In 1925 a girl named Marina was born in Riga, the capital city of Latvia, to a Jewish Latvian father and a Protestant Italian mother. Ten years later the parents underwent an acrimonious divorce and the mother took Marina and her sister back to Italy. The girls were raised by their maternal grandmother in an Alpine village not far from Turin, because their mother, a schoolteacher with no taste for family life, preferred to find work far from home, just as she had been doing in Latvia. Marina’s father, meanwhile, remained in Riga, where he, along with tens of thousands of other Latvian Jews, was rounded up in late 1941 after the Germans invaded. Within the year, he was murdered.
Jarre always remembered the city of her birth as a place where “our pediatrician was German; our driver Polish; the cook Latvian; the sleigh drivers Russian; the man who beat the carpets Latvian; my teacher German; Mamma’s lawyer Latvian.” A place of exchange, that is: “How many foreigners we were, sitting under the lamp in the never-ending winter, welcomed in our beautiful city, which thus belonged to no one.” She also remembered that in the summer of 1941 she and her sister received a letter from their father hoping they could help get him out of Riga and urging them not to forget that they too were Jewish. As a grown woman, Jarre learned that he died on November 30, 1941.
She grew up feeling at home nowhere and with no one, least of all herself, taking refuge in what became her only sustaining passion: reading and then writing. Raised in three languages—first German, the language her parents spoke with one another in Latvia, then French, the language her Protestant relatives spoke in northern Italy, then Italian, the language of her adoptive country. It was Italian, of course, in which Jarre’s love affair with language itself blossomed. One of her crucial memories is of “the terrible feeling of impotence” she experienced during her first months in Italy when she met “a worker who asked for Grandmother” and “I wasn’t capable of explaining that Grandmother was upstairs, in her room. The words lay dead in my mouth, I was paralyzed between one life and the other.” Eventually, she became acclimated to her new world, her Italian grew apace, and there came the moment “when I understood that words placed in a certain order—following an absolute necessity—were beautiful.” An absolute necessity. There we have it. This experience—the one that told her she was a writer—was forever associated with the Italian language.
In her mid-twenties Jarre married and settled with her husband in Turin. In the fullness of time, she gave birth to four children, taught high school French, and worked relentlessly to become a literary figure in good standing in her adoptive country—which she did. Yet she never stopped seeing herself as an immigrant writer always uncertain that her Italian was measuring up. When she died in 2016, she left behind more than a dozen published works—novels, memoirs, short story collections—many of which are concentrated on questions of cultural identity. To date, none of Jarre’s fiction has been published in English, but within the past two years her two memoirs—Distant Fathers and Return to Latvia—have been brought to us by the distinguished translator Ann Goldstein.
These books are written in associative rather than narrative prose, mingling indiscriminately the observations of Jarre as she is at the time of writing (in her sixties and seventies) with the storytelling recollections of the child and young woman she once was. As such, they provide the reader with a sympathetic persona who comes most alive through an internal monologue of almost novelistic proportion.
Distant Fathers begins with Jarre overhearing her husband and some of his friends recalling the Turin of their childhood with pleasure and affection. She thinks to herself, “He doesn’t mourn the Turin of long ago…because he hasn’t lost it. He hasn’t lost his childhood.” For her, childhood memories are of another order. Always desperate about not feeling at home anywhere with anyone, least of all herself, she is only just coming to suspect that immigrant dislocation, with all its attendant unhappiness, is a stand-in for an injury that goes much deeper:
So I had many fears—I was a coward, my mother said…. I was also a liar, my mother said….
What would she say if she knew that, shut in the bathroom, I regularly eat Nivea cream, then carefully lick the surface smooth?
Every so often I have the impulse to tell her….
I’m curled up like a spider in the middle of my life, weaving a web of protection all around myself…. I release as little of myself as possible into the hands of the others who are trying to destroy me bit by bit.
With their questions, with their laughter….
The trouble is that I like hardly anything. Maybe that’s precisely what disgusts my mother….
But…even if I’m a coward and a liar (it’s true), my mother shouldn’t report it to others. Why does she always tell others everything about these flaws of mine?
Now here’s a bit of comic relief. Obsessed with finding something, if not someone, to which she can attach herself, and growing up in a country saturated in religious belief, she recalls the brief moment as a child when she thought she’d try faith on for size:
On the way home one morning, I pick up a dead mouse in the snow. I keep it in the dresser drawer of my dollhouse. Every night I pray to make it come back to life. But it doesn’t come back to life, and when it turns soft I have to throw it away. And similarly, the opposite—despite my prayers, the stepmother of a classmate to whom I’d promised a miracle doesn’t die.
