THE SAFE HOUSE
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.