Author: Hervé Le Tellier

Publisher: Other Press

ISBN: 978-1-59051-937-0

If you want to write a memoir (and who doesn't these days?) Hervé Le Tellier's All Happy Families, skillfully translated by Adriana Hunter, would be a good model to follow. Le Tellier is a French writer and linguist, and a member of the international literary group Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, which translates roughly as "workshop of potential literature"). He's published 21 books, six of which have been translated into English, including The Sextine Chapel, A Thousand Pearls (for a Thousand Pennies), Enough About Love,  Intervention of a Good Man, Electrico W, (for which the translator Adriana Hunter won the 27th Annual Translation Prize founded by the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation), and Atlas inutilis,

One secret to writing an engaging memoir is to wait until everyone you are liable to offend by telling the truth about them is dead. Le Tellier was able to reach a certain emotional distance from his family and write All Happy Families after his father and stepfather were dead and his mother was suffering from late-stage Alzheimers and will never read the book.

Another secret is to avoid a strict chronology of the sort: "I was born on April 21, 1957. I grew up in Paris. We would go to the country in the summer . . . " Boring, boring, boring. Le Tellier is anything but boring. For example, by page 2, he's realized at age twelve he's a monster. He's been alone in the Paris apartment for the evening. The telephone rings and he imagines it to be the police reporting the death of his mother and stepfather. But it's not. It's his mother reassuring him that they were running late. "It occurred to me that I hadn't been worried. I'd imagined their demise with no feelings of panic or sadness. I was amazed to have so quickly accepted my status as an orphan, and appalled by the twinge of disappointment when I recognized my mother's voice. That's when I knew I was a monster."

Another secret is to explicate the family dynamics. Le Tellier's aunt married an exceptionally successful engineer who became wealthy. The uncle encourages Hervé's mother and stepfather to buy a studio in the Avoriaz ski area. A good deal because renting it to others during the season almost covered the mortgage and the family was able to go for a couple weeks in winter. "It was only later that I understood how much these holidays spent in luxury, thanks to her sister, exasperated and humiliated my mother. She may have been discreet in front of the whole family, but once alone with us she never stopped accusing her brother-in-law of taking kickbacks and making 'shady deals,' and—not without an element of self-contradiction—she criticized my father for being so honest or, worse still, for 'lacking ambition'; in a word for being 'stupid.'"

Yet another secret is to sketch the personalities and relationships within the family. "My mother had complete authority over him [Le Tellier's stepfather]. He was visibly afraid of her fits of rage, which were both terrifying and unpredictable, and he had abidicated any form of resistance. She made all the decisions and she held such a hold over him that she even composed the letters he wrote to his family. He simply had to copy out her rough drafts. At the end of these letters my mother even added the name 'Guy' [the stepfather's] so he didn't forget to sign them."

Of course, for a really lively memoir, it doesn't hurt to have a character like Le Tellier's as a mother. After Guy died, she was infected by the idea that Guy and her sister had been lovers. A cousin reported a scene on the street when the estranged sisters happened to meet. Accused of the affair, the aunt shook her head in bafflement. "Well then swear to me, I mean swear to me," my mother said, "that you never slept with Guy."

    "I swear it," said my aunt.

    "Swear it on our father's grave, and I'll believe you," my mother insisted.

    "I swear it on our father's grave," said my aunt.

    There was a long silence, then my mother spat out, "I don't believe you."

It also does not hurt to have been involved with historic events—even if on the periphery. Her mother and aunt lived through the German occupation of Paris, which included deporting Jewish neighbors. His mother did not remember the girl in her seventh grade class who lived across the street and who vanished one day in 1942.. 

All Happy Families implicitly makes the case that all happy families are all unhappy in their own way. It is a delightful account by an astute and thoughtful writer. I was happy to make his acquaintance.