When he was fifteen, Philippe Grimbert was told by a cousin that he was Jewish, not Catholic, that he had a half-brother who died before he was born, and that his parents’ marriage was founded upon tragedy—the burden of which would ultimately lead to their suicide. Forty years later, in 2003, the psychoanalyst, who lives outside Paris, began work on an autobiographical novel about these revelations, hoping to assuage his own grief and pay homage to his half-brother, who he discovered had died at Auschwitz. The last thing he expected was to write a bestseller. “I thought I had written an intimate book that would appeal to a small number of readers,” Grimbert explains in email. “The total opposite happened!”

He’s not exaggerating. An unexpected international sensation, Un Secret has sold 700,000 copies in France alone (more than double the sales of Michel Houellebecq’s last novel; the only literary work to have had similar success in France in recent years is another World War II novel by a Jewish author, Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes). Soon after Un Secret’s 2004 publication it became clear that this spare, unsentimental novel was hitting a nerve. Raves—“a very beautiful work, its content matching its form in their wondrous simplicity” (Figaro); “a splendid book that gives the unspeakable written form” (Le Monde)—were followed by awards: the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, the Prix des Lectrice d’Elle, and the Prix Wizo for the best work of Jewish interest in French literature. In the three years since, the novel has been translated into twenty-two languages, published in thirty-five countries, and adapted by director Claude Miller into an acclaimed movie now on the festival circuit. This month it finally arrives in U.S. bookstores under the title Memory.

Memory blends the author’s childhood recollections with an imaginative recreation of the shocking chain of circumstances that led to his birth, based on his knowledge of his family’s complicated background. “My personal drama was strewn with blanks to be filled,” says Grimbert, “and only creative writing could allow me to do this.” While the names have been changed and some details have been fictionalized, the central, agonizing events around which the novel revolves are real.

Those events begin in 1941, when Grimbert’s parents—renamed Tania and Maxime in the novel—escape Nazi-occupied Paris to the countryside of “Free France,” where they sit out the war in a farmhouse. They’ve long resisted their mutual attraction, as they are siblings-in-law: Maxime is married to Hannah—Tania’s husband’s sister—with whom he has a son, Simon. But Hannah and little Simon are apprehended en route to joining the family in their hideout and deported, and Tania’s husband, a soldier, dies in a POW camp, and the obstacles to Tania and Maxime’s love fall away, though at an unfathomable price. Desire, for these two, becomes inseparable from guilt: “He is holding in his arms the woman he has wanted for years, but as he falls towards sleep it is Hannah’s face that comes to him. He pushes her away as hard as he can, driving her bright face back into the darkness.”

Back in Paris after the war, Philippe is born and Maxime changes the family name, Grinberg, to Grimbert, “washed clean of its ‘n’ and ‘g,’ those letters that had become harbingers of death.” Philippe’s parents also expunge their personal histories, never mentioning their previous marriages, or the existence of Simon. Passing as gentile, they even have Philippe christened—“so late that I could still remember it all”—and he naturally assumes that his parents have only ever been married to each other. Pale, weak, and sickly—a disappointment to his muscular father—Philippe imagines a strong and handsome older brother, of whom he is both in awe and painfully jealous, unaware that this archetypal figure once existed. At first benevolent and comforting, this nameless companion turns threatening as Philippe gets older: “From protective, he had become tyrannical, mocking, even contemptuous. I nevertheless continued to tell him my fears and failings as I fell asleep to the rhythm of his breathing.”

