Novels Taken for Autobiography
By Lia Brozgal1


Clearly you see that autobiography is a false genre: a life cannot be recounted…
I will have devoted my entire work to writing my life, that is to say, I will have spent my life describing my life…

The above epigrams—situated at the beginning and end, respectively, of Memmi’s book-length interview with journalist Victor Malka—suggest a theory of autobiography that coalesces around a contradiction: while a life cannot be written (or recounted), Memmi has nonetheless spilled quantities of ink in an attempt to describe his own. In the same text he laments “How do you explain to people…that there are no novels without fiction, without compression?…That I had used some personal facts, of course, but that I had also borrowed many?”3 Such meta-commentary suggests Memmi’s implicit awareness of the fundamental contradiction at the heart of his literary production, and signals the critic to proceed with caution when attempting to correlate textual representations and authorial experience.

Of course, it must be said that numerous ambiguities within Memmi’s novels have undoubtedly contributed to generic quandaries, particularly in cases where their protagonists’ names appear to be lightly modified versions of the authorial signature. Participating in what Philippe Lejeune has labeled a tacit “pact” between author and reader, the nature of the protagonist’s name is a key factor in the designation of a text’s generic status. To what degree, however, can we presume that Alexandre Mordekhaï Benillouche is an avatar of Albert Memmi? Certainly, the first-person narrator and protagonist bears a name that can be linked back to the author by virtue of the first two initials (AM = Albert Memmi). The hero’s three names, moreover, may be interpreted as harnessing a troika of cultural heritage that is identical to Memmi’s: European, Jewish and Arabo-Berber. Nonetheless, numerous other elements of the text, as well as the author’s own ulterior comments—such as the epigraph that asserts “a life cannot be recounted”—suggest that the character is as different from Albert Memmi as he may appear similar to him. It is therefore striking that critics have marshaled certain diegetic elements from Pillar to underscore biographical fact, while ignoring others not grounded in Memmi’s life. If a reader, for example, were to use Pillar as an index of Memmi’s childhood and coming of age, what would be made of the narrator’s failure to pass the agrégation, or his departure for Argentina at the end of the text? While of course no critic has suggested that Memmi failed his agrégation or renounced Tunisia in favor of South America, neither has a strategy been suggested which would account for this mélange of fictional and non-fictional details.

The ambiguity of the proper name in the novel is but one of many ways of recasting the autobiographical readings of Memmi’s novels in the more accurate light of fiction, for a variety of factors combine to produce an inherent tension in the subject position and reveal a corpus of texts that resist intentionalist interpretation. A recurring theme throughout Memmi’s writing (including novels, essays, and récits) is the necessity for the narrator to establish certain facts regarding his coming into the world. Beginning with Pillar in 1953 and until the publication of his intellectual autobiography Le nomade immobile in 2000, Memmi continually returns to a description of the place and context of birth—sometimes that of a fictional character and sometimes clearly his own, but nonetheless a deliberate invocation of a particular space, place, and time.5 A close reading of the various descriptions of his entry into the world reveals that the “facts” provided do not always correspond to the generic determination of the text; that, with the passage of time, Memmi provides more, and more precise, information about this event, the advent of which destabilizes previous assertions; and that the indeterminacy of origins—be they Memmi’s or the protagonist’s—are an integral part of an overall oppositional strategy to resist both identification and clarification.

On the first page of Pillar Alexandre Mordekhaï Benillouche describes his childhood dwelling: “We lived at the end of the Tarfoune Impasse in a little room where I was born one year after my sister Kalla.”6 The Tarfoune Impasse makes a second appearance in Memmi’s third novel, The Scorpion or The Imaginary Confession (hereafter The Scorpion),published 16 years later. In a manuscript left behind by the character Emile—a writer who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances and whose brother, Marcel, has been charged with organizing his hodgepodge of remaining texts—we discover the following information about the early days of his family: “We were still living in the Tarfoune Impasse, in a perfectly quiet district filled with the ceremonious scorn of each person for all the others; this carefully defined ritual of mutual mistrust and politeness was enough to keep everyone in his or her place.”7

