Memory’s Long Voyage
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Chapter 1: Childhood, Exile and Nostalgia in L’Algarabie, Adieu, vive clarté… and Veinte años y un día
- Chapter 2: The Importance of Guilt and Testimony for the Evocation of the Holocaust in Le Grand Voyage, Quel beau dimanche! and Le Mort qu’il faut
- Chapter 3: Memory and Writing in L’Évanouissement and L’Écriture ou la vie
- Chapter 4: The Memory of Politics and the Politics of Memory: Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez and Netchaïev est de retour
- Chapter 5: Memory and Identity in La Deuxième Mort de Ramón Mercader and La Montagne blanche
- Series index
← x | 1 → Introduction – Memory, Literature and the Self
Memory, literature and the self are three notions that are intimately intertwined in the writing of Jorge Semprún. Much of the timeless value of his narratives stems from this fact and yet the mutual dependence of all three makes their discussion difficult. Semprún, a prolific writer of novels and film scripts, wrote both in French and Spanish. He was also a politician, first as an active Communist and then as the independent Minister of Culture in the Socialist cabinet of Felipe González from 1988 to 1991.
Born in Madrid in 1923, he was the son of José María de Semprún y Gurrea and Susana Maura y Gamazo, the fourth of seven children. His mother was the daughter of Antonio Maura y Montaner, a statesman and several times Prime Minister during the Restoration monarchy of Alfonso XIII at the beginning of the twentieth century, who died in 1925. Miguel Maura Gamazo, the first Minister of the Interior for the Second Republic in 1931, was Semprún’s uncle. His father, a liberal Catholic lawyer, was first made civil governor of Toledo by Maura Gamazo, before he was transferred to Santander. Breaking with his more moderate brother-in-law Semprún Gurrea supported the Popular Front government elected in 1936.
The death of his mother in January 1932 represented the first experience of bereavement in Semprún’s life, soon to be followed by the experience of exile. The outbreak of the Civil War in July 1936 surprised Semprún’s family on holiday in Lekeitio in the Basque country, from where they fled to France on a trawler, until the father was given a diplomatic post at the Republic’s delegation in The Hague. Shortly before Franco’s victory the family returned to France as refugees. Semprún, together with his brother Gonzalo, became a boarder at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV in Paris at the end of February 1939 and planned to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. However, the family’s precarious financial situation meant that this was impossible and the plans to attend university soon had to be aborted. After the French defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1940 Semprún joined ← 1 | 2 → the Communist party and later became an active member of the French Resistance. In October 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo and tortured. Subsequently, he was deported to the German concentration camp of Buchenwald. As a Communist, he could rely on a secret underground network of comrades in the camp and was fortunate to be given a task in an office after having been registered as a skilled worker (a stucco plasterer), even though he had insisted that he was a philosophy student. A further advantage aiding his survival was the fact that he spoke fluent German having been brought up by German-speaking nannies. Upon the liberation of the camp on 11 April 1945 by General Patton, Semprún was repatriated to France. Like many exiles he did not think the Antifascist struggle was over and continued his involvement with the Partido Comunista Español (PCE), the Spanish Communist Party, becoming a member of its Central Committee in 1954. The year before he had undertaken his first clandestine journey to Madrid, later becoming an undercover leader, an assignment for which he used the pseudonym Federico Sánchez among others. The return to his home country after an enforced absence of almost twenty years was in many ways an eye-opener for Semprún. He realized that the party’s political strategies of the pre-war period were no longer applicable to the situation on the ground. On many levels, Spanish society had evolved, particularly due to an improved economy. Attempts to stage a national strike, the Huelga Nacional Pacífica, by the PCE in 1959 were unsuccessful and a new strategy had to be sought to reach out to the masses and to respond to their concerns. Semprún began to favour Eurocommunism instead of a Stalinist state. In the long run this change of mind led to a divergence in opinion with his party comrades, as a result of which Semprún lost favour with the Central Committee of the party, in particular with the General Secretary Santiago Carrillo. This disagreement over political strategy brought about the formal expulsion of Semprún and Fernando Claudín from the party in 1964, although Semprún had already been recalled from his duties in Spain in 1962. Effectively, this constituted the end of Semprún’s Communist career and the disappointment made him turn his back on politics; embarking on a career as a writer instead, he published his first novel Le Grand Voyage in France in 1963. Yet he returned to politics after the death of Franco in 1975, once the Spanish Transition to democracy had been completed, as ← 2 | 3 → Minister of Culture from 1988 to 1991. As an independent candidate in Felipe González’s Socialist PSOE government he lost his post in a reshuffle. Prior to this, Semprún had accused Vice-President Alfonso Guerra heavily of corruption and nepotism. After this brief political interlude Semprún returned to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life, never expressing the wish to return to live in Spain, until his death in 2011. He had become the first foreign member of the Académie Goncourt1 in 1996.
