Watering plants after breakfast before the din of morning rush-hour, my mind veers away from the president’s climate action plan to Félicité Herzog. The earliest morning hours found me propped up on a pillow under a small lamp, completing the final chapter of her masterful first and only work, Un héros, a ferocious treatment of her father, Maurice Herzog, who shook France from her post-war depression in 1950 as the first man in history to stand atop an 8,000-meter peak: Annapurna, in northern Nepal.
“Jusqu’où faut-il remonter pour trouver la source d’une tragédie personnelle?” Where, as here, that tragedy involves the very makeup of one’s closest familial relationships, reminders surge forth and frequently breach the walls built to contain them, inundating areas of everyday life thought to be protected. Against a staggering backdrop of French history and larger-than-life figures, Herzog grew up in a family of four, with one older brother. Reared in the shadow of pedigree, wartime collaboration, serial infidelity, and absent parentage, Félicité and Laurent struggled alone to excel in a cult of achievement. Unable to live up to his destiny as the torch-bearer of his family glory, Laurent breaks. “C’était lui ou moi: ce fut lui….”
Her story winds carefully between memories so precisely cut and completely contrary to her country’s collective remembrance that she leaves never to return. One suspects this may remain her sole literary legacy: a dignified mosaic of breathtaking detail and mournful beauty. Ironically, the work’s initial publishing value will doubtless reflect the author’s prestige and that of her illustrious family. De Gaulle, the Queen of England, and a host of France’s most celebrated alpinists – Louis Lachenal and Gaston Rébuffat among them – all make appearances. Yet the narrative is propelled along by an inarguable disgust with their one point of commonality, Herzog himself and his wife’s chateau-cloistered relatives.
What happens when a family disintegrates? Not everyone has such an implicated personal biography, but Félicité Herzog’s accomplishment is that she comes to terms with hers in such a rich and (I hope) cathartic way. That we could all do so.
-AFDC Blog Ambassador, Paul Kiernan