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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Philippe Grimbert

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Memory

Title: Secret
Author: Philippe Grimbert
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 152 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Memory - US
Secret - UK
Memory - Canada
Un secret - Canada
Un secret - France
Ein Geheimnis - Deutschland
  • French title: Un Secret
  • Translated by Polly McLean
  • UK title: Secret
  • US title: Memory
  • Un Secret was made into a film in 2007, directed by Claude Miller

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Our Assessment:

A- : stunning and disturbing, fairly well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 21/4/2007 Daniel Swift
FAZ A 4/8/2006 Niklas Bender
The Independent . 23/4/2007 Lisa Appignanesi
The LA Times . 30/3/2008 David L. Ulin
The Nation . 21/4/2008 Alice Kaplan
NZZ A 21/3/2006 Barbara Villiger Heilig
The Village Voice . 26/2/2008 Alexis Soloski

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Secret is a marvel of a book, rendered in a fluid and flexible translation from the French by Polly McLean, And its deepest secret of all is that fact and fiction may not be rivals but long-lost brothers." - Daniel Swift, Financial Times

  • "Dank dieses Stils der Harmlosigkeit gelingt es dem Romancier, unversehens eine zwingende Situation zu schaffen: Unter der glatten Oberfläche entwickelt seine Erzählung einen Zug, der den Leser ergreift. Vom ersten Eindruck der Ereignisse - erschreckend, gewaltsam, erratisch -- sollte man sich nicht täuschen lassen: Aus den Strängen knüpft sich ein dichtes symbolisches Netz. Darin liegt die reife Erzählkunst Grimberts, der es versteht, die Wucht der Verstrickung seinem Roman aufs eleganteste dienstbar zu machen. () Wirklich überzeugend sind die Mittel der Kunst, ist die Eindringlichkeit, die sanfte Wucht, mit der sich Grimberts Roman dem Leser einzuprägen versteht: mehr als ein Beweis, ein fesselndes Stück Literatur." - Niklas Bender, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(T)his spare, remarkable novel, which reads as easily as a children's tale, yet packs a grown-up punch. () The subtlety of Secret is that the content of the revelations are less crucial to the hero's life than the manner in which secrets are lived, the lies they engender, the ways in which they provoke a fundamental uncertainty. The unspoken, as Grimbert evokes it, is a key actor in a child's life. Parental pasts, all the more so when covered up, haunt and distort the life of even the most beloved offspring. This is how wartime persecutors continue to triumph even after they have been defeated." - Lisa Appignanesi, The Independent

  • "Memory is a story about World War II, and in particular the experience of Grimbert's parents, Parisian Jews who rode out the occupation in rural France. More than that, it is about the lies we tell ourselves, the stories to which we cling in order to make sense of the senseless, to give context to our grief and our loss." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Published in France in 2006 as Un Secret, then translated in England as Secret, it has been renamed Memory by its American publisher. The title is a misnomer, since what Grimbert intends is a war story that his narrator, born after the war, can't possibly remember but must come to understand for his own psychological survival. The skewed American title is only one of the problems with a book (and a translation) that manages to be both fascinating and irritating, formulaic and excessive, playing to the reader's expectations almost too knowingly." - Alice Kaplan, The Nation