What Jarre wants is the one thing permanently denied her, the approval of this cold, unloving mother, and she continues to yearn for it right up to the moment she is composing this memoir: “I’ve been courting her forever.” At the same time, knowing how compromised her motives are bound to be, she thinks she really shouldn’t be writing about her mother at all:
I was realizing that I didn’t want to describe her, find suitable terms, re-create important moments. A real stinginess restrained me…. Happy episodes didn’t occur to me, those comic observations (even of herself) in which her sarcasm softened…. I remembered only her silence or the reverse, cutting opinions and tempestuous scenes.
Jarre’s tone of voice here is remarkably measured, never less than calmly speculative, but it becomes abundantly clear—to this reader, at least—that it is out of this absence of mother love that her distinctive sense of alienation develops.
The eye that Jarre turns on these memories is most acute when she uses it to interpret an ordinary event, the kind common in most childhoods, with her writer’s originality. For instance, she was no more than eleven or twelve when, by her own admission, she began acting like a brat, constantly talking back to her grandmother, refusing to do as she was told, etc. At last the tension between them grew so great that the grandmother forbade her from attending an annual theatrical event for which the whole town turned out. This meant that the grandmother herself would not be able to go to the event, as the girl had to be taught a lesson only she could administer. Now, a half-century down the road, the aging memoirist recalls how the grandmother marched her up and down the street as others hurried past them to get to the theater on time, and she writes:
Grandmother’s decision made a deep impression, and I remembered it forever: by staying with me she was sharing my guilt. She wasn’t getting revenge, as she often appeared to be, but helping carry my burden.
Jarre married not the first man who proposed to her but the one who “gave off a dazzling persuasiveness in which his passion for me merged with his brilliant intelligence.” In other words, “I made a marriage of convenience in which the convenience had to do not with money…but with the superiority of the man who wanted to marry me.” With him, she thought, she would be safe. With him the isolation would end.
But it was not to be. Sexually, the union was a distressing failure; out of that failure, others, even more consequential, emerged. The emotional rift between Jarre and her husband grew exponentially. Nonetheless they stayed together for more than forty years, neither partner providing the other with comfort, yet neither quite giving up on the other. For a short time, after they had been married a good ten years, they seemed to rediscover the promise that marked their early years together. Suddenly they were making love again. (It was during this period that their fourth child was conceived.) Ultimately, however, the renewed attraction ran its course and the marriage was back to square one:
It had seemed to us we were setting out toward a physical understanding that had till then been lacking in our union….
In reality I continued to be ignorant and alienated regarding the practice of sex; my husband contributed to this, and, not much more expert than I was, had, with a certain ill will toward the hostile female body, fueled my sense of guilt for my coldness…. So—without realizing it—I got used to compensating for that failure of ours with the other riches of my life….
I was an elegant pregnant woman.
As it turned out, Jarre loved having children, and it is with her three sons and her daughter that she takes her measure of whether she has sufficiently survived her childhood to pass for a normal person capable of normal intimacy. Not, she concludes, a raving success. In one sense, she thinks, she has “escaped the snares of a rather wild upbringing,” but in another that wild upbringing still (here comes an extraordinary phrase) “runs around on its own and passes itself off as me.” By which she means that to this day she remains a stranger to herself. It is with her daughter that Jarre has tried the hardest to bond, and she worries daily about losing the connection she is never certain they have actually forged. The fallout from those early years is ever with her, making her suspect that perhaps she does not and never will have the emotional wherewithal to achieve, with anyone, the salvation of ordinary relations. Perhaps it is only with writing that she will ever pull it all together.
This brief but heartbreaking account of the failure of marriage and motherhood to rescue Jarre from childhood damage is a gift to the reader. With neither cynicism nor sentimentality, fairy-tale resolutions nor off-putting embitterment, Jarre makes us feel the hard, dull ache of the spiritual aloneness that countless lives endure, even—no, perhaps especially—when those lives are taking shape in the shadow of a dramatic world war.
Italy certainly had its share of physical despair during World War II, but the quotidian reality—when the fighting was far away and daily existence allowed to occupy one’s immediate attention—was such that Jarre could write with striking equanimity in Distant Fathers:
I was fifteen when, on June 10th , I went out to the square to listen to Mussolini’s speech; I was twenty when I saw the Germans leave Torre Pellice. What are usually called the best years of one’s life are for me contained between those dates. The war and the partisan struggle were part of my days not unlike the smell of the winter air and the sound of barking dogs on dark November evenings.
