Book report #29 (2021)

A Bookshop in Berlin (aka No Place to Rest Her Head), by Françoise Frenkel. Pub 1945, my edition pub 2015.

This book was recommended by my book club partner, and while their praise of it was not effusive, it was sufficient to interest me as a book to check the “recommendation” box on this year’s list.

Originally titled Rien où poser sa tête, this book is the memoir of Françoise Frenkel, a Polish Jewish woman who owned and ran a French bookshop in Berlin in the inter-war period (1921-1939). Fleeing the Nazi regime in 1939, she makes her way to Paris and then though various regions of France before eventually escaping to Switzerland. This account of her life during that period reflects the difficulties and dangers of those years. The book was published 1945, but was mostly unknown until 2010 (the accounts of when and where it was discovered vary, including being found in an attic or being purchased at a French car-boot sale) and then grew in popularity with its 2015 English translation.

I’m assuming that my friend either read it in the original French or had a much better translation than I had, as my experience with it was much less enjoyable than theirs seems to have been. The English title is very misleading, as very little of the book deals with the titular bookshop; indeed, following her escape from Germany, the bookshop is barely mentioned again.

While the overall story of escape and survival and danger is interesting, I found the actual writing to be disjointed and sometimes even insipid, something that reflects (I think) both the quality the original writing, the lack of proper editing, and the polyglot origins and ultimate translation of the text. In places, the writing is flat and pedestrian while in others, there is some most florid language. For example, when describing her ill-judged first attempt to cross into Switzerland with the drunk and incompetent smuggler, there is little emotion or attempt to explain why she proceeded in such a dodgy situation. She describes herself as “indifferent” (which I think is probably an incorrect translation of something more like “resigned”), and then writes, “Blind destiny would decide the rest.” Such poetic and prophetic phrases are incongruent with the rest of the writing and distract from the story, even making parts of it less credible as a true memoir.

Also disconcerting was the description of the patronne at the prison, referred to Madame Attention-You-Lot. The frequent barking of “you lot” at the groups of prisoners seems like a very Anglophile translation, making the boss seem more like Scouse matron than a French woman. I half expected to see, “Oi!” added to her invectives. There is also a strange mix of detail and vagueness throughout; the recaps of the various court cases witnessed in Annecy are long and precise, whereas other more personal experiences such as the 10 months spent in Paris are covered in just a few pages.

It’s hard to be critical of a story and book written in such difficult circumstances, and of an author who braved so much and then lived so quietly for the rest of her life. It seems to me that she documented this part of her life and journey in order to put it behind her and move on, and I respect and accept that. So, I’ll just gently say it was a good story of an important time with a unique perspective that could have been more impactful with the benefit of much better editing and (for me) a better translation.

In one of Frenkel’s own descriptions of that path, she writes:

“…dislocating the bonds of marriage, friendship, affection and love; people stripped first of their professions and positions, then of their wealth, and finally of their civil and human rights…”

While Frenkel was talking about persecution based on heritage (or sexual orientation or race), in today’s circumstances we don’t have to look far to see that happening now based on personal choices and principles that are no less significant for the individuals affected.

Fate: charity shop

2 – a book with a body part in the title (albeit only in the original French version)
7 – an author’s debut book
8 – a book with a female author
11 – a referral
13 – a book set in places I’ve never been (Berlin, Switzerland, south of France)
17 – a book with a place name in the title (albeit only in this terrible translation)
21 – a book translated from another language
23 – a memoir
25 – an author I’ve never read
31 – a book about history/politics

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