Semprún was an extremely prolific writer. Le Grand Voyage (1963) was followed by, L’Évanouissement (1967), La Deuxième Mort de Ramon Mercader (1969), Autobiografia de Federico Sánchez (1977), Quel beau dimanche! (1980), L’Algarabie (1981), La Montagne blanche (1986), Netchaïev est de retour (1987), Federico Sánchez vous salue bien (1993), L’Écriture ou la vie (1994), Adieu, vive clarté… (1998), Le Mort qu’il faut (2001), Les Sandales (2002), Veinte años y un día (2003). In addition, Semprún wrote Montand, la vie continue (1983), a biography of his friend, the actor, Yves Montand, the play Le Retour de Carola Neher (1998), commissioned for the Kunstfest Weimar in 1995, and published several of his speeches and essays, as well as L’Homme Européen (2005) together with Dominique de Villepin. His work in film and television includes almost twenty scripts, for example La guerre est finie (1966), Z (1968) and L’Aveu (1970). Semprún also wrote and directed the documentary Les Deux Mémoires (1974). Posthumously, the unfinished Excercises de survie was published in 2012. His prose is extremely difficult to classify and we shall return to the question of genre later.
Several works of criticism offer useful takes on Semprún’s writing; however, in addition to the lack of a thorough and global analysis of Semprún’s works in English, another factor greatly motivated the present study: Semprún’s oeuvre has too often been limited to the testimony of the concentration camps.2 Although this issue is clearly at the centre of ← 3 | 4 → his writing, the remainder of his texts have been neglected in favour of Le Grand Voyage, Quel beau dimanche!, L’Écriture ou la vie and Le Mort qu’il faut, which are generally considered to be autobiographical. In critical analyses these four texts have mostly been treated as a separate corpus which could be discussed in isolation from the rest of Semprún’s production – the emergence of Holocaust studies may perhaps have made an examination of these works particularly attractive for researchers. Yet, despite their different nature it can be argued that the entirety of Semprún’s works is intimately connected. Novels like L’Évanouissement and Netachaïev est de retour deserve as much critical attention as other books and need to be related to the overarching principles of Semprún’s published writing. Additionally, what stands in the way of this comprehensive survey of his works is, in most cases, a preoccupation with national canons and genre. On the one hand, critics invariably find that they need to discuss Semprún either as a Spanish writer or as a French writer. On the other hand, the generic classification of his writing is by no accounts straightforward. Given the centrality of these issues they deserve some commentary.
