In The Safe House, Christophe Boltanski uses the house on rue de Grenelles, in Paris, as a memory palace to recount his family’s saga from just before the turn of the twentieth century through the 1960s. It’s billed as fiction, but it contains a lot of the Boltanskis’ actual history—making this a work of auto fiction as well as historical fiction. It’s impossible to sort out what’s what, given the family’s penchant for falsifying documents and rewriting memories. But unlike other autofictional books, I don’t mind not knowing. The members of the Boltanski family are all drawn in spot-on psychological portraits. They all have so many eccentricities and phobias that it are so interesting, I don’t care if they’re not real.
Christophe the Narrator tells his story as a tour through the ancestral home. He begins with the car that his grandmother modified so that she could drive without the use of her legs, before taking us to the kitchen, his grandfather’s office and examining room, the parlors, and then upstairs. In each room, he describes the furnishings and decor before moving on to a family story. Christophe the Narrator goes back through four generations of oddness to find out why his family is the way it is
As far as Christophe the Narrator can tell, his great-grandparents came from Odessa after one of the many outbreaks of violent anti-Semitism in the city. The deceptions begin with that generation, as his great-grandmother invents (maybe) a background with a higher class family and a completely different name. The official documents (what remains of them) tell a different story. Christophe the Narrator doesn’t fret too much about the actual history. Fortunately for us, he relies on his memories and the stories he’s gotten from his uncles. Most of The Safe House centers on Étienne Boltanski and his wife, Marie-Élise. Étienne is French, though his parents are Russian Jews. Marie-Élise is a scion of an aristocratic French Catholic family in severe decline.
As we move through the rue de Grenelles house, we see the pair weather World War I, polio, and the efforts of the Nazis and the Vichy government to exterminate Jewish people. Marie-Élise’s efforts to save her husband from the Nazis and the collaborators are the pinnacle of a fascinating family history. I wasn’t sure about this book at the beginning. Its unusual structure put me off until I got a handle on what Christophe the Author was doing. Then, the more I read, the more I enjoyed this family’s foibles, myths, and moments of heroism. This strange novel is brilliant.