An intentionalist, or an author-centered, interpretative framework would necessarily read these references to the Tarfoune Impasse as allusions to a real place, an impasse that exists—or that existed in Memmi’s youth—in the Jewish ghetto of Tunis. Such an interpretation might perhaps find validation in Memmi’s autobiographical essay Ce que je crois (1985), in which a description of his early years in Tunis leads the reader to believe that “Tarfoune” is indeed an actual Tunisian toponym: “I was supposedly born, simultaneously, at the Tarfoune Impasse, in a hammam, and at the beach—although sometimes the order changed. My mother was not a liar; she must have been mixing up her children’s births. The story of the contractions that came on suddenly while she was swimming—at the beach or at the hammam, there was always water involved—must have had to do with my younger sister. As for the impasse, half of us were born there: me or one of my siblings…”8 If at first this non-fictional account of his birth seems to provide the means for identifying Memmi with his characters Benillouche and Emile (also born at the Tarfoune Impasse)—and thus validating the autobiographical reading of those novels—a closer look at the passage begins to cast a shadow over the accuracy of this interpretation and the source of the information. Memmi’s mother, arguably the only “character” capable of establishing this type of information with any objective certainty, is revealed to be an unreliable narrator of the story of the birth of her own children. Through his representation of his mother as an unstable repository of her children’s biographies—she prefers, instead, to weave the “facts” concerning the birth of her children into a set of ever-morphing tales--Memmi comments on the impossibility of recounting a life story (and thus underscores his notion that “a life cannot be recounted”).

The brothers Emile (sometimes called Emilio or Imilio) and Marcel relate a similar type of confusion in The Scorpion. Published more than a decade before Ce que je crois, the novel prefigures the factual ambiguity regarding the place and details of birth. Still reading his brother Emile’s manuscript, Marcel stumbles upon the following notation: “I was born at La Goulette, a little Berber port near the capital, a few hundred paces from the Walls and Fort of Charles V, which are still standing.”9 Several pages later, Marcel responds to a slew of errors or misrepresentations that he has noted in his brother’s story: “It’s not Imilio who was born at La Goulette, it’s me!”10 Although La Goulette is indeed a port not far from central Tunis, it becomes, like Tarfoune, another disputed birthplace.

In his essayistic works, including those that treat universal themes such as dominance, dependence or anti-Semitism, Memmi posits his place of birth as a founding element of his texts, a gesture which, in the context of the essay, suggests an autobiographical impulse, for he writes himself into the fabric of a larger set of problems. Portrait of a Jew, the first of a two-volume work on the condition of Jews, begins as follows: “I was born in Tunis, in Tunisia, two steps from that city’s large ghetto. My father, a harness-maker, was somewhat pious…”11 A decade later, having already published The Scorpion, the second volume of his study on Jews (The Liberation of the Jew, 1966), and a treatise on domination (Dominated Man: Notes Toward a Portrait, 1968), Memmi counts on having acquired a certain capital with his readers when he opens his essay Juifs et arabes in the following manner: “Those readers who do me the kindness of reading my work know that I was born in Tunis, in Tunisia, in a very old community whose establishment, or conversion, goes back further, so they say, than the arrival of the Arabs in the Maghreb and much further still than the arrival of the various waves of Europeans.”12 “I was born in Tunis, in Tunisia”: the anaphora resonates within Memmi’s work with a mantra-like quality, an opening invocation without which the act of writing would not be legitimated and its product might fall into a state of disfavor or worse, disgrace. The repetition also appears to function as a textual talisman, protecting the writing—and its author—from an as-yet unidentified external threat.

Be it the fictitious “Tarfoune Impasse,” the real port town of La Goulette, or the simple reference to the Tunisian capital and its Jewish ghetto, La Hara, the question of birthplace is a nodal point in Memmi’s work. In his interview with the author, Victor Malka attempts to parse the intention behind Memmi’s insistence on the specificity of his place of birth:

VICTOR MALKA. You were born in La Hara, the Jewish section of Tunis, more precisely, on the outskirts of La Hara… What is the importance of this place and this detail?
ALBERT MEMMI. Well, you can see that the tough part is just beginning: it is true that I have insisted on this place, and with detail…The fact of having been born in Tunis, in the ghetto or on its outskirts, has certainly been a determining factor…13

In his response, Memmi avoids offering supplementary information that might help the interviewer better understand his intention; rather, it is clear that place of birth, or the location of origins, is synonymous with “the beginning of trouble.” This is strikingly uncharacteristic of the writer who so often in his essays appears determined to posit the facts of his life as foundational moments for his writing. The tendency to dodge questions that might lead to a (perhaps unwanted) revelation would appear to be a counter-maneuver to the one in which Memmi reveals repeatedly, albeit with shades of nuance, certain pieces of biographical information.

