Review: Major/Minor

An elegant memoir by the daughter of a great artist and god-daughter of a great writer conveys its material powerfully.


By Alba Arikha
Quartet, £15

The brevity of Alba Arikha's memoir belies its depth and breadth. It is a moving story of a young woman's coming of age and her father's struggle to overcome his horrific early experiences.

Avigdor Arikha, who died last year, was no ordinary father. He was one of the most admired artists of his generation, with a wide range of work encompassing abstract paintings, drawings, portraits and landscapes. The British Museum, to which he donated drawings, mounted an exhibition of his work in 2006.

Avigdor had an extraordinary life. Born in Romania, he was deported with his family to a concentration camp in the Ukraine when he was 12. There, he made drawings bearing witness to the atrocities around him.

In 1944, he and his sister were transported by the International Red Cross to Palestine. His father had already been murdered, and he did not see his mother again for 14 years. He studied art in Jerusalem, before moving to Paris in 1949, where he lived for most of his life.

Given his history, life with Avigdor was perhaps bound not to be easy. His daughter Alba has written an honest and brave account of their troubled relationship, as well as giving us fascinating glimpses into their artistic circle of friends. These included the photographer, Henri Cartier Bresson and writer Samuel Beckett - who was Alba's godfather. Her mother is the poet, Anne Atik.

When Alba begins writing, she sends Beckett some of her poetry and short stories: "Sam doesn't always write back. And I pay heed to his silences. Once, I overhear him tell my father that I may become a writer".

Like Beckett, Alba makes every word count. Written in precise and measured prose, Major/Minor has the effect of giving the reader privileged access to a highly personal family album, and contains a few of her father's exquisite drawings of the family.

However, it is not a comfortable read. The book is a labour of rage as well as love, showing father and daughter fighting their demons and each other. Avigdor is haunted by his dreadful experiences and is determined that his daughter knows what happened to him. Alba's rage is not only about teenage rebellion, bad skin and frizzy hair, but also the pain of living with scoliosis.

Alba's search for her own identity is charted with tenderness, beginning when she is seven, an awkward child struggling with feelings of isolation and low self-worth, and ending when, at 17, she finally discovers her own individuality.

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