THE SAFE HOUSE

Foreword Reviews - - Spotlight Debut Fiction - KRIS­TINE MOR­RIS

Christophe Boltan­ski, Laura Mar­ris (Trans­la­tor), Univer­sity of Chicago Press (OC­TO­BER), Hard­cover $24 (240pp), 978-0-226-44919-7 Boltan­ski’s in­ti­mate tale walks a tightwire be­tween dark­ness and light, melan­choly and joy. When French jour­nal­ist Christophe Boltan­ski de­cided, at the age of thir­teen, to live with his grand­par­ents, he en­tered a world apart. His The Safe House is a nov­el­iza­tion of that pe­riod.

The man­sion on the Rue de Grenelle housed three gen­er­a­tions, welded to­gether by fierce love and fear “of ev­ery­thing and noth­ing.” Reign­ing queen of this tiny world was Boltan­ski’s pa­ter­nal grand­mother, a small woman with a vo­ra­cious ap­petite for life, who turned all of her en­ergy, tenac­ity, and cre­ativ­ity to keep­ing her fam­ily close to her—within walls to keep the dan­gers of the world out.

Within these walls, para­dox rules: the grand­mother was both heiress and com­mu­nist, and lived as sim­ply as the des­ti­tute; held in near rev­er­ence, she ab­horred pity and re­fused walk­ing aids, in­stead ma­neu­ver­ing through life sup­ported by con­ve­niently placed fur­ni­ture or the arms of her chil­dren.

Her hus­band’s two years in the trenches of WWI left the sen­si­tive and much-hon­ored doc­tor with a hor­ror both of blood and of hu­man evil; though a con­vert to Catholi­cism, to the Nazis he was still a Jew.

Mainly home­schooled, the chil­dren’s in­ner worlds were ex­pan­sive, and cre­ativ­ity flour­ished. The fam­ily’s past, only vaguely re­mem­bered, was em­bel­lished with fan­tasy and shrouded in mist to avoid en­coun­ters with a pos­si­bly un­bear­able truth.

The con­fined spa­ces of that house pro­vide the out­line and struc­ture for Boltan­ski’s nov­el­ized rec­ol­lec­tions. As he passes from outer to in­te­rior rooms, the story be­comes more in­ti­mate, re­veal­ing its beat­ing heart.

El­e­gant, highly vis­ual, al­ter­nat­ingly air­less and soar­ing on the wind of in­spi­ra­tion, Boltan­ski’s in­ti­mate tale, grace­fully trans­lated by Laura Mar­ris, walks a tightwire be­tween dark­ness and light, melan­choly and joy.

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