France Grenaudier-Klijn

France Grenaudier-Klijn


Where does history end and literature begin?

“I am intrigued by the lines between history and literature - and the tension between them. Sometimes the lines between historiography and fiction are very thin, very subtle, nearly transparent, and that makes it a fascinating place to research.”

Simply put, historians have to restrict their work to fact. They rely on evidence from records such as documents, testimonies and photographs. But a writer can go further and invent.

These debates about literature and history tend to focus on 20th century history and on the Shoah in particular. (Shoah is a Hebrew word that means ‘the great catastrophe’. Jews prefer it to the word ‘Holocaust’, which carries with it the idea of a willing sacrifice.)

“I research as a literary academic not a historian, so I study writers. Since contemporary writers do not have first hand experience of the Shoah, they use different literary techniques to convey a history, a past that they do not ‘know’ in a direct sense, but feel an affinity with, for a number of reasons.”

“Laurent Binet, for example, is a young French writer who is also an academic. In his novel HHhH, he is trying to describe a historical episode in a detailed yet completely factual way, without having experienced it himself. He explains at the start of his ‘infra novel’, as he labels it, that he wants to write history as a novel. Yet, he refuses to invent or create past events. To fill in the gaps and blanks left by history, he comments on these self-inflicted limitations.”

“I read his book, which takes place in Prague, when I was actually in Prague last year. I adored it, and the fact that I was walking the city this book in hand played a huge part in my enjoyment. On my second reading I became a lot more critical of what he was doing—or rather of how he was going about it. I found the narrating ‘I’ overwhelming. As a result, the paper I presented at a conference in Poland recently was a lot more critical of the work than it would have been had I written it a year ago. This experience also proved to me how emotionally we can react to the texts we study.”

“Another writer I love very much is Patrick Modiano, who was born in 1945. His novels always allude to the German occupation of France, and of Paris in particular. He is part Jew and has an intimate relationship to the Shoah through his family history, but hasn’t actually experienced it first hand.”

“I was hoping to get an interview with Modiano while I was in France, but interviewing writers you are working on isn’t always a good idea!  Modiano is extremely shy and I don’t know that he would be receptive to an intrusion like this. Some questions would be fascinating to ask, but I think most writers would say, if you want to know something, read my books.”

“I did, however, spent many hours walking through the streets of Paris that are directly associated with the Occupation. But I found that walls remained silent, doors stayed closed and ruins were mute. It confirmed the aesthetic and ethical value I place in the writing of Modiano, who can make these stones pulsate with life and feeling. Indirectly, it also comforted me in my own work.”

A personal connection

The other strand of Grenaudier-Klijn’s work has a personal connection. Her PhD thesis was on her French great grandmother who was a novelist of the Belle Époque - the late 19th century.

“By studying her work I discovered more about my family history and my identity. Like Modiano, I am profoundly interested in what happened to my country in the past and how those events have shaped me, even though I have no direct experience of them."

“I think following your personal interests in research can be inspirational. I often tell students that if they are asked to do a presentation, they should choose something they’re interested in, because they will talk much better about a topic they care about. Being part of a small School at Massey has enabled me to be flexible in my research and follow my own interests, which have turned out to be very compelling and satisfying, and are starting to create international interest.”

Dr Grenaudier-Klijn’s book on Modiano is due to be published in 2014.

Read more about her research.

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