The Summer of the Elder Tree by Marie Chaix

Summer of the Elder Tree (French Literature) BY Marie Chaix. Dalkey Archive Press. Paperback, 133 pages. $14.
The cover of Summer of the Elder Tree (French Literature)

In her elegant and memoiristic novel The Summer of the Elder Tree, Marie Chaix fills in the various silences of her past in order to overcome a ten-year hiatus from writing, which started following the death of her editor, Alain Oulman. Translated from the French by her husband, author Harry Mathews, the first American member of the Oulipo, Elder Tree (first published in France in 2005) concludes a triptych of Chaix’s work released by Dalkey Archive Press over the past year. The books draw on a troubling family history. In the first volume of the triptych, The Laurels of Lake Constance (published in France in 1974), Chaix tells the story of her father’s collaborations with the Nazis during World War II. When Chaix was twenty-six, she read the notebooks her father had written during his ten-year imprisonment, which her mother had previously kept hidden from her.

Unbeknownst to her family, Chaix’s father had been the right-hand man to pro-German Fascist collaborator Jacques Doriot, and had fought beside him in the Wermacht. This revelation came as a shock to Chaix and she responded by writing The Laurels. In it, she is a young girl whose father is already imprisoned. Chaix continues to present her disturbing family secrets in the second book, Silences, or a Woman’s Life (1976), part of which deals with her mother’s death, and again in Elder Tree. All three books blur the line between autobiography and fiction, a line that Chaix has said she considers irrelevant. She recycles many of the stories from Laurels in Elder Tree, as well as many recent and past events, and memories of her mother’s illness, which she wrote about in Silences. Each time, she approaches the events from different points of view, for different reasons, and with differing results.

Chaix begins Elder Tree by admitting that she is “intrigued” by the fact that she hasn’t written in ten years, and recalling the tragedy of Oulman’s sudden death two months after her book Le Fils de Marthe (1990) was “stillborn”—released to scant reviews. Elder Tree proceeds as a collage of journals and half-remembered conversations, photographs, and subtly executed personal revelations. Throughout, we sense Chaix’s misgivings about her skill as a writer. She wonders whether keeping journals is “an excuse for laziness” or “the slow perishing of a subtle mind … that is incapable of extricating itself from the narcissistic temptation whose only issue is death by drowning,” according to an article she reads, to her horror, in Le Monde. It proceeds,

Even Kafka … whose diary remains one of the richest and most indispensable, suffered from this Goethean conception that has perpetually created a sense of insufficiency, always reminding the writer as he writes his diary that he is incapable of genuine writing, of keeping a distance from his anxious, suffering, tormented self.

To Chaix, who has written nothing but journals for ten years and thus hasn’t “written anything that is presentable or fully accomplished,” these are harsh words. She wonders whether she should stop reading and writing altogether.

Then, “an unexpected event burst in on” her, “as if in answer.” Her eldest daughter announces she is divorcing her husband, Richard. Chaix’s shock seems disproportionate to the event; people get divorced all the time, don’t they? But her language is melodramatic: she “loathes” departures; her daughter and grandchild “abandoned” Chaix’s house in Key West; something is “shattered, suddenly and irremediably.” Something else must be going on, something that Chaix will have to confront, and which, as we know from the book, will eventually set her writing again. She begins by confessing that she feels it’s Richard she’s lost, and not the relationship he had with her daughter. She asks, “[U]nderneath these words, what lurking darkness is hiding, ready to devour me?” and senses that this grief is somehow connected to her ten-year block. “What have I been afraid of all the time that writing has escaped me or that I’ve turned my back on it?” What has she been hiding from herself?

Sitting on the ground in tears, Chaix remembers her grandson’s presence there only hours beforehand: “Images dimming, sound diminishing: a little boy capering over the boards of the deck, echoes of his laughter against my cheek…” This type of photographic recollection becomes a hallmark in Elder Tree, a signal that we’re witnessing an event of overwhelming emotional gravity. Much the way that extreme grief manifests in imagery for lack of appropriate description, these snapshots are meant to show us the utter mute grief Chaix experiences as she confronts the wounds of her past. Whereas Chaix draws, over and over again, a parallel between writing and childbearing, and the consistent nurture that a loving relationship requires, these snapshots are meant to appear like wounds in her life. Like photographs, they are silent and empty—nostalgic, with no real life in them.

