AMONG HISTORICAL ATROCITIES, the Easter Massacre of 1655 is far from the best known. However, its horror remains fresh to the Waldensians, followers of an austere Christian tradition that originated in 12th-century France. Persecuted as heretics by the Catholic Church, many fled to the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. A religious pogrom on April 24, 1655, that left about 2,000 Waldensians dead inspired John Milton to write his sonnet “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont,” which called for divine retribution: “Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d saints, whose bones / Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold.”
Growing up amid those mountains, Marina Jarre was ever mindful of her family’s Waldensian heritage. She would even write a screenplay — unproduced — about the Easter Massacre. The daughter of a Russian Jew who had made his way to Riga and a Waldensian mother who had left Italy to teach in the Baltics, she spent the first 10 years of her life in Latvia. In 1935, following an acrimonious split with her husband, Marina’s mother, Clara Coïsson, spirited her and her younger sister Annalisa, called Sisi, away from their father to Torre Pellice, a village southwest of Turin that was Clara’s Piedmont home. In 1941, six years after his wife and their two daughters decamped, Samuel Gersoni, along with most of the rest of Riga’s Jewish population, was murdered by the Nazis. Marina would not learn about her father’s death until 10 years later.
“Time entered my life when I arrived in Torre Pellice with my sister,” writes Jarre, whose change of country, language, and family circle added layers and complexities to her life. A newly acquired sense of “the thickness of the past” would eventually result in Distant Fathers, a memoir that shuns linear chronology in favor of personal and historical musings, from sibling rivalries to the Easter Massacre. Originally published as I padri lontani in 1987, the book is only now being brought out in English, in an elegant rendition by Ann Goldstein, the translator of Primo Levi and Elena Ferrante. Although Jarre, who died at 90 in 2016, published more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, which have been translated into French, German, and Hungarian, Distant Fathers is the first of her books available in English. It must not be the last.
Jarre wrote in Italian, a language she began learning only after her move to Piedmont. In Riga, the household language was German, and in Torre Pellice, where she was raised by her mother’s mother, she spoke French at home. She later taught French to often resistant high school students. “Every language had qualities that were neither translatable nor interchangeable,” she notes. “In every language I was different.” Traces of French and German in the Englished text provide intimations of a different Marina Jarre. A reference to Italian as “the Esperanto in which I began to write” hints at personal idiosyncrasies sacrificed to a less intimate form of expression.
Although written in lucid, luminous prose, much of the book implies rather than states. At one point, Jarre notes that her mother could not understand the collapse of her sister Sisi’s marriage. “When, years later,” she writes, “I explained the reasons for my sister’s divorce, she appeared surprised (and incredulous) and changed the subject.” Jarre might indeed, as she claims, have explained to her mother the reasons for Sisi’s divorce, but she never shares those reasons with the reader — who, here as elsewhere, is teased by insinuations. A writer who confesses her “aversion toward my past, toward exposing it, defining it,” seems an unlikely memoirist. Jarre says that she is “indifferent to relationships, marriages, and quarrels” — the flesh and blood of most autobiographies.
She devotes many pages to parsing her resentments against her mother, a respected translator of Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy from Russian into Italian. Clara is often absent teaching at universities in other cities and countries, and her older daughter believes that she always favored Sisi over her. Jarre concedes that she “would never succeed in understanding her.” She also knows very little about her father and his family, all of whom were murdered in 1941, and, after discarding every trace of him she possessed, shows very little curiosity about learning his story. “I know almost nothing about him,” she admits, seeming content to leave it at that. It was only in 2003, 16 years later, that — in Ritorno in Lettonia (Return to Latvia), a book that remains untranslated — she would show much interest in the paternal side of her heritage.
So, aside from the Waldensian forebears who remain ghostly presences (or rather absences), the “distant fathers” who give the book its title remain very distant indeed. The text pays more attention to Jarre’s mother and grandmother than any male relative. Though she describes the early years of her marriage to a man named Gianni as ecstatic, they gradually become estranged. With her husband even less of a presence in the book than her father, Jarre, who bore four children with Gianni, can feel that she has “always been an unmarried mother.” The misandrous wrath that leads her to declare “Furious rages against men continue to overwhelm me” is never entirely explained.
Jarre spent several years writing and rewriting Distant Fathers, whose concluding lines refer to it as “a story I would perpetually revise.” The book demands a similar commitment to perpetual rereading and a willingness to leave mysteries unresolved. At one point, Jarre comes upon a cache of old letters that were addressed to her mother but never opened. Her book is itself in many ways a sealed letter. We can sense something important inside the envelope, but we never get to learn exactly what that is. It is as if Stéphane Mallarmé, the champion of poetic suggestion, were assigned to report on World War II.
