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from the July/August 2021 issue

Marina Jarre’s Stunning Memoir, “Distant Fathers,” Maps Its Author’s Peripatetic Search for Herself

Reviewed by Hannah Weber

“I’m Latvian, but I speak German and I don’t understand who Jesus Christ is,” wrote Jarre, who was born in Latvia to an Italian mother and a Latvian Jewish father, was sent as a child to live in a Francophone community in northern Italy, and later settled in Turin. Her memoir is a multilingual interior monologue which feels like the truest representation of memory (a flood of narratives, images, and dreams outside of time) and shows a woman fumbling for her identity while never feeling wholly at home anywhere.

It may be cliché to say that a book transports you to another world, but in a period hemmed in by lockdowns and travel restrictions, Marina Jarre’s memoir Distant Fathers (I padri lontani) stands out, among other reasons, simply for covering so much geographical, linguistic, and temporal ground. Jarre was born in Latvia in 1925 to an Italian mother and a Latvian Jewish father. After her parents’ divorce in 1935, she and her younger sister Sisi were sent to live with her maternal grandmother in a community of Francophone Protestants in the north of Italy. She never saw her father again. He and the rest of his family were killed by the Nazis only a few years later in 1941.

Distant Fathers begins in Turin, the city where Jarre spent her adult life grappling with ideas of culture, displacement, language, and belonging. All of these elements are rooted in her peripatetic coming-of-age story. She is told she is Latvian and a Christian, but maintains a lifelong “unease” with this identity, remarking “I’m Latvian, but I speak German and I don’t understand who Jesus Christ is.”

The narration alternates between past and present, composing an autobiography that feels like the truest representation of memory: a flood of narratives, images, and dreams outside of time, presented precisely like how one might talk to oneself. Jarre is keen to show how we carry all of the memories and impressions of adolescence into adulthood, and that these memories can seep through at any opportune moment. The book is divided into three parts, though the barriers between them are permeable and fluid. The first part covers her childhood in Riga. The second depicts her adolescence in a new country and a new language, moving from Riga to the small community of Torre Pellice, and from German to French. The third section follows her attempts to consolidate her identity as a woman, daughter, mother, wife, and writer, as well as someone who has never felt wholly at home in the place she lives.

The title Distant Fathers is, in a way, misleading. Jarre’s most meaningful encounters are with the women in her life; she takes long, penetrating looks at her relationships to her mother, grandmother, and sister Sisi, and later with herself as a mother. Jarre’s father is barely present even in her early years, disappearing for long hours and leaving her mother to work and raise the children alone. When he does spend time with Jarre and Sisi, it is painfully strained:

“While I play warily with my dolls in a room that’s been turned upside down [. . .] my father eats jellied calves’ feet, sitting in his bathrobe at the dining room table, I feel that I pity him.”

This pity, and regret for her long silences with him, are profoundly adult feelings already “festering” in Jarre even before her tenth birthday. With her mother, she slips back into a child’s world: she keeps a mental tally of fictitious “points” of approval she has scored; she relishes being ill and taken care of. During the divorce proceedings, she must tell the judge whom she would like to live with. Choosing her mother allows her to return to the business of being a child:

“I’ve already done enough by choosing her [. . .]. I would like to be left in peace now with my dolls, my babies; I’d like to water the flowers, then go out at sunset and smell the summer fragrance of the hay far beyond the stony confines of the city.”

Even as her mother ages, Jarre notes: “I continued to court her, to challenge her to the intimacy that would have confirmed her affection.”

While Distant Fathers has drawn comparisons to Annie Ernaux’s memoirs and Nabakov’s Speak, Memory, Jarre’s voice is singular. Ann Goldstein, the celebrated translator of works by Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi, broadens the scope of the reader’s interactions with Jarre’s multilingual interior monologue. Lengthier passages of French or German are left in the original language and supported by a footnote translation, while some words—“Sehnsucht,” “drôle”—are left to speak for themselves. Others still are silently merged into the English translation. The translation eloquently conjures up Jarre’s world: words appear in myriad languages, sometimes displaced from their original contexts, but always saying something about the memory they’re attached to.

Later, moments of her writing life emerge; she writes her first timid poetry as a teenager, and puts the finishing touches on her first book, The Mad Tram Driver, while pregnant with her fourth child. Her style is thick and dense—it closes in on the reader, a method that itself requires close reading. Goldstein also notes in her introduction that Jarre’s “sudden changes of pace and tone and abrupt shifts in subject . . . always circle back, creating a kind of tightly controlled stream of consciousness.” She is in turns corporeal and emotional, capricious and deadly serious. Her gaze gives equal weight to the poetic,

“the sound of the piano and the held breath of the winter wind when it’s about to hurl itself, whirling, across the snowy plain [. . .]”

and the unpleasant,

“I feel like throwing up, maybe because of the smell of hot chocolate, maybe because I saw a hair wrapped around the child’s big toe.”

The intimacy of these encounters with memory comes in part from Jarre’s frankness about her memory’s fallibility. She describes elaborate incidents from early childhood, only to admit that her sister remembers them differently. Often, it is the smallest details that differ: Sisi licks sugar, not cream as Jarre remembers, from the top of a box of candied pineapple. She also knows that some memories must first be excavated, uncovered in an adolescent diary or in an object inherited from her mother after her death, dusted off and re-examined.

As a writer, she is also keenly aware of her childhood propensity to lie. When her father presses her on whether her mother has been talking to a “professor with a Spanish surname,” she admits that she has seen them conversing in the garden but also makes up that “something sparkling” passed between them. This ring never existed, except as a representation of a concept she couldn’t quite understand—romantic love.

Lying is an indication of what the mind can do alone, particularly as Jarre felt detached and awkward in her childhood body. The comparison between the life of the mind and the life of the body arises over and over. Her sister Sisi represents the life of the body: she is unselfconscious and beautiful. While Sisi learns to swim with the other children, Jarre lies in bed with a fever. Jarre is “the last of all to learn” how to ride a bicycle and coolly remarks, “I always remain inside myself; all I know is how to walk.” Years later, when her husband teaches her to swim, she discovers it as a “baptism into the life of the body”—a body that has been so disconnected from her cerebral life. When she hears about a young boy hanged by the Nazis, she remarks with awe that the tears came not from “books or fantasies” but from her body, “which was aware of itself for the first time.”

It is evident, if not always reflected on, how the traumas of war and displacement encouraged such a deep and relentless internal monologue. It is remarkable how a life so full—of people and language and stories—seems written from a well of loneliness. Perhaps this is the effect of a backward-looking lens, Jarre’s “liturgical nostalgia for a return to the immense luminous beach of childhood.” But it also stems from the historical events unfolding around at the peripheries. Jarre is more interested in what happens in her head than explaining the calamities of the war. She discovers her distant father’s death long after the fact, and does not fully engage with it until much later in a 2004 memoir, Ritorno in Lettonia (Return to Latvia).

When asked about her return to Latvia in a 2011 interview, Jarre admits, “I don’t know how to talk about it. Writing gives me the distance that words don’t allow.” In Distant Fathers, writing serves precisely this function—an archeologist’s view of her own mind, content to dwell on the tension between memory and melancholia. She invites us to excavate memories alongside her and examine every fear, embarrassment, and loss. This stunning autobiography is both a love letter to a flawed and vanished childhood and a map of a woman’s inner topography as she fumbles toward identity. Never before translated into English, Jarre is a wonderful new discovery. Readers will be excited by the wealth of her archive, eagerly awaiting translation.

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