The Arty Semite

Lydia Flem: Words Beyond Suffering’s Reach

By Benjamin Ivry

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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.


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