6:00 PM–7:30 PM Maison Française East Gallery, Buell Hall
Christophe Boltanski, in conversation with Marianne Hirsch
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In Paris’s exclusive Saint-Germain neighborhood is a mansion. In that mansion lives a family. Deep in that mansion. The Boltanskis are that family, and they have secrets. The Safe House tells their story.
When the Nazis came, Étienne Boltanski divorced his wife and walked out the front door, never to be seen again during the war. So far as the outside world knew, the Jewish doctor had fled. The truth was that he had sneaked back to hide in a secret crawl space at the heart of the house. There he lived for the duration of the war. With the Liberation, Étienne finally emerged, but he and his family were changed forever—anxious, reclusive, yet proudly eccentric. Their lives were spent, amid Bohemian disarray and lingering wartime fears, in the mansion’s recesses or packed comically into the protective cocoon of a Fiat.
That house (and its vehicular appendage) are at the heart of Christophe Boltanski’s ingeniously structured, lightly fictionalized account of his grandparents and their extended family. The novel unfolds room by room—each chapter opening with a floorplan— introducing us to the characters who occupy each room, including the narrator’s grandmother--a woman of “savage appetites”--and his uncle Christian, whose haunted artworks would one day make him famous. “The house was a palace,” Boltanski writes, “and they lived like hobos.” Rejecting convention as they’d rejected the outside world, the family never celebrated birthdays, or even marked the passage of time, living instead in permanent stasis, ever more closely bonded to the house itself.
The Safe House was a literary sensation when published in France in 2015 and won the Prix de Prix, France’s most prestigious book prize. With hints of Oulipian playfulness and an atmosphere of dark humor, The Safe House is an unforgettable portrait of a self-imprisoned family.
(Description provided by University of Chicago Press, which published the English translation of The Safe House.)
Christophe Boltanski is the director of the French review XXI. Previously, he has worked for the Le Progrès Egyptien and L’Obs. He is the author of Minerais de sang; Chirac d’Arabie: Les mirages d’une politique française and Les Sept Vies de Yasser Arafat. La Cache (The Safe House) received the 2015 Prix Femina. Marianne Hirsch is Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Columbia. She is the author of The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust.
This event is made possible with support from the Knapp Family Foundation and Cultural Services of the French Embassy.