Over the next several months, Chaix systematically confronts the pain that has shut her up for a decade, which she must give voice to. The story doesn’t follow the chronological sequence of events, but rather the sequence of emotional discovery; there are holes between events, sometimes gaps of several years. The periods between journal entries leave us to wonder what happened in the meantime. One gap, toward the end, lasts from August, 2000 to March, 2002. There is no explanation for Chaix’s intervening silence; all we know is that, when she returns, she is “slamming and banging [herself] against the classroom wall” again, a hearkening-back to the schoolroom embarrassment around her family name, and therefore, her father. This overreaction, like the overreaction we saw earlier following the news of Emilie’s divorce, seems like an extreme attempt to grasp at emotion, to harness the collective grief she still feels for her father, brother, and Oulman, in order to finally set it down on the page.

Chaix takes us from the present into the recent past, to the distant past, and back to the present. Her childhood and her first marriage are shown to be connected by unfulfilled desires, one of which is to fill the hole left by the death of her brother Jean, who followed her father to war in The Laurels of Lake Constance, and who died when Chaix was two. Though Chaix never knew Jean, she was forced to grieve for him along with the rest of her family: “To create indelible childhood memories I was shown photographs of him at every age.” She describes being made to pray to him before bed. She spoke, but the only response she received was silence.

I was scared silly of hearing his voice dropping from the ceiling or feeling the fluttering of his wings in my ear. But the fairy tale seemed to make my mother happy. As for me, I didn’t need an angel, what I wanted was my brother. So my only “real” memory of Jean is that of an absence, more burdensome than any corpse.

This echoes a poem that appears in the book much later, which we’re told comes from “a loose sheet” in Chaix’s journal. In it, Chaix compares lost love to “an empty place / a hollow / like the place left / in the hollowed pillow / by the cat.” The poem’s location in the book suggests that it refers both to Chaix’s first, failed marriage as well as her daughter Emilie’s recent separation from Richard. Much of Elder Tree recalls Chaix’s attempts to grapple with the guilt surrounding Emilie’s divorce. She questions whether her own separation from Emilie’s father, Jean-François, has permanently damaged her daughter, the way that she supposes her childhood traumas, and her learned fear of abandonment, doomed her own marriage. But she also seems to wonder if damage is even avoidable. As events pile on top of each other, it becomes clear that Chaix believes real growth can only come from painful experience. She remembers the elder tree in her childhood garden: “A thick trunk, worthy of the name, cut off at about four feet, provided a kind of launching pad for tall, flourishing branches sturdy enough to climb in,” also a beautiful metaphor for writing.

Near the end of the book, Chaix sits in a hospital waiting room hand-in-hand with Jean-François. Emilie is giving birth down the hall, and Richard is with her. There’s a beautiful symmetry in the timing of this event: We feel that we’re nearing a critical moment in Chaix’s healing, the “final push” before the book is born. Chaix’s organization of events is a lynchpin fictional element in her autobiography; nonlinearity allows for critical moments of discovery to arise when she needs them, and can imbue them with metaphor. This scene is followed, soon after, by an account of Chaix’s struggle to cope with menopause, which accompanied her push to complete the first and only book she worked on with Oulman. She credits Oulman for enabling her to finish the book just before he died. The compounded loss of her surrogate brother and her status as a young, fertile woman are devastating: “Everything was linked, bound together by one stroke of fate: I won’t have other children; I won’t write; I’ll be a stone.”

Over and over again, Chaix reminds us that violence is inherent in the act of writing; it is a way of opening ourselves up, of making ourselves bleed afresh so that we can commune with mortality. But if, as Julian Barnes says in The Sense of an Ending, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,” Chaix acknowledges the shortcomings of both and writes into a truer space that she calls “fiction.” This is how she fills the holes, the silences, draws conclusions from a life that doesn’t offer any. “They’ll have to write their own version of desertion,” she says of her daughters, just as we all do. And the elder tree blooms through the season, “a few late umbels have opened,” and touch her window.

Sarah Gerard is a writer and a bookseller in New York.