So far, Semprún’s work has been the object of several literary studies in German and French. María Angélica Semilla Durán in 2005, for example, set out to examine his autobiographical works ‘dans le triple but de décrire sa mise en forme, de rétablir et d’expliciter les liens entre la vie et la représentation, et de dévoiler sa signification symbolique’.3 In order to do this she draws on a particular psychoanalytic framework of interpretation in which the relationship between Semprún and his mother plays a highly significant role. In German, Wilfried Schoeller has produced a classic monograph,4 updating Lutz Küster’s more exhaustive work, which forms a good starting point but, due to its publication date of 1989, does not incorporate ← 4 | 5 → important later works by Semprún.5 More recently, Monika Neuhofer and Ulrike Vordermark have presented in-depth studies of the concentrationary experience within Semprún’s texts.6 Jaime Céspedes Gallego has also published a first volume on Semprún’s oeuvre, with the aim of ‘desmystifying’ the author’s ‘imagen hagiográfica’.7 Only very concise critical analyses have appeared in English. Thus Colin Davis has briefly examined Semprún’s literary treatment of the concentration camp experience,8 and, together with Elizabeth Fallaize, the return of memory in Semprún’s La Montagne blanche.9 Ursula Tidd’s articles, ‘The Infinity of Testimony and Dying in Jorge Semprun’s Holocaust Autothanatographies’ and ‘Exile, Language, and Trauma in Recent Autobiographical Writing by Jorge Semprun’, provide useful insights with regard to some of Semprún’s work and its relationship to trauma, as does Ofelia Ferrán’s chapter ‘Jorge Semprún: Trauma and Memory’.10 Susan Rubin Suleiman highlights some of the functions of memory in the testimonial works of Semprún in ‘Revision: Historical Trauma and Literary Testimony: The Buchenwald Memoirs of Jorge Semprun’.11
← 5 | 6 → Regarding the matter of Semprún’s Spanish and French belonging, the following facts have to be taken into account: Semprún’s first literary work, Le Grand Voyage, was written and published in French. Most of his other works have also been written in French with the exception of Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez and Veinte años y un día. Federico Sánchez vous salue bien, or Federico Sánchez se despide de ustedes as it is called in Spanish, represents a special case since both the French and the Spanish version appear to have been written by the author.12 However, this is an exception, since Semprún has refrained from translating any other works himself.13 In terms of a linguistic preference, French is thus clearly given precedence over Spanish. One factor was certainly that Semprún had moved to France at a young age and underwent most of his schooling there. Nevertheless, instead of jumping to hasty conclusions,14 the predominance of French can also be explained by the specific historical circumstances under which Semprún was producing his first work. As he himself has pointed out, he began to write Le Grand Voyage while lying low in Madrid during his years of clandestinity.15 Writing in French seemed a potential advantage to him in case the documents were discovered by the police. Semprún revindicates ← 6 | 7 → his choice of French for Le Grand Voyage in Adieu as an act of appropriation of his foreigness, as will be discussed in Chapter 1. Regardless of whether this reflects an accurate judgement of the situation, other reasons may, in addition, have pushed Semprún to choose French over Spanish. For example, a publication of his first book in Spain during Franco’s lifetime was unfeasible, as he himself explains in L’Écriture ou la vie.16 He also points out that French, ‘c’était la langue de mon adolescence, dans laquelle j’avais vécu cette histoire – là’.17 Furthermore, the French market was prepared for works which related the experience of the concentration camps and the readership was already familiar with the writings of other Resistance fighters such as Robert Antelme and David Rousset who had started publishing their memoirs of the camps as early as 1946.18 As Annette Wieviorka has indicated, the 1960s mark a change of direction in public perception of the Holocaust in France, where the coverage of the Eichmann Trial renewed interest in the history of the victims of the Nazis.19 The same cannot be said for the Spanish-speaking market. In order to enhance his chances of publication, Semprún might therefore have naturally gravitated towards the French language, and from the moment that the favourable reception of his first publication established his name in literary circles in France, it would have been easier to write for an audience that was already familiar with his work. In the case of Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez, it has equally been argued that since it deals with a specific Spanish context and was not least addressing Santiago Carrillo and other PCE functionaries directly in its criticism, the choice of Spanish seems self-evident.20 It should also be ← 7 | 8 → pointed out that critics tend to express their view of Semprún’s Spanish or French affiliations by either accenting his surname or not, making it follow either Spanish or French orthographical rules.
