The Arty Semite

Lydia Flem: Words Beyond Suffering’s Reach

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
wiki commons

The Belgian Jewish author Lydia Flem explored her family’s heritage in 2004’s “How I Cleared Out My Parents’ House” (Comment j’ai vidé la maison de mes parents) from Les éditions du Seuil. Holocaust survivors, Flem’s parents never spoke of their wartime sufferings. Flem, spared the horror of her family’s history, writes that her generation “had to struggle to live its own existence, its own history, distinct from [her parents’] traumatic memories.” Of her family’s silence about the Holocaust, she adds:

What I knew, I was not supposed to know, they had not wanted me to know. It was forbidden knowledge. Stained with ghastliness, shame, denial, knowledge frozen in ice, petrified.

On February 3, Flem published a more recent element of her own history, an autobiographical novel, “Queen Alice,” (La Reine Alice) with Les éditions du Seuil inspired by a real-life bout with breast cancer. Describing chemotherapy sessions of Alice (herself), Flem evokes a looking-glass world where a White Rabbit (her oncologist) is as bafflingly ambiguous as in Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece.

Flem’s understanding of human emotions is profound; she previously published 1986’s “The Daily Lives of Freud and His Patients” (La vie quotidienne de Freud et de ses patients) from Les editions Hachette, followed by 1991’s “Freud the Man” (L’homme Freud) from Les éditions du Seuil, available in translation from The Other Press.

Analyzing her reactions and self-therapy, Flem describes being “cradled” by the song “Don’t Explain” co-written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr., as if a reflection of her illness’s inexplicability. When the White Rabbit inquires how Alice is feeling, she replies by singing a different song, the ironic comic number, “Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise” (Everything’s Fine, Ma’am) composed by the French Jewish songwriter Paul Misraki and popularized by the 1930s French Jewish bandleader Ray Ventura.

Reading also provides comfort, notably Paul Celan’s poem “Corona” (“Time returns to the Shell. In the mirror it’s Sunday”) which Alice discovers “wraps her in words like a blanket, placing her beyond suffering’s reach.” She also pores over Kafka’s novel “The Castle”, relishing a passage about self-reliance in pursuing one’s voyage:

The villagers who sent him away or seemed to fear him struck him as less dangerous, for basically they were rejecting only his person, while helping him to concentrate his forces.

Courageously pursuing her own voyage, Flem has produced an inspiring and compelling text in the family tradition of survival.

Watch Lydia Flem describe her new book in March 2011.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Lydia Flem, Freud, Lewis Carroll

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.