I’m far from sure why I find Marcel Bénabou’s (1939-) knotted books interesting. The four that have been translated into English (all published by the University of Nebraska Press) are mostly about not being able to write the books he has long wanted to write. Bénabou, who was raised in a Jewish community in Meknès, Morocco and is a professor emeritus of ancient history (specializing in Roman North Africa) at the Paris Diderot University wanted what became Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic to be titled One Always Writes the Same Book. There are many “ones” about whom this is true Bénabou’s own books have different subjects, even if the books are mostly about the inability to write the book about the subject Bénabou chose. His book Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is not about someone else having written his books but about failing to write more than fragments of the books (not just books, but masterpieces) that he planned, wanted to write, and tried to write, though only producing a few fragments that did not satisfy his high-vaulting ambitions. Along the way, that book also imparted some information about the author’s North African Jewish background.
The closest of his books to a conventional narrative is Écrire sur Tamara/To Write on Tamara?, about which—in good Bénabou fashion—I have been unable to write a review of for some time since I read it. It includes what he presents as attempts dating back to the 1950s to write about his first great love, a sickly but very romantic girl whom he loved when he first came to Paris as a student and who died. Insofar as it is a memoir rather than a book about not being able to write a memoir of his young love, it has some overlap of characters with the book about (not being able to write the epic account of) his native Moroccan Jewish community and forebearers, Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The parents and sister and his best friend who was aspiring to write a novel when both were high school students in Morocco appear in both books. There is no mention of Tamara in Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The three names are Bénabou’s three grandfathers, none of whom he knew. He only has three because of the endogamy of his natal community (and five instead of eight great-grandfathers).
Although not by nature (or commitment) a narrative writer, Bénabou does manage to tell something about his forebearers and about the now-vanished community of his childhood and youth in the French neo-colony (protectorate). Many of the Meknès Jews emigrated to Israel after Moroccan independence in 1956 and subsequent heightened persecution of Jews. Bénabou himself has lived in Paris since he went there as a student in 1957.
Along with some analysis of the culture and history of Moroccan Jewish communities and the place of his ancestors (both with rising and declining fortunes), he writes about how he came to view books as sacred and to want to write an epic about his unknown or forgotten people (Sephardic Jews living in a world not invoked by the various writings about Ashkenazic villages and ghettoes in Poland and the Ukraine with strange things such as fur hats: “These Jews in the cold, snow, and mud seemed to me incredibly [and therefore unusably] exotic…. I could not imagine that a Jewish life could be led in any other way than the constant complicity of the sun and the blue sky ” I can see Racine is not a suitable model, but I’m less clear about why Tacitus could not be one). He writes about various models that failed him or that he failed (including W, the recreation of a childhood about which he did not remember anything by Bénabou’s close friend and collaborator in the Workshop of Potential Literature (OULIPO), Georges Perec. There is something reminiscent of Borges in the summaries of the style and substance of books Bénabou sought to write, but didn’t. (And his position as a successful Parisian with an anti-nostalgic nostalgia for North Africa is reminiscent of the Jacques Derrida who appeared in the movie “Derrida” shortly before his death.)
Over time, the aging author’s memories faded and he discovered there was some documentation of the past that he believed would be lost if he did not write a comprehensive account. Moreover, Bénabou was put off by the egocentrism. He claimed that he “had been borne along by the illusion that I was merely a narrator whose task was to finally give a voice to all those whom I had pretensiously called ‘my people’; I realized that in fact I myself was making up most of the space in order to tell a few old personal secrets I had too carefully kept. I was afraid of having upstaged in this way the people I initially wanted to honor” (in this he would be like many contemporary “reflexive” anthropologists). He also came to recognize that his “mind was much too abstract, much too attracted to systems and combinatory games to be able to give birth to flesh and blood characters” and is much better at telling and commenting on than in showing (though better at showing than he gives himself credit for).
(Given that Bénabou has seemingly read everything, it seems odd to me that he does not mention The Tongue Set Free, the great memoir of growing up in another Sephardic community by Elias Canetti, a writer whose fictional masterpiece is about a bibliomaniac (and an unliterary housekeeper).)
The result is whatever the nonfiction analog of metafiction is. Metamemoir about trying to write a memoir and hobbled by more than doubt in the accuracy of the author’s memoir? The result, despite all the self-doubt and self-criticism, is not without charm and manages to convey some things about the vanished lifeways and about Bénabou’s mother as well as about the patriarchs named in the title. Bénabou did not deliver the book he felt that the history of Meknès Jews deserved, but did produce an often witty if generally melancholic postmodernist monument to his background. If they were not epic heroes, if Marcel Bénabou is neither an epic hero nor an epic writer, the book he did produce shows that Someone Was There. And, as with the library of titles Borges imagined, filling out the volumes might be less interesting than the sketches of the books that don’t exist.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray