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Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem: A Memoir by Hélène Cixous (New York: Fordham University Press, March 3, 2020; 144 pages; $24.95 hardcover; ISBN 9780823287628). Translated by Peggy Kamuf, foreword by Eva Hoffman.
Originally published in French as Gare d’Osnabrück à Jérusalem (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 2016).
“destiny (noun): 1. something to which a person or thing is destined;
2. a predetermined course of events often held to be
an irresistible power or agency. Synonyms: circumstance,
doom, fate, fortune, kismet, lot, portion.”
To understand her Jewish legacy, French intellectual Hélène Cixous deconstructed stories she’d heard from her mother and grandmother while growing up. The resulting memoir won the French Voices Award for Excellence in Publication and Translation, a program created and funded by the French Embassy in the United States and FACE (French American Cultural Exchange).
Cixous develops a speculative or hybrid memoir by fusing fact and fiction. Black-and-white photographs from family albums bring her clan alive, while depictions of seven German nouns by Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky cause a reader to ponder.
Cixous, self-deputizing herself as a substitute for her deceased mother, takes a train to northwestern Germany, back to her ancestral village of Osnabrück in the state of Lower Saxony. Here in this city (along with Münster and others), the Westfälischer Friede (Peace of Westphalia) was negotiated, ending the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and leading to its designation as “City of Peace.” Osnabrück’s buildings range from a Gothic hall church built in the 1200s to the Felix Nussbaum House built in 1998, the first work completed by architect Daniel Libeskind.
Strolling the sidewalks of Maman’s birthplace, Cixous locates the Jonas family home in what had once been a thriving Jewish community—where not a single Jew was left after the war. “Zerosnabrück” she calls it, in her drolly witty way of playing with words. Not all died in concentration camps though. Some had emigrated, yet others simply stayed put. Cixous is confused. She asks: Didn’t it seem obvious what was happening?
There was the Shakespearean irony of her Great Uncle André, the poet of the family, who left but then returned. Wanting to join his daughter, Andreas Jonas sold everything and boarded a train at Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem, where he found her. Ah, but there was “no room in the commune,” she said, and sent her father back—just in time to be deported to a death camp. Cixous remains confused. Hadn’t clues been visible in Germany for years?
She blends tales told by her mother, Éve, and her grandmother, Rosi, with her own reconstruction of how her relatives might have felt during that era. What is true? She asks that question again and again as she faces down history—much as an archaeologist might dig up an ancient city and imagine its inhabitants, searching for what Eva Hoffman in her perceptive foreword calls “a disappeared past.” Carefully Cixous dusts each shard she unearths, placing them into one of the book’s three sections: “I think of going from Osnabrück to Jerusalem,” “I do not imagine,” and “One departs from Osnabrück.”
Cixous stages four generations in her drama, with her son’s occasional walk-on role bringing comedic relief to fact-checking and her daughter asking pertinent questions. Throughout, Cixous repeatedly inserts the drumbeat of ancestral research in variations on a theme: thinking one knows but not really knowing, while at the same time not knowing that one really doesn’t know. The device is effective in creating suspense. Another repetitive theme stems from the ongoing dialogue Cixous had maintained over the years with Jacques Derrida concerning life versus death. She is alive and he is now deceased—but the dialogue continues.
Cixous investigates methodically from genealogical, historical, and emotional angles. Then she stirs all the artifacts from her reconnaissance together, distilling the essence into a short volume—a mere 144 pages. That succinctness is what enhances this memoir’s pull as Hélène Cixous bears witness with a philosophical eye to a personal tale told with deep emotion. Time becomes a mixture of past, present, and future. As Cixous compares fiction to the vast trove of facts available on the Internet, she makes her preference clear.
Cixous speaks directly to the German language, “friend of the poets,” grieving in a sympathetic ode for the way it was misused by the Nazis to create words such as Entjudung (dejudification). She plays with voice, using tiny type for a whisper.
The book becomes a character within itself, discoursing with its author at various points, faintly reminding me of José Saramago’s novels All the Names and Death with Interruptions. Her book challenges Cixous: How much longer are you going to put off writing me? Her son and daughter challenge her: But how could you know—you weren’t even born?! (Terminus ante quem.) She challenges herself after arriving in Osnabrück: Maybe I shouldn’t have come. Think of poet Constantine Cavafy’s challenge: “Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you’re destined for.”
And arrive she finally does, after twenty years of stalling.
Cixous ends her book of Osnabrück, but her journey isn’t over. There’s still the book of Jerusalem to be written—which she did. Éditions Galilée in Paris published the French version of “Volume 2” in 2017: Correspondance avec le Mur (Correspondence with The Wall), but there’s no English translation.
“Not yet,” hints Peggy Kamuf at the end of her Translator’s Preface in Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem. Hats off to Kamuf for bringing to English from French the eloquent expressiveness of Cixous. This chronicle is far from an intellectual philosophical treatise. It’s a deeply felt probe into the psyche of a brilliant writer parsing her DNA.
Quel merveilleux mémoire, Hélène Cixous. Félicitations!
She is cofounder of Université Paris 8, where she started the first Women’s Studies research institute in Europe, Centre d’études féminines et d’études de genre (CEFEG). Cixous coined the term écriture féminine (feminine writing) to view gender-based differences in the use of language, stemming from the work of Jacques Lacan. Her lifelong friendship with Jacques Derrida, also a Jewish French philosopher born in Algeria, resulted in intellectual debates, lectures, and publications.
Peggy Kamuf, professor emerita of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, has published and translated widely. Book of Addresses, her collected essays about the meaning of deconstruction for literary theory, won the 2006 René Wellek Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association. Her most recent book, Literature and the Remains of the Death Penalty, came out in 2018 from Fordham University Press. She’s also translated a number of other books by Hélène Cixous.
Eva Hoffman, writer and academic, has been a professor of literature and of creative writing at various universities, including Tufts, Columbia, MIT, and the University of Minnesota. She has written a memoir, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, and three novels: The Secret, Illuminations, and Appassionata, in addition to Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, Exit into History, After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust, Time, and How to Be Bored. Hoffman has been a senior editor at the New York Times Book Review. She holds degrees from Rice, Yale, and Harvard.
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Fordham University Press (FUP) is a not-for-profit publisher representing Fordham University in New York. Established in 1907 in the Medical School, it’s the seventh oldest university press in the country. After the Medical School closed in 1922, FUP moved to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The first full-time director was Father Robert E. Holland, S.J., and the press has had a number of different directors since.
Current Director Fredric Nachbaur, who has held the post since 2009, has been in book publishing for almost thirty years, with thirteen at university presses. He earned an MA in Urban Studies from Fordham, and a BA in English from William Paterson University. Editorial Director Richard Morrison, previously at Duke University Press and the University of Minnesota Press, holds an MFA in Writing from Columbia University. Acquisitions Editor Thomas Lay, at FUP since 2006, has an MA from Fordham and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, both in English.
The Press publishes seventy books each year, mostly scholarly but also general interest, and distributes books published by seven other presses. FUP’s titles are generally in the humanities and social sciences, concentrating on “American studies, anthropology, critical race theory, cultural studies, education, gender studies, history, literary studies, media and communications, Medieval studies, philosophy, political theory, religion, sociology, theology, and urban studies.” The Press welcomes manuscript submissions in these areas, and details may be found on the website.
No fiction or poetry submissions are accepted, although through the Poets Out Loud prize, FUP does publish two books of poetry annually. Submission instructions for that prize are also located on the FUP website. The Empire State Editions imprint focuses on books from the New York region.
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