Returning to the question of the Tarfoune Impasse, it is once again Malka who attempts to bring accuracy and fact to the ambiguity perpetuated in Memmi’s work over the years, and Memmi, in the mode of artful dodger, who refuses to provide a key to understanding:

ALBERT MEMMI. My father-the-saddlemaker, my-father’s-store, these stories follow in the footsteps of the Tarfoune impasse where I was born.
VICTOR MALKA. What is the real name of the Tarfoune Impasse? I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned it anywhere…
ALBERT MEMMI. My father’s store was another magic cavern where my sensitivity developed…14

Nowhere, in the long paragraph that follows Memmi’s response (of which only the first fragment is reproduced here), does he begin to address the direct question posed by his interviewer, and yet through this non-dit and the elisions it contains, several important elements are revealed. Once again in a non-fictional document such as the interview (whose purported intention is to reveal facts about a given subject), Memmi makes reference to the Tarfoune Impasse, a place where he may or may not have been born. Here, however, Malka’s question carries within it the suggestion that “Tarfoune” may not be an actual Tunisian toponym, but rather an invention. Harnessing the power of the unspoken as an evasive maneuver, and by offering a response that does not in fact address the question posed, Memmi conspires in the creation of a cloud of doubt around the origin of Tarfoune. The reader is left to speculate as to which part of “Tarfoune Impasse” is an invention: is there actually an impasse that simply bears a different name? Or is the so-called impasse an interpretative dead end?

The ramifications of Tarfoune’s fictionality go beyond the confirmation of Benillouche’s and Emile’s status as fictional characters born in a fictional place: it also calls into question the already complicated statement by Memmi in Ce que je crois, whereby he names “Tarfoune Impasse” as one of his (or his siblings’) possible birthplaces. In what is intended to be an intellectual autobiography, has the author introduced an element of fiction? And if so, what impact does this have on the reception of the entire text? Finally, Memmi’s refusal to answer, or even acknowledge the question posed by Malka, opens a wide chasm of doubt about all previous “Tarfoune” references and Memmi’s insistence, throughout his oeuvre, on the necessity of establishing and naming a place where he (or his protagonist) came into the world.

The plot thickens, once again, with two of Memmi’s longer essays, both of which seem to have been devised as intellectual autobiographies. Le juif et l’autre (1995) and Le nomade immobile (2000) fulfill many of the criteria for autobiography: the narrator and the author are clearly one and the same, and there is no general attempt to “fictionalize” the events recounted.15 On the contrary, both texts are divided into chapters whose titles indicate a subject of philosophical inquiry (“Fécondités de l’exil” [The Richness of Exile] or “Le besoin de l’autre” [The Need for the Other], for example) and biographical detail is combined with personal anecdote to anchor the broader reflection. In the first chapter of Nomade, for the last time (to date) in his literary career, Memmi returns once again to the place of his birth:

I was born on a rainy December 15 at 8 o’clock in the morning at number 4, Tronja Impasse, rue Vielle-Tronja in Tunis, Tunisia, son of Fradji Memmi and Maïra Sarfati…Nobody could tell me why my birthplace bears the name of an exotic fruit, the tronja. I do know, however, why my father decided to set up house in this no man’s land between the Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. As a saddle-maker, his clientele was mainly made up of carters from Gabès whose fondouk—collective residence—was located right on the rue Tronja, two steps way from the neighborhood where the Maltese coach drivers lived. So, the ‘others’ came into my life very early on, and they would never leave.16

This passage lays bare a preoccupation not only with the identification of a particular place of origin, but with that origin’s detailed geographical situation (house, street, city, country, environs) and its implications for genealogy, etymology, and identity. While the reasons for the street’s name remain mysterious—even for the author, as he would have us believe—the existential symbolism of the setting is swiftly unpacked. The author’s identity is inscribed in the very site of his birth, a place that is untranslatable to the reader and marked by non-belonging: it is liminal space, belonging neither to the Arab quarter nor the Jewish quarter; it is not quite the same and not quite other, a site of mixity and difference.

