‘Distant Fathers’ Marina Jarre’s Classic Memoir

Having just put down Marina Jarre’s page-turning memoir ‘Distant Fathers’, I am amazed that I have never heard of her before. I am an avid reader of European authors but it seems that even in Italy where she lived, she has been forgotten about. All this will soon change if her autofiction is anything to go by.

What jumps out at you is the quality and originality of her writing. This is a warts-and-all account of her life spent in Latvia and Italy from the WW2 onwards.

The book’s structure is a literary triptych. ‘The Circle of Light’, follows her childhood in Latvia before the Second World War, with her parents and sister, all told in the present tense. It’s a juddery, restless account of the sensations and the disappointments she experiences growing up. It’s the story of a family continually on the move. Jarre recounts a house where she had glimpsed happiness. A house where the sunlit empty rooms smell of dust covers and honey. There follows the brutal revelation: ‘We didn’t live in Bienenhof, and our mother and father divorced.’

The scenes between Jarre and her father are moving. Jarre artfully portrays her flamboyant, Jewish father, who shirks family responsibilities and who, riddled with remorse, embarrasses her with tears and inappropriate presents.

‘Pity and Anger’ which follows, is written in the past tense and charts her adolescent life in Piedmont, Italy, at her maternal grandmother’s house. The French-speaking grandmother takes over as a main ‘character’, and Jarre depicts a fearsome woman with a biting wit. (Her wordplays will amuse French-speaking readers). She is the right match for her feisty granddaughter. Jarre writes of their battles: ‘I didn’t emerge from the contest injured; rather, I came out strengthened, as if the domestic theatre of ours had, without my realizing it, purged me of certain moods, certain malignant wastes.’ Fascism, and resistance plays a part in the book and there are passages that run like a straight-forward memoir. 

The reader receives a wonderful introduction to the Piedmont mountains, more specifically, the beautiful Pellice river valley. We are given the history of the Lutheran community who settled here three centuries before. The story of the Protestant Waldensian community is one that I hadn’t heard before, for one tends to regard Italy as Catholic. Jarre, whether she likes it or not, is a Waldensian at heart. This is seen in her dislike of ostentation at funerals and in graveyards, she hates the Catholic love of flowers and wreaths. 

‘As a Woman’ wraps up the triptych as we see Jarre marrying, having children, leading an unfulfilled life with her husband, and renewing her relationship with her mother, who is now aging and frail. 

The title of ‘Distant Fathers’ alludes to Jarre’s feeling of separation from her own father through his death, and her ambivalent feelings towards her Waldensian Protestant roots. The book however could have just as well been called ‘Distant Mothers’. Her relationship with her mother is complex. 

Jarre’s astonishing memoir recalls the style of the contemporary, prize-winning French author, Annie Ernaux. In each consecutive book, Ernaux recounts her life differently, each time using an altered viewpoints, rather in the style of an experimental novel.

Reading ‘Distant Fathers’ you may find yourself disorientated by the sudden shifts in time and place but Jarre knows how to hook in her reader by keeping things fresh with surprises. Yes, there are moments of straight narration – the war – partisan stories. There are also lengthy, Proustian, lyrical moments of description of mood and feelings, sometimes de trop!. The are always there for a reason, and if they are over long they mimic the imbalance in Jarre’s mind.

In ‘As a Woman’, the last section of the book, Jarre’s writing style changes. The pared-down text suggests an author who is more at peace with herself. Jarre reveals she has started to write her memoir – this memoir we are reading. She would tinker with this memoir right up until her death 2016.

In a very helpful foreword to the book, Marta Barone, who knew her, says that Jarre always felt her fiction was out of step with literary fashion and she didn’t feel at ease in writers’ circles. 

‘Distant Fathers’ feels like a fully rounded book, a classic. Though Marina Jarre presents herself as flawed human being, the reader is sympathetic to her to the end. Hats off to translator, Ann Goldstein, who has produced a remarkably fluid English version of the Italian text.

KH

Marina Jarre ‘Distant Fathers’ is published by Head of Zeus. https://headofzeus.com/books/9781803280929

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