But that Jewish father of hers poses an intractable problem. Over all the years since the war, she tells us, as she has repeatedly been questioned about her relatives in Latvia (her father’s entire family perished along with him), she has had to puzzle out another, more inconvenient reality. She was ten years old when she left Riga. In the intervening years her father has become a distant memory and, living in northern Italy, where she has never been punished for being a Jew, the Holocaust has had no visceral reality for her. So, in an odd way, until she was quite old she felt as though she had no real right to mourn.
That failed “right to mourn” was to be interrogated to the full when, in 1999, at the age of seventy-four, Jarre was taken back to Riga for two weeks by one of her grown sons. It was then that the shocking reality of the Holocaust began to bear down heavily on her. She now felt that her father’s death had actually been alive in her, in a place she’d not had access to, and now it took center stage in her mind and spirit. She entered into a special kind of investigation with herself, giving this piece of family history pride of place in a second memoir. Thus was born Return to Latvia.
From the minute the plane lands in Riga in 1999, Jarre is swamped by the Jewishness of her identity. We, the reader, learn almost nothing of the city as it might then have seemed to the disinterested traveler, and rightly so. Like every memoir of any value, this one is setting out only to shape a single piece of experience; it is not going to include a travelogue. Having been allowed by chance to absent herself from the horrifying destiny that lay in wait for millions, including her own relatives, Jarre is now bent on honoring it to the full. History will be held to account on this return to Riga. Whatever she sees, wherever she goes, whoever she talks to—everything she writes about will, like a Möbius strip, turn back to Latvia and the destruction of its Jews.
The longer she’s in the city during these brief two weeks, the more consumed Jarre becomes by the clear evidence that in Latvia there had never been a time when the Jews had been anything but “other”; they’d also been something to keep track of:
The Latvians knew them all, their Jews, knew them individually, knew their houses, their shops, their businesses, their factories, hospitals, schools, community centers, synagogues, cemetery.
She realizes, as though for the first time, that while the last name on her Latvian passport—her father’s name, Gersoni—might look Italian to foreigners, “in Riga everyone knows, or knew, [it] is Jewish.”
She goes back to a house where she lived briefly as a child. The woman who’s now living there immediately “asked me in Russian if I was there on behalf of the old owners [meaning Jews]. They had returned many times from Germany to see the house that had belonged to their forebears.”
She sees in the telephone book that the Jewish burial ground in Riga is referred to as “the new cemetery of the Jews,” and discovers that over three nights in the spring of 1942, the Germans blew up graves here, “in order to get more space deep down.”
She visits the Jewish Museum, where she speaks with the director in the only language they share: German. Somehow, the visit feels clandestine. “Cautiously,” as she puts it, as though someone were listening in, she mentions the “indifference” of the Latvians. The director “didn’t say anything, but shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of resignation…that age-old gesture” associated with Jewish passivity. But then, as though urging her to recognize the ultimate irony, he points out that here they are, still speaking German with each other, as if to say, “We’re still foreigners here.”
She learns that the Nazis were welcomed in Latvia, then under Soviet occupation, as liberators: “The German troops…entered a jubilant Riga, decked with Latvian flags; from the windows, open wide to the sun, came the notes of the national anthem.” It wasn’t just that the Latvians hated the Soviets, it was that many were themselves fascists.
She begins devouring wartime testimonials—“The second evacuation began on Monday, December 8, 1941,” she learns from Max Kaufmann in The Destruction of the Jews of Latvia—and can’t stop reading Holocaust histories, especially the ones relating to Latvia. From the Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg she learns that “the Latvians were represented as heavily as any nation in the destruction of the Jews.” A cousin speculates, as though in corroboration of Hilberg’s estimate, that “if the Latvians hadn’t offered their services as executioners, the situation wouldn’t have become so terrible.”
Jarre realizes that
in fact there is little the Latvians could have done for their Jewish fellow citizens under the German occupation…. But that terrible zeal to obey, that brutality, how to forget that? And the complicit denial afterward?… It is precisely that denial that has consumed the memory no differently from the pyres that consumed the bodies.