  • "Distanzierung ist die eine Merk-Würdigkeit dieses Schreibens, die andere sein Ausgangspunkt: Grimbert, dessen Vater den ursprünglich jüdischen Namen Grinberg korrigierte und den Sohn taufen liess, hat erst dank der Rekonstruktion seiner dunkel verschatteten, ihm jahrelang vorenthaltenen Familiengeschichte Tritt gefasst in der Welt. Die Niederschrift gehörte zum Klärungsprozess. Abrechnerei oder Schuldzuweisungen fechten diesen Text nicht an. Nirgends hascht er nach Effekt. Deshalb spricht eine Reinheit aus ihm, die der Lektüre einen traumartigen Reiz gibt." - Barbara Villiger Heilig, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Memory, deserved winner of the Prix Goncourt, may well take its place among the best of the "autofictions," that particular French genre that combines the tenets of autobiography with the freedoms afforded by the novel." - Alexis Soloski, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Secret (published as Memory in the US) appears to be yet another slim autobiographical fiction by a French author, and the fact that Philippe Grimbert is also a psychoanalyst raises the concern that introspection and self-analysis will dominate even more than they usually do in these sorts of French fictions. It doesn't begin entirely promisingly either, with the first-person narrator -- Grimbert himself -- going on about the imaginary playmate he created in his mind when he was a child. It's a catchy opening -- "Although an only child, for many years I had a brother" -- but he does seem to go on about it a bit much.
       Sickly, thin, weak -- he's even excused from P.E. at school because of his health -- the young Philippe is no prize physical specimen -- in marked contrast to his physical-fitness-fanatic gym-rat parents, who are constantly working out, and "whose every muscle had been buffed and toned, like those statues in the galleries of the Louvre". The early sections of the book focus on the child, growing up in post-war France (he was born in 1948), and it doesn't seem particularly remarkable: he's a bit of a bookish outsider, he fanatsises about how his parents fell in love, he sees himself as something of a disappointment to them.
       The book reaches its nadir when he describes his difficult birth:

     I survived, thanks to the care of the doctors and the love of my mother. I would like to think that my father loved me too -- overcoming his disappointment and finding in care, worry, and protectiveness enough to stoke his feelings. But his first look left its trace on me, and I regularly glimpsed that flash of bitterness in his eyes
       To imagine a father's first glimpse of one as a just-born infant -- and to see in it only disappointment -- is a pretty large burden for a kid to carry around -- and for an author to force on his readers. But there's a payoff for all these early, slightly self-pitying sections, as it turns out Grimbert does know very well what he's doing.
       In his teens Grimbert begins to learn about the war-years, in school and from a family friend. He's aware of a bit of his family's background -- the grand-father that fled Romania -- but when he asks his father about, for example, the origins of their name his father brushes him off. There's no discussion of the substitutions made a few years back:
But of course M for mute hid the N of Nazism, while G for ghosts vanished under taciturn T.
       (Yes, the Grimberts used to be Grinbergs.)
       Grimbert finds:
     I was constantly bashing up against the painful wall with which my parents had surrounded themselves, but loved them too much to try to climb it, reopening the wound. I had decided not to know.
       Truth will out, however, and the Grimberts certainly do have some secrets tucked away in the attic ..... The family friend, Louise, who spent the war-years in Paris finally slowly begins to fill in all the missing pieces for Grimbert, and these are some pretty devastating huge slabs of past that get unearthed. It's a stunning story, a huge burden that his parents have long carried around with them -- and one that is difficult for the adolescent Grimbert to deal with. Suddenly a lot is seen in a new light (right down to the imaginary brother the young Grimbert insisted on).
       Perhaps the only way of dealing with it is in doing what Grimbert has done with this book, trying to recapture what happened in such a neutral, simple tone, short sections, short sentences, without much embellishment. There's considerable invention here: Grimbert has to re-imagine almost all of it -- he wasn't there, and neither was his main source, Louise, for most of it -- and in this way sets a very personal stamp on the narrative. This is the version he can live with, in a sense -- though it's the simple facts, which remain the same regardless, that are of course what's most difficult to take.
       As if his parents' story wasn't enough, there's more, a coda of sorts -- though Grimbert can barely go there. There's a second family tragedy, one that a grown Grimbert is much closer to, but he can't do much more than describe what happens in a brief paragraph, wondering what the last words his father had murmured into his mother's ears were, unable to bring himself to consider much more surrounding that act.
       Secret is an absolute tragedy, an almost perfect example of the form, with Grimbert's presentation making for a very moving, powerful, and personal work. Grimbert is manipulative: there's art behind the work, but also craft, as he unfolds the story in a very particular way -- and, ultimately, to very good effect. He's perilously close to presenting a well-rounded course of psychotherapeutic sessions, brought to their conclusion, getting it all into the open, going through it, putting the pieces in place, but it's not a completely closed story: Secret remains his story (of how he comes to terms with it), rather than his parents'; how they deal with it still leaves a terrible open end to it too.
       Secret is a well-presented, deeply unsettling, and fascinating story.

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Secret: Reviews: Un secret - the film: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Philippe Grimbert was born in 1948. He is also a psychoanalyst.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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