However, whether the choice of language alone should be a criterion for the classification of an author is questionable, especially since Semprún valued the epithet of bilingual writer. Famous examples, such as Franz Kaf ka as a Czech Jew who wrote in German, withstand our desire for easy categorisation. Equally, after the Second World War, poets like Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs continued to write in German, even though they would not necessarily have referred to themselves as German poets but perhaps Jewish poets who wrote in German. Multilingual authors like Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote and published both in Russian and in English, highlight the shortcomings of the traditional convention of classifying authors according to nationality and language use, since the only sensible way of referring to these writers is by hyphenating their status of belonging. Thus, Nabokov, for example, is referred to as a Russian-American writer. In the Spanish realm, cases like Fernando Arrabal or Luis Buñuel underscore the fact that one’s working language does not necessarily define one’s national or linguistic identity. With specific reference to Nabokov and Kaf ka, George Steiner illuminates this controversy by declaring that all modern writers are characterized by a feeling of unhousedness comparable to an existential exile, even if, like Kaf ka, they did not live in geographical exile.21 Of course, it could be argued that this feeling is in fact linked to the factual experience of exile, as in the case of Nabokov, and that Kaf ka experienced isolation as a Jewish German-language writer in Prague. In our postcolonial era, when transnationalism and multilingualism have become conscious features ← 8 | 9 → of many art forms, it should be obvious that Semprún cannot simply be pigeonholed as a further francophone author, particularly if this categorization is at odds with his own view of himself. Interestingly, Ángel Loureiro discusses Semprún’s French texts precisely in the context of ‘replacing the subject in modern Spain’ and sees no contradiction in doing so.22
In spite of a preference for French over Spanish, Semprún always rejected the tag of a ‘French writer’, preferring to identify as ‘un écrivain européen et un écrivain de langue française’.23 Semprún never applied for French citizenship. He asked to be recognized as a bilingual writer in his own right and his prose in Spanish and French is frequently interjected with expressions in other languages. The polemic surrounding his application for a seat in the Académie Française in 1995 shows that he is not unequivocally accepted as a French writer in France either. As Ofelia Ferrán explains: ‘he had to forsake his candidacy to the French Academy of Letters because of his unwillingness to renounce his Spanish nationality’.24 At the same time, he has been accused of being an ‘afrancesado’ by the Spanish. As Semprún explains, ‘afrancesado est un terme qui sert à disqualifier comme étranger tout partisan des idées modernes’.25 The connotations and historical implications of this term are further illustrated by him in Federico Sánchez vous salue bien wherein he comes to the conclusion that ‘[i]ls [les journalistes d’une certaine presse] l’employaient uniquement sur le plan de l’invective, dans un contexte d’exclusion et d’intolérance, qui leur évitait d’avoir à juger mes paroles et mes projets en fonction de critères objectifs. Ils prétendaient uniquement m’enfermer dans l’enfer supposé de mon être-autre, être-différent’.26 Semprún’s sense of belonging is clearly informed ← 9 | 10 → by an affinity with Spain and its history, even if he is more influenced by French literature and has lived in France for most of his life. Nonetheless, he refrains from choosing one over the other and claims for himself the right to form part of both cultures or to be an ‘apatride’.27 With reference to Thomas Mann’s understanding of the German language as his true fatherland in exile, Semprún wrote: ‘En fin de compte, ma patrie n’est pas la langue, ni la française ni l’espagnole, ma patrie c’est le langage. C’est-à-dire un espace de communication sociale, d’invention linguistique: une possibilité de représentation de l’univers. De le modifier aussi, par les œuvres du langage, fût-ce de façon modeste, à la marge’.28 For Semprún this chosen statelessness is the point of departure for his writing. As Azade Seyhan’s points out: ‘Transnational writing can potentially redress the ruptures in history and collective memory caused by the unavailability of sources, archives, and recorded narratives.’29
Nonetheless, as the writer Ha Jin explains, the physical absence of the exiled writer from the homeland and his acquisition of a new language are mostly viewed as a form of ‘betrayal’. Jin elucidates:
Yet the ultimate betrayal is to choose to write in another language. No matter how the writer attempts to rationalize and justify adopting a foreign language, it is an act of betrayal that alienates him from his mother tongue and directs his creative energy to another language. This linguistic betrayal is the ultimate step the migrant writer dares to take; after this, any other act of estrangement amounts to a trifle.30
Yet Jin also rightly remarks that not only does the individual betray his country; at times, the tables are turned: ‘The worst crime the country commits against the writer is to make him unable to write with honesty ← 10 | 11 → and artistic integrity’.31 While ‘desertion’ of one’s mother tongue is usually accompanied by guilt and the wish to prove one’s loyalty this ‘estrangement’ can also act as a liberation, setting free the writer’s imagination.