She thinks about her father, moving inexorably toward his death on November 30, 1941. She wonders exactly how far in advance of that date he must have realized what was coming. This father is remembered in a few paragraphs as a handsome sensualist with charm to burn, routinely unfaithful, hopelessly impractical, always scheming to make the fortune he never had a chance of making: the kind of luftmensch who, in a crisis, is constantly calculating the odds for survival and always coming up with the wrong figure. At what a loss he must have felt, to hope for rescue from a pair of teen-aged girls living in an Alpine village in northern Italy. For a long time, Jarre writes, she couldn’t believe that he had really believed she and her sister could have saved him: “But I was reasoning like someone who had never lost her own face and her own name…and was unable to understand the stunned delirium of absolute impotence in which he clung to the ancestral dream.”
These paragraphs are among the very few directly personal bits of writing that Jarre commits to the page in this memoir; her concentration is on her growing case against Latvia with regard to its Jews. Yet there are times in the book when, it seems to me, even this preoccupation loses focus, and then Jarre lets a need to condemn the general barbarism of the war overcome all other narrative concerns. For instance, in a digression that obviously feels integral to her, if not to the reader, she suddenly inserts twenty-odd pages from the unremarkable prisoner-of-war diary of an Italian soldier captured in 1943 by the Germans after his own army had surrendered to the Allies. I didn’t mind reading the diary entries, because I could feel the emotional strain that was sending Jarre far afield, but they neither enrich the prose nor clarify the intent of Return to Latvia. In fact, they reinforce its limitations.
Together, Distant Fathers and Return to Latvia illustrate the various ways in which a life might be used to explore the formative elements of a single piece of experience. They also demonstrate how literature is or is not achieved in a memoir.
In Distant Fathers, a levelheaded woman is recalling a life shadowed by the commonplace neurosis of feeling detached from all the world, including herself, yet at the same time longing to pass for normal. Here Jarre creates an emotional atmosphere that nourishes the protagonist’s dilemma so skillfully that it comes to seem emblematic of one of those psychologically mysterious experiences Freud has taught us to regard as inborn. In this case, it’s that inexplicable desolation of the soul that so often characterizes the severely self-divided personality. Perhaps it is precisely because Distant Fathers seems haunted by this kind of despair that the writing in it grows rich and the memoir comes to feel large.
Return to Latvia, on the other hand, endowed though it is with a situation famously welcoming to the memoirist’s art, runs into the kind of writing trouble that makes it the more interesting of the two to puzzle over.
It has often been said that no fictional work based on the Holocaust can succeed, because that atrocity can only dwarf the characters in the story or novel that is trying to make use of it; only in the memoirs (that is, the testimony) of the survivors, it is felt, can the Holocaust be used to create literature rather than overwhelm the writing. And even then, the writerly intention of the memoirist is of ultimate importance. The great example of this truism, of course, is Primo Levi, whose work openly served the writer’s need to make transformative use of naked testimony.
Somewhere in If This Is a Man, Levi wrote that the first time a man looked at another man and saw “a thing,” the situation would end in holocaust. After that, his entire body of work was written to put flesh on the skeleton of that sentence, to make you, the reader, feel its meaning on your skin. That was the motivation not of Levi the witness but of Levi the writer. It was the writer in him who was calling the shots; the writer who wanted—needed—to understand for himself exactly what his experience in Auschwitz had meant; how it had shaped the man who was writing the book we were reading. In short, because Levi the writer dominated when Levi the witness sat down to compose a memoir, the testimony of the witness was made significant.
Jarre’s trip to Latvia in 1999 showed her how easily she would have been exterminated in her childhood had she remained in Riga, not just because of the Nazi invasion but, more importantly, because her Latvian compatriots would have taken a willing hand in cutting her life short. It is with this fatal lack of fellow feeling at the heart of the culture into which she was born that Jarre wants her readers to be pricked, penetrated, nailed. Well and good. The problem isn’t what she wants; the problem is she doesn’t want it enough.
Let’s say what we have here is a survivor once removed, who is documenting a trip to the city of her birth in order to better understand how what happened there fifty years earlier helped twist her life out of shape. Or, put another way, Jarre wants to understand how she came to be the woman that she now is. For that to happen, there needs to be the kind of integration of self and world on the page that binds the “evidence” into the larger sense we want the memoir to make for us. Sadly, that is the very thing missing here. Somehow, Return to Latvia remains a collection of scattered impressions that reads more like the work of a lawyer collecting a pile of evidence against a suspect than the work of the imaginative memoirist making metaphorical use of this harrowing world history to understand how she came to be. That would have made literature out of testament. If I were to level a charge against Return to Latvia, the charge would be insufficient intent.