Book of the Week : No Place to Lay One’s Head by François Frenkel
'Frenkel writes with a novelist's observing eye: her cool detachment in the heat of persecution and attempted flight brings both the bureaucratic and human cruelty of life under Nazi occupation into startling relief. Every dangerous detail, every helping hand is luminously present. This is a memoir that has the terrible precarity of lived experience. It's the real thing. I cried and still couldn't put it down' - Lisa Appignanesi, author of Losing the Dead
Frenkel's story, No Place to Lay One's Head looks back at the author's story, from her literary studies in Paris to her opening of a French bookshop in Berlin, which she ran between 1921 and 1939, when it was confiscated by the Nazis following the Night of Broken Glass. She first had to flee to Paris, then, when the capital was taken, to Nice, where she was both astonished by the misery that the refugees were faced with and by the humanity and devotion of which some people were able, being willing to risk their lives so as to save her and help her cross the Swiss border.
It is also a keen analysis of the construction of fascist regimes, around the charismatic figures of army leaders: "Oh the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness or pity… And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”
The book's fate is as novelesque as the events described, since, as Brigette Manion observes, "With its Swiss publisher defunct, the book went out of circulation and of public consciousness for over fifty years. But, in a twist of its projected destiny, Frenkel’s memoir was rediscovered in 2010 in a bric-à-brac sale in Nice, France, and republished to widespread acclaim in its original French." The style draws the reader in, and Smee underlines the "almost painterly rendering of the people and places she encounters.".
The novel was awarded the 2019 42nd Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. This literary prize is delivered annually to the best books, fiction or non-fiction, of Jewish interest for the general reader. It was already highlighted by the BBC 4 as Book of the Week, with judges praising it as ‘a found treasure… filled with wisdom and hope’.
'A remarkable lost-then-found account that appears in English for the first time... It stands as both an illuminating depiction of wartime France and a gripping and affecting personal account of endurance and defiance... the reader roots for [Frenkel] every step of the way' -- Economist
No Place to Lay One's Head was published by Pushkin Press and it was translated by Stephanie Smee.
A former lawyer, Stephanie Smee is an author and translator who works in English, French, Germand and Swedish. She made her literary début with a new translation of the Comtesse de Ségur's Fleurville Trilogy (Simon & Schuster, 2010). She also translated Jules Vene's Mikhail Strogoff (Eagle Books, 2016).
Born in 1889 to a wealthy Jewish family in Piotrków Trybunalski, an industrial town in Poland, Frenkel enjoyed beautiful books, music and intellectual conversation from a young age. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris where she frequented the city’s libraries and bookshops. Her family back home lost many of their fine possessions during the occupation of the First World War but remained alive and well. Frenkel’s first job was in a Parisian bookshop. It is known that she married yet her memoir makes no mention of her husband (he died in Auschwitz in 1942). She finally managed to cross the Swiss border in June 1943. She lived for more than another thirty years, dying at Nice on 18 January 1975. Very little is known about her final decades. She was again in Berlin in 1959 visiting the divided city to apply for compensation in respect of her lost goods while escaping in 1939.