“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So, blow the dust off the cover, and begin!
Three years ago, Benjamin Nugent highlighted The Swallower Swallowed (L’Avaleé des avalés), a novel published when its author, Réjean Ducharme, was only 25. (He has written several novels since and still exhibits his art under a pseudonym at Montreal galleries.) If you can read it in the original French, Nugent says, you should: It was rightly a Prix Goncourt finalist, but its sole English translation doesn’t really hold up.
The Swallower Swallowed‘s heroine, Bérénice Einberg, is an extremely twisted, bizarrely Jewish, violent, and perhaps perverted Holden Caulfield. In other words, you may want to learn French in order to read L’Avaleé des avalés. Writes Nugent:
When her father sends her away to live in a strict Orthodox household in New York City, the boys in her Hebrew school fall in love with her and thus bring misfortune upon themselves—she shoves one of them down the stairs and watches him bounce “like a rubber ball.” This is the mistake that gets Bérénice shipped back home to Canada, where her obsessive love for her older brother Christian, with whom she hopes to revisit the relative freedom of childhood, compels her father to ship her off to the Israeli army. There, at war with the Arabs, she commits a crime against another Jew—again, one who loves her—that makes her an anti-heroine in her own eyes, even as she lies about it. She can no longer pretend she has not been swallowed by an organization. “They believed me,” she writes of her Israeli superior officers, after dutifully giving them her alibi. “A heroine was what they needed.”
To have understood this about Israel in 1966 is to have been prescient indeed.
Read Swallowed Whole by Benjamin Nugent.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.