December | TLS | Natasha Lehrer

Alba Arikha MAJOR/MINOR – 2l6pp.Quartet. 15. 9780 704-17t-119

Growing up in 1980’s Paris, Alba Arikha – daughter of the painter Avigdor Arikha and the poet Anne Atik, god-daughter of Samuel Beckett, with family friend Henri Cartier-Bresson frequently in the background taking family snaps -struggled to be allowed to live her life like a normal teenager.  She smoked, went to parties in short skirts and listened to rock music, in a home where her father’s sensitivities were such that he could not bear the smells of cooking emanating from the kitchen, or to hear any music other than Bach, Schubert and Mozart.

Major/Minor, Arikha’s memoir of growing up in this unusual Parisian coterie, is written in an unusually effective staccato prose, each phrase fusing deadpan observation with wistful and painful memories, both her own and those of her parents. As the family moves between Paris, Jerusalem, London and New York she conveys with tactful economy the concentric circles of history rippling out from the present, eventually beginning to explore and face the impact of the Holocaust on her father and his family. Ultimately she – and we -come to feel profound sympathy for her father, rather than shrink from his hurtful outbursts, and to respect him for an aesthetic rectitude that earlier in Alba’s recollection has come across as simple snobbery.

What impresses in Arikha’s writing is her ability to excavate the memories of adolescence in prose that is simultaneously guileless  -and appropriately teenage -and yet inflected with the perspective of maturity. The agonies of the spotty, gawky girl in a back brace are immediate and vivid, the terrible arguments with her father and mother, and those -almost worse than the ones with her parents – with her parents’ friends. Description are terse and vivid. When she begins to tell her father’s story -of persecution, fear, imprisonment in a concentration camp, escape and survival – it is in the same matter-of-fact style, its very simplicity a kind of poetry.

‘Time hangs somewhere between his words and the bustle around us. Between the sky above our heads and the untouched salad leaves on my father’s plate. Between what was then, and what is now. The man at the next table holding his white espresso cup. The Elvis Presley song. The town of Czernowitz in 1941. The violin and the stamp collection my father left behind. My teenage preoccupations. My great-uncle the pharmacist. The electric blue eye-shadow I bought the other day, at the Monoprix supermarket make-up counter. I am aware of the disparity between my father’s memory and my reality. About adapting history to actuality. About keeping one’s balance without falling back into the trap of pain. Because that is, ultimately, what it’s about. The ability to let pain ease into endurance.’

The ability to let prose ease into poetry, as Arikha does here, is rare.