KR Reviews

Strained Lineage: Hervé Le Tellier’s All Happy Families

Trans. Adriana Hunter. New York, NY: Other Press, 2019. $15.99.

Some family memoirs take up the work of unraveling bad attachments. They proceed by showing how bad fathers and mothers became unquestioned heroes, and move on to uncovering the unacknowledged trouble, secrets, or cruelty that sent their authors searching for answers: where do I go from here? How much time have I wasted? How and what can I recover?

Some, but not all. Hervé Le Tellier’s All Happy Families proceeds in reverse, starting from near-complete detachment. Unattached to his parents due to long separations at a young age, and convinced for this reason that he is a “monster,” Le Tellier uses the memoir as the site of a work not of reconciliation but of reinvestment. There is still plenty of exposure: trouble, secrets sexual and financial, and cruelty figure prominently here. But Le Tellier’s writing is also, somehow, reparative. Rather than work to put more distance between himself and his familiars, Le Tellier writes to place himself in a new proximity to people he knew but, for reasons that become apparent, could never really love.

The book opens with a double gesture. A graphic family tree traces the Le Tellier family name back to William the Conqueror. We soon learn that his family’s boastfulness about a royal genealogy disgusts him, and that the tree serves less as the author’s own claim on the past than as an introduction to people whose identities are propped up on tired claims to illustrious origins.

The main characters in the boy’s early life are his mother, stepfather, and maternal grandfather. His biological father, who left his mother for another woman shortly after Le Tellier’s birth, is a shadowy presence, seen only every few years until his quite recent death. Known for his engineering patents, Le Tellier will add, wryly, that he forgot to patent his “paternal relations concealment system.” After his mother’s loss of her husband, she met and married his utterly nondescript stepfather, Guy, a man who had “no ambition, not even to live.” During a brief spell in England, he was chosen as the class scapegoat by a sadistic instructor. Back in France, first with grandparents and then as an only child, he found an alternate life in books. They were more interesting.

All Happy Families investigates the family story character by character, often moving backwards from death to life.  In brief chapters reminiscent of Molly Brodak’s memoir, Bandit, we meet his mother—a habitual liar now—in the present, suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. An abusive, chain-smoking great-grandfather once put his dog down and threw its body on the manure heap in advance of a move from the country to Paris. Two more distant relatives lost a fountain pen company to utter mismanagement and lack of imagination against competitors like Bic. These people are most interesting because of what they reveal about the lengths to which Le Tellier went to research their lives. Part of the book’s melancholy derives from the fact that he discovers his detachment from them is fully justified.

Even more than these characters, Le Tellier draws as nearer to his family as possible by telling of their involvement in the French twentieth century. His parents’ generation is “shoehorned” between the end of World War II and the beginning of the war for Algerian independence. Girls from his mother’s primary school were transported to Auschwitz, where they died, and Le Tellier’s solemn list of the names of these twenty-four murdered schoolchildren marks an attempt to compensate for his entire family’s historical amnesia with respect to the war and occupation. It’s almost as though, speaking to his dead, Le Tellier wants to draw his family’s attention to what they missed of interest in their own lives. As Randall Jarrell wrote, “The ways we miss our lives are life.” Le Tellier acknowledges that he could only write All Happy Families once most of his own was dead. He seems to mourn the belatedness of his genre: Le Tellier can only bear witness to, not reinvigorate, a set of unexamined and even unlived lives.

What distinguishes Le Tellier’s memoir from the glut of family memoirs that have captivated and horrified readers over the last twenty years? In part, it’s the author’s plastic imagination: his willingness to let language loose on the discoveries he’s made about the family. (Since 1992, Le Tellier has been a member of the French experimental literature collective Oulipo, which is known for incorporating jocular riffs into rule-based conceptual writing.) When investigating his inheritance from his stepfather, he discovers the cryptic letters HAST on a slip of paper with bank account numbers. Unable to decipher the message, he looks humorously and poignantly for correspondence to an acronym or vocabulary from a foreign tongue his stepfather didn’t speak:

A hast in French is a kind of weapon, a javelin, or a spit for roasting meat, and the word is worth seven points in Scrabble. It’s also a brand of men’s shirts, but not the make my stepfather wore. A fashion start-up. It could stand for Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time, or the Higher Ability Selection Test of British secondary schools. The Hammond Academy of Science and Technology. The archaic, and very Shakespearean, English declension of “you have: thou hast.”

It’s German too: Du hast nie verstanden. You never understood.

Literature is the author’s constant companion and intermediary, the means by which he brings warmth and intelligibility to cold, lost lives. Le Tellier’s archive ranges across the canon of French writing from Molière to Modiano, and seems selected to provide a kind of identifying epithet for each member of the family. For Guy, the boring stepfather, these lines from Céline: “He’s a lad of no importance collectively, he’s quite simply an individual.” When Le Tellier describes his inability to read Aragon’s “The Rose and Reseda” without weeping, the impression is most powerful for what it indicates about the progress of the author’s sentimental education. From the example set by his mother, he might just as well have learned to toggle between senseless rage and the kind of feigned grief that embarrassed Le Tellier as a child. Instead, he has become a writer and a reader, not only of great literature but of his family’s progress through the difficult world. A citational practice guides All Happy Families then: it is a record of the sanguine influence of language on a man otherwise left to the banalities of a family almost completely incurious about its place in the world. Some memoirs feature a savior in the form of a partner or lover, at times a therapist. This one turns only to a practice of reading for models of how to live, what to do.

Unlike some other writers’ memoirs, All Happy Families does not claim to find the roots of literary imagination in childhood or adolescent struggle. Instead, much like Keith Waldrop’s Light While There Is Light, it emphasizes that the distance between the family and the man may best be revealed in the man’s heartfelt, conflicted, witness of his family’s story. Playing historian to this particular cohort, Le Tellier takes Walter Benjamin’s phrase “even the dead are not safe” to its zero degree. Here, somehow, even the unsympathetic dead must be protected and honored as the unreflective contributors to a reflective life. And in this task this writer has never ceased to be victorious.

John Steen is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at East Carolina University. His reviews and articles appear or are forthcoming in H_NGM_N, Wallace Stevens Journal, Oxonian Review, and American Writers.