" as another memoir of victimization in the manner so commonplace nowadays, but the temptation should be resisted. Franz-Olivier Giesbert isn't beating his own breast and doesn't appear to be especially sorry for himself. He too has survived, after all, and has gone on to a life of accomplishment and recognition. What he is saying in this memoir is not that we should feel sorry for him, but that we should pity his father.