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Un passé qui ne passe pas. The Ethics and Aesthetics of Contemporary French Holocaust Literature

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HOLOFRENPOSTMOD (Un passé qui ne passe pas. The Ethics and Aesthetics of Contemporary French Holocaust Literature)

Reporting period: 2016-08-01 to 2018-07-31

Carried out by Dr Helena Duffy at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL), the project consisted in the investigation of contemporary Holocaust literature written in French. The undertaken research has revealed that many of the texts created between 1997 and 2017 fit the paradigm of the postmodern historical novel or, to use the term coined by Canadian theorist Linda Hutcheon, historiographic metafiction. This means that while dealing with historical subjects (World War II and the Holocaust), these novels metatextually question the possibility of narrating the past. They also show history to be a textual construct that is partial (in both senses of the term), fragmented, and politically positioned. Finally, in line with postmodernism’s alignment with dissident and progressive politics, and its programmatic attentiveness to groups marginalised by dominant historiographies, the novels under analysis draw the readers’ attention to less well-known aspects of the Holocaust, assume unusual perspectives, and question mainstream discourses on the past.

The eight novels constituting the corpus include Dora Bruder [The Search Warrant] by the Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano, and the Prix Goncourt-winning Les Bienveillantes [The Kindly Ones] by Jonathan Littell and HHhH by Laurent Binet. The other texts are Pierre Assouline’s two untranslated texts, La Cliente and Lutetia, Soazig Aaron’s Le Non de Klara [Refusal], Philippe Claudel’s Le Rapport de Brodeck [Brodeck], Fabrice Humbert’s L’Origine de la violence [The Origin of Violence], and Yannick Haenel’s Jan Karski [Messenger].

The key achievements of the project lie in having identified an important new phenomenon in French literature, and in having discussed the ethical and epistemological implications arising from the deployment of postmodern narrative strategies in Holocaust-themed fiction. The potential conflict between these works’ thematics and aesthetics stems from the identification of postmodernism with unseriousness, parody, pastiche, irony, moral relativism, historical anachronism, or even Holocaust denial, and therefore its perceived inappropriateness to deal with the morally sensitive topic of the Jewish tragedy. The concerns raised by postmodern Holocaust fiction are amplified by the post-memorial and post-testimonial context in which this fiction is being created; in other words, some fear that in the absence of direct eye-witnesses of the Nazi genocide, fiction can easily distort the truth about these tragic events and desecrate the memory of the victims.

Consequently, the monograph and the articles produced in the context of the project question the ethical suitability of the use of postmodern narrative devices in retelling the Nazi genocide. Yet, aligning itself with Hutcheon’s overwhelmingly positive valorisation of postmodernism in general and of historiographic metafiction specifically, I contend that the French postmodern Holocaust novel self-consciously raises the very epistemological and ethical questions that are posed by all attempts at fictionalising the Jewish tragedy, especially using unconventional modes of representation. As well as being manifestly aware of its fictional status and of the responsibility it is bearing towards the memory of the victims of Nazi brutality, Holocaust historiographic metafiction adopts an overtly anachronistic perspective, rendering the past relevant to contemporary injustices and violences. It therefore forces its readers to interrogate their own position in regard to both the memory of the Holocaust and today’s political and social crises. Thus, with some exceptions, the research has positively evaluated the moral and epistemological import of the analysed novels, foregrounding the capacity of the analysed corpus for raising both Holocaust awareness and vital questions pertaining to the understanding and commemoration of the Holocaust in a post-testimonial era.
The work carried out as part of the project consisted in close reading and interpretation of primary sources, and in consultation of secondary material from disciplines such as Holocaust historiography and literature, ethics, philosophy, feminist theory, motherhood studies, and French literature and history. The project has resulted in the final draft of a monograph to be published by Legenda and entitled Inventing the Infranovel: The Aesthetics and Ethics of Holocaust Postmodern Novel in France. Apart from the full-length study, I have produced four articles for publication in prominent journals such as Holocaust Studies or French Forum. Two of the articles have already been published, one is in print, and one under review. Serving as guest editor for journals Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust and French Forum, I have collated issued dedicated to Holocaust motherhood and French Holocaust literature respectively. Both issues will be published in 2019. The findings of the research have also been disseminated through numerous papers presented at high-level conferences, through public lectures, seminar papers and wide ranging outreach activities. These included a school talk, public engagement through social media, or a guided tour of Holocaust-related sites of Paris. Finally, in my capacity of MSC Ambassador, on four occasions I presented the case study of my project.
The project has responded to the glaring absence of sustained studies of French Holocaust literature. In addition, the existing works tend to examine the phenomenon in a generational perspective. In contrast, the present research has considered a selection of novels on the basis of their formal characteristics, namely of their alignment with the canon of historiographic metafiction. Moreover, I have identified the analysed novels as a response to the shift in France’s memory politics, and, more specifically, to Jacques Chirac’s momentous 1995 speech which for the first time since the war acknowledged the role of the French state in the deportation of 76,000 Jews living in France during the war. Finally, the project has attributed the postmodern aura of the analysed texts to the influence of Anglophone theories of postmodernism and postmodern fiction. As a result, the key methodology adopted in the project consisted in using postmodern metahistory and theory of literature in the close reading of the eight French-language texts.

Apart from the afore-described conceptual impact, the project has had a demonstrable connectivity impact. More specifically, it has enabled my collaboration with British and international academics, potentially leading to long-lasting and fruitful synergies in the form of collaborative research. For example, I have recently been elected to lead an interdisciplinary and international research group “Narrative and Memory” funded by the Nordic Summer University.
The project has also had capacity-building impact achieved through imparting my research findings to students. I have already taught on the MA in Holocaust studies and during the Summer Institute in the Holocaust and Jewish Civilisation, and will continue to teach university courses on Holocaust representation in future.

Finally, the project’s societal impact has been attained through the afore-described broad-ranging outreach activities that, for instance, raised the general public’s awareness of the heroic Polish resister and diplomat, Jan Karski and of his efforts to alert the Western Allies to the Holocaust.
The Cinema next door to the building inhabited by the Bruders in P. Modiano's novel Dora Bruder
Helena Duffy speaking at a Polish school about Jan Karski in April 2017
Jewish Cemetery in Busko-Zdrój, Poland
Poster commemorating the Warsaw ghetto uprising
Memorial at the former transit camp of Drancy, France
Helena Duffy chairing Prof. Rykner's lecture at the Wiener Library in March 2018
Poster from the Serge and Beate Klarsfeld exhibition visited in May 2018
The memorial of the Vel'd'Hiv round-up (July 1942)
Helena Duffy and Prof. Barry langford at the PIASA Conference in Karków, Poland in June 2017
The grave of the victims of Nazi violence in Czestochowa, Poland
Helena Duffy speaking at the Wiener Library in March 2017
Grave of victims of Nazi violence at Montmartre Cemetery in Paris
Helena Duffy speaking at the HRI workshop in June 2017
The former Synagogue in Busko-Zdrój, now in a state of disrepair and housing shops