Review: The French Father

Dry and delightful deathly dialogue

By Jennifer Lipman, July 4, 2011
Elkann: an eternal conversation

Elkann: an eternal conversation

Alain Elkann (trans:Alastair McEwen)
Pushkin Press, £8.99

We might be reluctant to admit it, but many of us have imagined what our own funeral would be like. Who would attend? What would people say about us? Would there be tears, and memories shared? In The French Father, Alain Elkann takes this kind of musing a step further and looks at the relationship between a deceased man and the grave next door.

Blending fact with fiction, the Italian-based Elkann imagines how his austere, aloof and self-important father coexists with Roland Topor, the flighty and passionate artist he is buried beside at Paris's elite Montparnasse cemetery. What would these two dead Jews talk about? Would they find companionship, camaraderie, or would their differences remain too potent even when, as Elkann has Topor observe, they have all the time in the world?

There is no real answer, of course, but that doesn't stop Elkann junior guessing. As he goes in search of Topor's surviving family in the real world, he records the imagined conversations between the two.

As the weeks go on, they discuss their childhoods - two very different experiences of France under the shadow of the Nazis - and their contrasting approaches to family, religion and love.

More than anything, the book is about Elkann's feelings towards his father; Topor is the catalyst for the son to come to terms with the loss of a man whom he never quite "had" in the first place. It's a strange concept and it is often unclear where the line between the real and the imagined is drawn but, oddly, it works, both as a biography of two interesting characters, and as a wider consideration of family legacy and bereavement.

Elkann's writing is dry and well-observed. He brings a humour to a subject where laughter remains taboo, from the way his father had meticulously planned his own funeral to Topor's dismay that he is not buried next to "a beautiful, fascinating woman".

Translated from the Italian into sometimes clunky English, it is nonetheless a delightful book, bite-size at a little more than 100 pages and unlike anything else I've ever read.

Jennifer Lipman is a JC reporter

Last updated: 2:50pm, July 4 2011