Returning to the path that led us from the “impasse Tarfoune” to the “rue Tronja,” it is clear that the symbolism of the passage from Nomade aligns with the current discussion regarding the ambiguity of place. Although the substance of the mantra “I was born in Tunis, in Tunisia” is maintained, the name of the impasse has changed and a specific street number provided. What is the reader to make of this supplementary information: are we to understand “tronja” as the Arabic (or Judeo-Arabic) version of “tarfoune”?17 Has Memmi simply been translating for us all these years? Are there actually two impasses or is one of them an exotic fruit of the author’s imagination?

While it is tempting to read this opening paragraph of Memmi’s most recent, “official” autobiography as the final version, the one that contains the “real” story, the multiplication of biographical detail backfires when read in the light of other passages where Memmi recounts the day of his birth. More information, paradoxically, leads only to greater ambiguity. In Ce que je crois, Memmi clearly acknowledges a tactical, practical difficulty in establishing his origins with precision; following the revelation that his exact place of birth is unknown or even un-locatable, he also claims that ingrained cultural attitudes and traditions render such knowledge not only inaccessible, but impossible:

At any rate, this business of civil status didn’t interest my mother: she didn’t have a status anyway—in her day births weren’t even registered. They were barely registered for people of my generation either. In the Tribe it was not common practice to declare the arrival of a new-born right away, and it was generally done inexactly in the hopes of keeping evil sprits and the evil eye at bay. Evil spirits notwithstanding, what does it really matter if I were born on a Monday, Tuesday or a Friday, at nine in the morning or at 11 at night? Anyway, I know neither the date nor the exact time of my birth. Besides, born in Tunis, Tunisia, to François Memmi and Marguerite Sarfati…I should have been named Abraham, after my venerable grandfather: it wasn’t possible.18

Memmi goes on to explain that his father was forced, by the ill humor of a Muslim civil servant who refused to register the Jewish name Abraham, to name his first-born son Albert, an “occidental” equivalent. Even though this passage confronts the question of time rather than that of place, recalling the earlier story of his mother’s vague assertions about her son’s birthplace we can assume that this is the continuation of a related trope of ambiguity. The mantra is once again the same but the facts have changed. The passage from Ce que je crois casts the accumulation of precise details in the opening paragraph of Nomade as an over-compensation on Memmi’s part for his inability to formulate a civil status for himself with any degree of certainty. A fictional origin seems to be grafted into the space of the missing origin, an operation all the more suggestive in that the fiction is set into a text that proclaims its autobiographical status. And perhaps because he decided to invent a birthday complete with time of birth and meteorological conditions, Memmi makes a trade with the reader by providing her with at least one genuine clue: the “real”—if untranslated—name of the Tarfoune Impasse. Finally, reading the two passages alongside one another also reveals a new wrinkle of ambiguity: in Nomade, in addition to the re-scribing of the conditions and place of his birth, Memmi identifies his parents by their Jewish names, Fradji and Maira. In the version related in Ce que je crois, the couple had been designated by names decidedly more French: François and Marguerite.

As we have seen, Memmi plays hard to get most obviously in his interview with Victor Malka. The interview format, in addition to being a privileged site of authorial self-fashioning, makes it possible to pinpoint the moments when the author prefers to dodge the question, or defer the answer.19 For example, Memmi has created a sort of nom de guerre, or code name, for his wife, whom he refers to as “Marie”—the same name given to the heroine of Agar.20 Like Pillar, Agar has been used as a source of biographical reference for Memmi’s life to such an extent that numerous articles and essays refer to Memmi’s wife as “Marie,” despite the fact that her name is Germaine (née Dubach). Moreover, in writing about Agar or Memmi in general, critics have been undaunted in their intentionalism by the fact that the real Memmis did not suffer the same fate as their fictional doppelgängers, torn apart by the cultural differences that confront them when they return, married, to the narrator’s hometown of Tunis. Albert and Germaine Memmi, after spending several years in pre-independence Tunis, returned to Paris where they established their careers, raised their children, and remained together despite their cultural and religious differences.

