Giesbert, Franz-Olivier The American

ISBN 13: 9781400095858

The American

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9781400095858: The American

On June 6, 1944, Frederick Giesbert, assigned to the American army’s 29th division, landed on bloody Omaha Beach, Normandy, an experience from which he never recovered. Three years later, Frederick had returned to his hometown of Chicago, married to a French girl. But when the seemingly happy couple moved to Normandy to make a home with their baby, something in Frederick snapped, and he turned cruel and violent. His son, Franz-Oliver, spent his childhood doing everything he could to defy his father. The American is a son’s fiercely honest and emotionally gripping story of a search for paternal understanding and forgiveness.

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About the Author:

Franz-Olivier Giesbert is a prominent French intellectual, though he was born in Wilmington, Delaware and spent the first three years of his life in America. He is a novelist, biographer, television host and newspaper editor. He has worked at Le Nouvelle Observateur as its Washington correspondent and served as Editor-in-Chief of Le Figaro.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I’ve spent my life trying to get myself forgiven. As far back as I can remember, it seems as though I’ve never been up to it, on any level. It’s a feeling that gives me a knot in my stomach, often, when I have the misfortune of find- ing myself alone with myself. In bed, for example, when I can’t sleep.

I have to avoid myself. That’s vital. I’ve tried, for several decades now, with a certain success. Once in a while I linger in front of a mirror to check out my blank insomniac face or to find a pimple or a new age spot, but I’ve always stayed away from introspection. I don’t think I could survive psychoanalysis.

This is therefore not an analysis sublimated by writing, as certain novels have tended to be. It is my story, a story I have been careful never to tell myself, for fear I wouldn’t be able to stand it. But I would like today to unroll its thread, now that I have arrived at the sunset of my life, and pay my respects, before I join them, to those who made me.

To my father, most of all. To my father whom I was so ashamed of and with whom I think I never talked. Except maybe to ask him to pass the salt or something at dinner, and even that, I’m not sure of. In the last years of his life, each time he hung around me waiting to start a conversation, I changed rooms. I kept putting off the reconciliation that couldn’t fail to be produced if death hadn’t stolen him from my disaffection.

I had an excuse. My father robbed me of my childhood. It’s because of him that I have always seen the world through adult eyes. Even at the age of five or six, I was already without illusions. As well as I can recollect, I never believed in Santa Claus. It’s hard to believe in Santa Claus in a house where the wife is beaten to a pulp several times a week.

I can’t say when my father began beating my mother, but I knew why. Even when he didn’t find a pretext, he had a reason. He resented the whole world, and my mother most of all, for ruining his life. Papa was an artist, a real one, it seems, and he blamed Mother for preventing him from being the great artist he could feel welling up inside him, by ceaselessly making him children. He didn’t like children. They condemned him to bourgeois mediocrity, which he spat upon every single day. Because of his children he had to renounce his palette and easel in order to spend hours boiling up “commercial art,” an expression that, in his mouth, was always an insult and designated prospectuses, catalogs, or posters.

Mother gave him five children. In a voice too tired not to show its fatigue, he called us “mouths to feed,” so it was impossible to be unaware of the weight we represented on his shoulders, which were nevertheless broad and powerful. He simply beat us cold. He beat us, too, especially me, because I stood up to him more than I could make good on, with the air of a village cock, in order to avenge Mother.

Snapshots of that time show me standing a bit apart from the family, head lowered, seemingly closed off. I wasn’t unhappy, though. My head was already filled with a Good Lord of grass, love, dreams, and beasts, not to speak of the Lord and the Holy Virgin who, from Heaven, watched over me, I believed, like milk on the stove. It was just that I was ravaged by hatred. Hate for my father, whom I imagined myself killing sooner or later.

Papa slept with a knife under his pillow. It was a habit he acquired in the army, after the Normandy landing, when his nights were filled with Germans crawling around to kill Yankees, knives between their teeth.

I imitated him. For a long time, I slept with a pocket knife under my pillow, so as to be able to disembowel my father if he ever made trouble for me at night. Although I thought a lot about this project, I don’t think I would have been able to kill him in cold blood, looking him straight in the eyes. I was too afraid of him.

Papa had a propensity for great anger and great violence. Not with everyone, however. In town, he wouldn’t have hurt a fly. I am even sure he let people step on his toes in the bars of Elbeuf, where he often hung out after work. He was the way immigrants often are. He didn’t want to go back to his country. He was afraid of being noticed, having his work permit confiscated, and being sent back to the United States of America, his mother country, which he hated as much as I venerated it.