Like the problematics connected to the national-linguistic categorization, the question of genre is a taxing one with regard to Semprún’s works and critics do not always agree in their assessment. The most unequivocal cases are represented by Netachaïev est de retour, L’Algarabie, La Montagne blanche, La Deuxième Mort de Ramon Mercader and Veinte años y un día which are generally regarded as novels, for example by Küster and Schoeller.32 In the case of Semprún’s remaining texts the issue becomes more convoluted. On the one hand, Semilla Durán limits her research to Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez, Quel beau dimanche!, Federico Sánchez vous salue bien, L’Écriture ou la vie, Adieu, vive clarté… and Le Mort qu’il faut, since, she argues, ‘nous comptons six textes que nous pouvons reconnaître, en vertu d’un pacte autobiographique explicite, comme respectant plus au moins rigoureusement les lois du genre’.33 Neuhofer, on the other hand, focuses on Le Grand Voyage, Quel beau dimanche!, L’Écriture ou la vie and Le Mort qu’il faut because she identifies in these thematically close works the will to testify and the referentiality required of testimony which, according to her, is lacking, for example, in L’Évanouissement.
Although Semilla Durán picks up the prominent term ‘pact’ coined by Philippe Lejeune, formally not all the works chosen by her conform to the guidelines set out by his theory. The identity of writer, narrator and protagonist is not confirmed explicitly in most of the works listed. Indeed, Lejeune points out that he would categorize as ‘autobiographical novel’ ‘all fictional texts in which the reader has reason to suspect, from the resemblances that he thinks he sees, that there is identity of author and protagonist, whereas the author has chosen to deny this identity, or at least not to affirm it’.34 In addition, the use of different narrative voices ← 11 | 12 → in Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez and Quel beau dimanche! hints at a more ambiguous positioning by the author than Semilla Durán might have hoped for.35 The texts she groups together focus closely on the experience of the concentration camps, but Le Grand Voyage was initially published as a novel and names the first-person narrator as ‘Gérard’ before reverting to the third person in the final chapter, thereby throwing up doubts regarding the ‘referential’ markers. Neuhofer underlines both the fact that ‘Gérard’ was a pseudonym employed by Semprún during the war and the communicative situation in which these texts have to be read.36 According to Neuhofer, Semprún’s writing underwent a development, moving from a more fictional plane to a more factual one over time. She further remarks that these nuances in perspective can still be traced but that, in spite of this, they refrain from undermining the factuality of that which is told. Moreover, she cites Semprún’s comment: ‘Mes livres sont presque tous des chapitres d’une autobiographie interminable’.37 Neuhofer adds the caveat that linguistic creation always comprises a degree of fictionalization and that language is incapable of bridging the gap between experiencing and remembering an event.38
Ulrike Vordermark is convinced that none of Semprún’s books represent autobiography in the ‘classic sense’, yet all of them rely on autobiographical elements and characters.39 She holds that all of his works are very different and creates the sub-categories of ‘Autobiographical writing about the experience of the Lager’, ‘Autobiographical writing about other stages of life’ and ‘Further novels containing autobiographical references’.40 She defines all of the texts dealing with Buchenwald or ← 12 | 13 → another stage of Semprún’s life as ‘autobiographical novels’.41 Nonetheless, Vordermark seems to imply that the Lejeunian autobiographical pact is valid in the case of Semprún’s Buchenwald testimony, expressed by the desire to represent the past truthfully, which is not to be confounded with factual accuracy.42 For Vordermark, the persistence of extratextual references and the fact that it would be morally reprehensible to misuse the pact with the reader in the case of the Shoah, fundamentally strengthen the testimonial intentions of Semprún’s texts. Ursula Henningfeld also believes that part of the success of Semprún’s concentrationary writings is due to the fact ‘dass er keinen Erlebnisbericht, sondern autofiktionale Romane schreibt’ [that he is not giving a report of his experience but writing autofictional novels].43
The matter of genre is no less confusing with regards to Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez which Liliana Soto-Fernández reads as an ‘autobiografía ficticia’,44 described as follows:
[…] es, al igual que la autobiografía auténtica, un recuento en prosa con enfoque retrospectivo que un autor hace de su existencia pero en el que se combinan realidad y fantasía por medio de la introducción de un ente de ficción que comparte el papel con el personaje principal sirviendo como una especie de ‘otro yo’ y a través del cual se exploran realidades alternas en el mundo del autor.45
Essentially, this genre exploits the parameters of autobiography for a fictional goal.