It would seem, however, that Memmi has played an active role in perpetuating the myth surrounding his wife’s name and in blurring the generic status of Agar (and, by extension, other elements of his corpus). In the interview with Malka, he describes his first stay in Paris and the circumstances under which he met the woman who would become his wife:

ALBERT MEMMI. I met my future wife [at the university residences] and three months later we set a date for our wedding.
VICTOR MALKA. That was quick…
VICTOR MALKA. Is Marie your wife’s real name?
ALBERT MEMMI. No, it is the name I gave her from then on… With Marie, there was an instant, blinding clarity…21

Malka, seasoned player of this game, has the presence of mind to ask the important question; Memmi admits to the artifice while at the same time imposing it on his opponent, and the game continues on Memmi’s terms, using Memmi’s terms. As a worthy opponent, Malka agrees to the new rules (he continues the interview), aware, and through his questions making the reader aware, that he is navigating in a hybrid world where fiction and reality intermingle—at times to the point of being indistinguishable.

In reading passages from Memmi’s novels, essays and interviews alongside one another in a non-chronological continuum, a certain autobiographical impulse seems to emerge. Elements that reveal information about the self, particularly about the indeterminacy of that self, abound, thus appearing to corroborate the author’s declaration that he has spent his life writing his life. However, as in the case of the proper name, the ambiguity surrounding the purported verisimilitude of Memmi’s texts undermines attempts at reading them referentially. The variations of subjective identity Memmi deploys reveal an equally weighty impulse to fiction, which inscribes itself as a metatext of the autobiographical discourse and comments upon the impossibility of autobiography as such. If Memmi’s statement that “a life cannot be recounted” holds true, then how might we account for the persistent foreclosure of fiction in Maghrebi francophone literature?


1. Memmi, La Terre intérieure: Entretiens avec Victor Malka (Paris: Gallimard, 1976) 11 and 277.

2. Memmi, ibid., 116.

3. Philipe Lejeune, “The Autobiographical Pact,” On Autobiography, trans. Katherine Leary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 3-30. In this section I rely, to a certain degree, on terms and notions developed by Lejeune, and while it is true that his work has its detractors, his taxonomy of autobiography and auto-diegetic narrative provides a useful tool and a much-needed vocabulary for discussing the ambiguities of this genre. Other elements that factor into the pact include the presence of titles that confirm the genre (memoires, autobiography) or the inclusion of a prefatory section in which the narrator makes claims that leave no doubt as to his identity with the juridical subject indicated on the cover of the book.

4. Albert Memmi, Le Nomade immobile (Paris: Arléa, 2000) [TheImmobileNomad]. No published translation available.

5. Memmi, The Pillar of Salt, trans. Edouard Roditi (New York: Criterion Books, 1955), 4. I have modified the original translation, which reads “We lived at the bottom of the Impasse Tarfoune…”

6. Memmi, The Scorpion or the Imaginary Confession, trans. Eleanor Levieux (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 6.

7. Memmi, Ce que je crois (Paris: Grasset et Fasquelle, 1985).

8. Memmi, The Scorpion, 11.

9. Ibid., 24.

10. Memmi, Portrait of a Jew, trans. Elisabeth Abbot (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 3.

11. Memmi, “Qu’est-ce qu’un sioniste?” in Juifs et arabes (Paris: Gallimard, 1974) 19. An English version of the book of essays was published under the title Jews and Arabs, trans. Eleanor Levieux (Chicago: J. Philip O’Hara, 1975); however, the first essay of the volume-“What is a Zionist”—has been curiously omitted from the English translation, without comment.

12. Memmi, Terre, 20.

13. Ibid.

14. Memmi et al., Le Juif et l’autre (Paris: Christian de Bartillat, 1995) [The Jew and the Other]. No published translation available.

15. Memmi, Le nomade immobile (Paris: Arléa, 2000), 12-13.

16. Although this was my first impulse, it seems not to be the case. ‘Tronja’ is likely related to the Catalan word ‘taronja’, or mandarin orange. This seems both linguistically likely and reasonable since (if we are to believe the author) a ‘tronja’ is an exotic fruit.

17. Memmi, Ce que je crois, 23.

18. For more information on reading the interview as a primary text and on authorial self-fashioning in the interview, see John Rodden, Performing the Literary Interview: How Writers Craft Their Public Selves (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

19. Memmi, Agar (Paris: Buchet/Chastel,1955; Gallimard, 1984).

20. Memmi, Terre, 102-3.

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