The following passage is the opening paragraph of A Dutiful Son:
“It’s bedtime. Kneeling at the foot of my bed, head bowed, hands together, I murmur my prayer in a low voice. I’m ten. After a brief review of the day’s sins, I make a request of God, our all-powerful Creator. He knows how regularly I attend mass, how fervently I receive communion, how I love Him above all else. I simply ask Him, implore Him, to bring about the death of my father, while driving if possible. Brakes failing while he’s going downhill, black ice, a plane tree, whatever suits Him best.”
As opening passages go, this is one I certainly won’t forget in a hurry. After all, one immediately asks, what sort of son could feel such a way, and what sort of father could warrant such a prayer? He goes on to describe being beaten by an abusive bullying father, the sense of humiliation he feels in prostrating himself before his tormentor and the poisonous feelings of resentment he felt. But Pascal Bruckner does not give us this picture of violence as the prologue to feelings of victimhood, for he ends his prologue with a note of remarkable, but characteristic resilience:
“Brutal fathers have one advantage: they don’t lull you with their gentleness, their sentimentality, they don’t try to play at being big brothers or mates. They wake you up like an electric shock, make you someone who’s eternally fighting or eternally oppressed. What mine passed on to me was his fury and for that I’m grateful. The hatred he instilled in me also saved me. I sent it back at him like a boomerang.”
Some years ago I read the manuscript of My Little Husband for the first time, the first of Pascal Bruckner’s books to be published by Dedalus. As a creature of the internet age curious to learn more about the writer I was to read I naturally looked up online any biographical information I could find on Mr Bruckner. A number of patterns emerged: a certain imaginative flamboyance, criticism of multiculturalism from a leftwing standpoint, and most curious of all, a question as to whether the author was Jewish or not. There is a lot of anonymous venom to be found on the internet, lazy stereotyping of character traits by ethnicity, and of course people claiming that every significant person who ever lived belonged to their own group; so I was curious whether Mr Bruckner was seen as Jewish because he met certain traits associated with secular Jew; intellectualism, satire, liberalism, a ‘jewish sounding’ surname, views on Israel, etc.
The reality is far more interesting. Mr Bruckner’s paternal ancestry is not Jewish but Franco-German, in fact he describes it as the embodiment of the two nations relations, each new generation choosing one camp or the other. His great-grandfather was unenthusiastic towards Germany, viewing the language as something lumbering and ugly, his Grandfather, despite being a great Germanophile served four years in the Belgian Royal Army during World War One, while Pascal Bruckner’s own father went of his own free-will to be a factory worker for Siemens, part of the Nazi war effort.
And the ‘Jewish Question’ seems to have preoccupied Mr Bruckner Senior. The third chapter is entitled ‘The Semitic Poison’. Bruckner begins this chapter with a memory of a holiday in Austria, when a man staring at the young Pascal abruptly informed him that he knew he was a Jew. After telling his parents of this episode, his irate father ran after the man, with his son in tow and proceeded to explain to the stranger that his son was a pure Aryan, and certain traits of his physiognomy were mostly certainly not Jewish.
He emphasises that a settled dislike of Jews was typical in his parent’s generation, but that in his father it had become a zealous malice that pervaded his whole life. He describes his father reading Jewish authors in order to find additional ammunition for his anti-semitism, reading editorials by prominent figures who disputed the existence of gas chambers, and that the family library had its share of eugenicist literature.
On one occasion he describes challenging a rant of his father’s, asking him why he hated people who had never personally harmed him. His father is so angry that he initially stammers out his response:
“They’ve corrupted everything, defiled everything, trampled everything underfoot. They want to rule the world, they scoff at our most sacred values. The only Jews I like are those who are ashamed of being what they are…. Moreover they’re racists, they don’t want to mix. I don’t like their irony, they don’t respect anything.”
In recollecting this justification Mr Bruckner comments on how weak the explanation is, and passes a judgement that puts one in mind of Iago’s entirely irrational undying malice: “Animosity is based on ignorance of the original grievance”.
With the exception of Phillipe Petain, the hero of Verdun turned Vichy Chief of State, a great number of the figures he mentions whom his father admired were completely unknown to me. What these many names did bring home to me is how little in the English speaking world we understand the trauma and humiliation of France’s defeat. Mr Bruckner makes it clear how much of his father’s anti-semitism and Germanophilia was born out of awe for the power that had beaten France, a bullying underlings reverence for his master, and the bitter resentment of watching that master defeated.
There is much to read about in these memoirs beside the Vichy legacy and anti-semitism, such as the great liberation Pascal Bruckner felt being a young man in a multi-racial Paris listening to African American influence Jazz and Rock and Roll music. But what interested me most on my first and second reading was the intensity and passion of his father’s racial hatred, something like a mania, a religious cult, or a parasite, that once it takes hold of the mind incinerates everything that is not itself and turn everything to its own end. This contrast between the father’s hatred and the son’s tolerance made me wonder how much genuine mature tolerance depends not upon principle and book learning, but seeing and learning from the toxic ravages to one’s character and intellect that life consuming hatred can work.