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Writing Trauma: George Perec's W ou le souvenir d'enfance and Philippe Grimbert's Un secret

This Master’s thesis examines the ways in which the Holocaust continues to figure in French-Jewish autobiographical fiction. I examine texts by two leading authors, Georges Perec (1936-1982) and Philippe Grimbert (b.1948). I treat Perec as a first-generation survivor of the Holocaust as he was a child during the war and suffered the loss of both his parents, while Grimbert was born to Holocaust survivors shortly after the war and thus belongs to what has come to be known as the second generation. In both Perec’s W ou le souvenir d’enfance (1975) and Grimbert’s Un secret (2004) the body plays a central role as a site on which traumatic memory is inscribed. Trauma also determines the form and language of both novels, influencing not only the narrative structure but also the semantics utilized by the narrators. These post-Holocaust autofictions confront similar themes: both deal with the concept of the “unspeakable” and attempt to address the “emptiness” in the wake of the Holocaust and come to terms with the tremendous loss of life. Although thirty years separate Perec’s W and Grimbert’s Un secret, the overwhelming parallels between the two texts suggest that the trauma of the Holocaust has been passed on from one generation of survivors to the next through the disturbances of language. In my analysis, I illuminate common tropes that appear in these two works as instances of transgenerational traumatic transmission. The introduction provides a description of both works, a discussion of the autofictional genre and its use in both texts, and an overview of the trauma and literary theory with which I engage. The first chapter, “Traumatic Memory and its Inscription on the Body,” offers a close study of the body in both works. Both works juxtapose athletes who possess superior physical capabilities to weaker individuals who are marked by deformities, wounds or symbolic scars. I discuss the location of the narrators’ wounds in both texts and what this might suggest in psychoanalytic terms. I argue the location of the wounds, on the narrator’s mouth in W and on the narrator’s eyebrow in Un secret, are linked to what type of work these narrators undergo throughout both texts vis-à-vis trauma. Specifically, I use Freud’s Das Unheimlich to discuss the wound above the narrator’s eye in Un secret, linking it to the processes of testimony and remembrance. The second chapter, “Doubled Narrators and Narratives,” focuses on the various instances of doubling present in both works. I pay close attention to the doubled narrators, Gaspard Winckler in W, and Simon in Un secret, as well as to the presence of two alternative narratives in each text. I use Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage to support my argument that the doubling present in both texts provides a mirror that is crucial to the narrators’ processes of remembering, witnessing, and recording. In addition, Gabriele Schwab’s text, Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma is fundamental to my argument that the legacy of trauma is inherited by the second generation. The third chapter, “The Influence of Trauma on the Production of Time” comprises an in-depth analysis of the poetics of time in Perec and Grimbert. Identifying Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu as an influential model for Perec and Grimbert, I explore the opening paragraphs of all three works, noting particularly how the interaction between the adverb “longtemps” and the passé composé destabilizes the representation of time in order to convey the fragmentary nature of memory.