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Book of the week: No Place to Lay One's Head by Françoise Frenkel

Updated: Feb 26, 2019

The Book Office was completely taken by No Place to Lay One's Head, by Françoise Frenkel.

What makes No Place to Lay One's Head unique is that we cannot precisely identify its author. [...] I prefer not to know what Françoise Frenkel's face looked like, nor the twists and turns of her life after the war, nor the date of her death. Thus, her book will always remain for me that letter from an unknown woman, a letter forgotten poste restante for an eternity, that you've received in error, it seems, but that perhaps was intended for you.

Patrick Modiano, Preface

We will tell you why and give you just a small hint of how beautifully it's written, but to start with - this Book of the Week has quite an unusual story that we would like to acknowledge shortly. Published for the first time by the Geneva publishing house Jeheber in... 1945, it was rediscovered in a flea market in Geneva in 2010 and republished by Gallimard in 2015. It has now been translated in quite a few languages and we thank Pushkin Press for making it available to you in English.

And what a book it is. From the very first lines, beautifully translated by Stephanie Smee, the readers will get a sense of how lucky they are to have it in their hands:

     For my sixteenth birthday, my parents allowed me to order my own bookcase. To the astonishment of the joiner, I designed and had built a cabinet with glass on all four sides. I positioned this piece of furniture, conjured from my dreams, in the middle of my bedroom.

     Not wanting to spoil my delight, my mother let me do as I pleased and I was able to admire my classics in the publishers' beautiful bindings, and the modern, contemporary authors whose bindings I would lovingly choose myself, according to my whim.

     Balzac came dressed in red leather, Sienkiewicz in yellow morocco, Tolstoy in parchment, Reymont's Paysans clad in the fabric of an old peasant's neckerchief.

Françoise Frenkel's love for books naturally orients her towards the appropriate job: bookseller. After her studies, she decides to open a bookshop in Berlin in the 1920s, but Françoise Frenkel is Jewish and the rise of Nazism pushes her out of Germany as she tries to find refuge in Paris, and then Nice. In this autobiographic writing, we follow her as she tries to hide and escape the horros of Vichy France, until the book was published in 1945. She owes her survival to strangers risking their lives to protect her, and her memoir bears witness to the lust for life which never leaves her.

This edition by Pushkin Press encompasses a dossier compiled by Frédéric Maria, with a chronology and documents which will help you grasp the historical context of Françoise Frenkel's writing, and is prefaced by Patrick Modiano. It is an intense read, delicately written, utterly heartbreaking.

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