Under Mussolini and his successors, Italy was a combat zone during Jarre’s late adolescence. Characterizing herself as “generally a prudent girl, uninvolved and often cowardly,” she felt detached from both the fascists and their partisan foes. At 15, she wins a youth essay contest but is at a loss for words when the local leader asks her to describe her “fascist faith.” Drawn to the theater, she revels in mass demonstrations as spectacles. Yet as an interloper from Latvia, she is an outsider to local political and religious enthusiasms, including Catholicism. At 16, she burns the pages of her Bible and admits that she “found the goose-stepping Italians basically ridiculous.” But Jarre also scorns “the chaotic paucity of the partisans.” Nevertheless, for a while she plays a shadowy role as a courier conveying strategic information to those resisting Mussolini’s government and the subsequent German occupation. She remembers the moment that she learned that her friend and co-conspirator Sergio had been killed by fascist forces.
Her most vivid recollection of the war years is of bicycling beside Sergio near a bridge, only to be stopped by suspicious Italian SS troops; after Sergio has been led away to a nearby German encampment, her captors begin cooking an aromatic midday meal. When Jarre tells them she is hungry, they offer her a heaping bowl of minestrone before letting her go. Otherwise, the turmoil and violence of the period are merely the basso continuo of her teenage years. Unable to share Italians’ elation over the eventual end of the fighting, she dismisses the history she has lived through as “an immense, senseless mountain of corpses.” “The war and the partisan struggle,” she writes, “were part of my days not unlike the smell of the winter air and the sound of barking dogs on dark November evenings.”
Passing years and seasons intersect in a text not overly respectful of chronology. Distant Fathers: A Memoir is organized into three sections that roughly focus on the author’s childhood in Riga, adolescence in Torre Pellice, and adulthood in Turin, respectively, but there is considerable overlap and recurrence. Dreams, fantasies, and fabrications mingle with flitting memories. Indeed, Jarre repeatedly questions her own factual reliability, even fundamental honesty. Neither Jewish nor Waldensian, she remains a stranger to everything, including her own emotions. In her Translator’s Note, Goldstein explains: “This is Jarre’s method, to keep confounding us with sudden changes of pace and tone and abrupt shifts in subject that digress but always circle back, creating a kind of tightly controlled stream of consciousness.” Recalling a childhood predilection for telling lies, Jarre casts doubt over her current veracity. She admits that, while writing, she “stumbled in my chronological disorder and my geographical inattention.” Nor is she reluctant to portray herself negatively, recounting how, after an infant dies and its grieving parents have to return home to France, they entrust her with money for the upkeep of its grave that she instead spends on herself. The sum total of all the narrative evasions, prevarications, and derogations is a problematic anti-memoir that substitutes rumination for reportage. An exasperated reader may feel much as Jarre does about her mother: “She kept any possible confidences at a distance with both arms.”
Jarre attributes her literary inspiration to what she calls a “Sehnsucht” — a yearning for reunion, “a liturgical nostalgia for a return to the immense luminous beach of childhood.” Her most cherished memory is of walking with her sister Sisi along the seashore in Riga, a scene she clothes in her most plangent, lyrical prose:
[O]ur strolls along the seashore in summer sunsets, when we walked barefoot for miles, looking for bits of amber that could be found mixed in with the black debris of seaweed and driftwood deposited along the line of the waves: we went out in the extended, luminous evening that would never become night and the sand had the same silver-white color as the sky; it seemed that we would never have to turn back but would continue barefoot along the sea in whose calm you couldn’t distinguish even the lapping of the water when it reached the beach.
This is just one of the many points of luminescence scattered like seashells through Jarre’s verbal littoral.
Suffering frequent bouts of depression, she conceives of her life in terms of a darkness broken by occasional bursts of illumination — “tiny pinpoint glimmers.” Describing a rare moment of felicity when she was pregnant with her fourth and final child, Jarre observes: “Around me everything had the luminous clarity in which every question has an answer.” But such pinpoint glimmers rapidly fade. As irruptions into the void formed by the memoir’s elliptical narrative, however, they create a pointillist effect, requiring an active viewer to make sense of the radiant light show. Marina Jarre’s struggle to find fitting words flashes through the murk. “Only writing,” she explains, “took me out of the darkness.”