Illustration of two boys by Matthew Woodson

For a long time this ghostly presence is the only significant manifestation of a buried past. But when Philippe has just turned fifteen, his class at school is shown a Holocaust documentary, which triggers in him a disconcerting sense of identification—and a hitherto untapped strength. When his neighbor, the captain of the football team, “imitated a German accent, saying: ‘Ach! Jewish dogs!” . . . I laughed until I felt sick. Suddenly my stomach lurched, I thought I was going to throw up and before I knew what I was doing I had slapped him hard across the face.” The boys fall on the ground and fight, Philippe managing to “damage his nose quite seriously,” he’s pleased to note. The episode prompts a family friend—a fictional stand-in for Grimbert’s cousin, and the only character who didn’t exist in reality—to reveal the past, as she understands that protecting Philippe from knowledge is not protecting him from suffering. “She owed me the truth,” says the book’s hero. Grimbert’s own childhood taught him, he says, that “a child from whom one hides a secret guesses part of it, knows it unconsciously and that the truth, when it is finally revealed, causes a double response in him, of stupor and at the same time familiarity that could be summed up as: ‘deep down I always knew it.’”

The novel reads like a case study of transgenerational haunting, the notion that unspoken trauma is heritable. Perhaps this, more than its particular portrayal of the historical plight of French Jews, accounts for Un Secret’s runaway success in France: It’s hardly surprising that a country whose intellectual heroes include Lacan and Derrida would respond so enthusiastically to a narrative that could only have been constructed by a psychoanalyst. Grimbert’s career choice was the inevitable result of the revelations he received as a fifteen-year-old, as the novel makes explicit: “I now knew where I came from. Relieved of the load that I had weighing on my shoulders I had turned it into strength, and would do the same with those who came to see me.”

In the novel, the first person Philippe helps is his father, who he recognizes is unraveling under the burden of his guilt. At the Memorial of the Unknown Jewish Martyr, in the traditionally Jewish Marais district, Philippe looks through deportation records and learns that Hannah and Simon were gassed the day after they arrived at Auschwitz. He tells Maxime “the number of the convoy, the date his wife and son left for Auschwitz, and the date they died.” Maxime’s reaction, though wordless, assures Philippe that he’s done the right thing: “I had just relieved my father of his secret.” When Grimbert made this discovery in real life, he knew he had no choice to but to share it, as “the truth, as horrible as it is, was undoubtedly less cruel than anything he may for years have been imagining about their everyday life in the concentration camp.”

Grimbert speculates that the novel’s dramatization of the power of the unknown may also be a reason for its popularity; the theme of secrecy “echoes in each one of us.” His allusive, spare, elliptical prose reproduces the feeling of hidden nightmares, and evokes the uncertainty of reconstructing one’s life anew with only partial information—a process undergone by Philippe within the story, and by the author in writing the book. “What is paradoxical,” he remarks, “is that often, after having created a particular fictional episode, I had an inner conviction that I’d discovered the truth of this episode. In short, it was via fiction that I arrived at the reality of the facts.”

Grimbert has deliberately taken creative license, however, by contrasting the parents’ vigor (they’re represented as swimmers with “two superb bodies, fit from athletic discipline”) with the boy’s bookishness. It was his intention, he said, “to create a kind of tension by drawing a parallel between the physical ideal of Maxime and Tania and that of the Nazis, this Aryan myth of ‘the gods of the stadium.’ In the same way the physique of the narrator connected, on the other hand, with the victims of Nazism, his thinness evoked that of the deportees, like an unconscious identification with the sufferings of his brother—a kind of return of the repressed.” After Philippe discovers the truth about his family’s past, he blossoms physically: “My chest had broadened, the hole in my solar plexus had vanished, as if the truth had until then been written there in hollows.”

Rescued from his haunting as a young man, Grimbert hadn’t contemplated writing about his family’s story, either as a psychoanalyst or as a novelist until one day, when he was out walking with his daughter, they happened to pass through a pet cemetery near his home in Seine-et-Marne, and he noticed a grave for the dog that had belonged to the daughter of the former Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval. Remembering how Laval had endorsed the deportation of children like his brother, who had been denied the dignity of a grave, Grimbert was overcome by rage and resolved in that moment to write his novel. The result is both a poignant contribution to Holocaust literature and the tragic tale of a couple whose personal history was, as Grimbert puts it, “intertwined with History with a capital H.”