← 13 | 14 → Similarily, Alicia Molero de la Iglesia insists on calling Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez a ‘novela autobiográfica’,46 ‘La función poética va a prevalecer por encima de los elementos de realidad en una novela autobiográfica, cuya fabula goza de absoluta autonomía respecto al supuesto referente, y donde el protagonista, pese a llevar el nombre del autor, será tomado siempre como personaje de ficción que, como tal, disuelve su identidad en ese todo cultural que es el hombre’.47 In contrast to the concentration camp narratives, referentiality is again seen as a mere coincidence or a stylistic device.
Pepa Novell revindicates an interpretation of Autobiografia de Federico Sánchez as autobiographical,48 even though she accepts that other labels may be applied.49 In a similar vein, Michael Ugarte simply acknowledges the difficulty of categorizing the work.50 Strikingly, the book itself actually won the Premio Planeta in the year of its first publication, an award which was normally only made to works of fiction.
The difficulty in situating Semprún’s works in definite generic categories can be seen in the context of a wider debate regarding genre, specifically in relation to the Holocaust. Robert Eaglestone, for example, argues in The Holocaust and the Postmodern that ‘Holocaust testimony needs to be understood as a new genre, in a new context, which involves both texts and altered ways of reading, standing in its own right’.51 For Eaglestone, Semprún’s Buchenwald books represent ‘modernist testimonies’, testimony ← 14 | 15 → being characterized by its refusal of ‘the very strong and often taken-for-granted power of identification’.52
However, the creation of the new genre of testimony is not unproblematic in itself. In Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Giorgio Agamben links the word ‘witness’ back to its original legal context but also underlines its theological connotations, derived from its etymological origin in Greek, which is ‘martyr’.53 Agamben particularly stresses the difference in the legal context where a distinction is made between the neutral, by-standing, witness of a crime (‘testis’) and the victim who has lived through an event and can therefore bear witness to it (‘superstes’).54 In the case of the Holocaust, the term ‘witness’ always designates the survivor of the camps. This involved position of the witness creates tension between the juridical objectivity required of a legal testimony and the subjective experience of the victim. According to Agamben: ‘It is obvious that [Primo] Levi is not a third party; he is a survivor [superstite] in every sense. But this also means that his testimony has nothing to do with the acquisition of facts for a trial (he is not neutral enough for this, he is not a testis)’.55
Although this legally required neutrality should fade into the background in the case of literary testimonies, the potential unreliability of these eye-witness accounts still represents a major source of discomfort for many historians. Yet other scholars, such as Paul Ricoeur, give particular emphasis to the witness’s historical reliability since, for him,
‘[w]ith testimony opens an epistemological process that departs from declared memory, passes through the archive and documents, and finds its fulfilment in documentary proof’.56 The witness declares himself witness by ← 15 | 16 → employing a ‘triple deictic’ which guarantees the verifiability of his account and links ‘point-like testimony to the whole history of a life’.57
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Softcover)
- Publication date
- 2014 (April)
- Holocaust postmemory identity nostalgia Spanish exile
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 238 pp.