At home, on the other hand, anything would set him off, particularly when he came back drunk. He wasn’t a happy drunk; that was the least anyone could say of him. The disappearance of a screwdriver could take on seismic proportions; the walls trembled until he found it where he had left it the day before. Same thing if he discovered that some tool—a trowel or a scythe—had been left out in the rain to rust: a family specialty. At the dinner table, he blew up over nothing, an ambiguous imitation or a furtive smile, and blows rained down like shells at the battle of Gravelotte. We often had to evacuate the wounded, after the meal.

That’s why I had a horror of dinners at home. Nights too, since Papa often waited until the lights were out to slug Mother. Sometimes he bellowed out expletives while he hit her. Other times, he just yelled. There were the sounds of a struggle, furniture moving, doors slamming, but I rarely heard my mother complain while she was being pelted by his fists. Sometimes, muffled screams came out of her, which still pierce my ears, fifty years later. But most of the time, in order not to wake the children, she kept her cries to herself, in the pit of her stomach, where they fed a cancer that was biding its time.

On those nights I stayed in bed, my heart beating, my blood frozen, trembling like a leaf. I was dying. I think one always dies a little when one hears one’s mother beaten. I spent a part of my childhood dying, but only part. In the other part, of course, I grew stronger.

2

I’m not sure how old I was, maybe four or five, maybe more, but I remember that it was raining hard and my brothers were not yet born. It was a summer night, in Italy, on the side of Venice where my father liked to spend vacations. We found ourselves, Papa, Mother, my two sisters, and I, in the family car, a Renault that was built like a big bicycle. My mother was reading the road map with a flashlight in her hand, in order to indicate our route to my father, who was in a bad mood because of the bad weather.

“Where are you taking us?” bellowed my father suddenly. “We just passed by here!”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re making us go around in circles. Don’t you recognize this intersection?”

He stopped the car on the shoulder and grabbed the map and the flashlight from my mother. He concentrated a long time while sighing noisily, because he only did things halfway, before muttering, “You’re wrong again. You don’t even know how to read a map.”

“You’re the one who doesn’t know how to follow my instructions.”

For that act of insolence, Mother got a first blow that knocked her against the car window. Papa didn’t know how to control his strength. He always hit harder than he intended to. His slaps were like punches.

My mother, despite the schoolgirl masochism that was eating her up and that I’ll come back to, sometimes had a good comeback. She muttered calmly, which made her case worse, “If you think that is how you’ll find your way, old man—”

She received a new blow, even stronger than the first, to judge by the sound she made: a dull sound, like the sound red meat makes when the butcher throws it on his worktable before cutting it up. Nevertheless, she didn’t consider the discussion over.

“You beast!” she cried.

Third blow, same dull sound. But this time Mother gathered herself up. There were limits to her masochism. She threw herself against Papa’s chest, screaming and drumming against him like an angry child. I always felt very afraid when my mother resisted like that. She wasn’t up to it.

If I remember correctly—and I think I do, at least when it comes to this event—that night my mother did not, as she often had in the past, reproach my father for beating her in front of the children. In fact I’m sure the thought never entered her head. That was when we were beginning to get used to Papa’s rages.

His muscles reacted first. Especially the hand muscles, to be precise. The head followed. One could never look for my father as cause of an action. He no longer answered for anything. For a trifle, he could have killed my mother without intending to, just by punching her wrong. That was why it was my duty as the eldest to kill him before he committed the irreparable.

I didn’t yet have the bulk to stand up to him, but I bided my time, to be sure to accomplish my design. With a knife, with an ax, with a mallet; I hadn’t yet chosen the instrument. However it happened, I at least knew that my father would suffer a thousand deaths, and maybe more.

That’s what I said to myself, that night, on the backseat of the Renault, while I pouted and Papa riddled Mother with punches. He hit her while breathing heavily, and heaved a logger’s groan each time he struck a blow. He applied himself to the task, for he didn’t take anything lightly, especially vacations.

Mother was crying, all wrapped up in her own body, protecting her head with her arms. She was crying without ostentation under the volley of blows, waiting for it to be over. Years later, on reading Ecclesiastes, I understood my mother’s philosophy. For her, there was a time for everything: a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to love and a time to hate. For nothing under the sun can last, neither happiness nor unhappiness. I knew then that she had been much stronger than he was.

It goes without saying that we were crying too, my sisters and I. My father, who ordinarily couldn’t stand the sound of children crying, let us wail our eyes out when he beat Mother. At the time, I thought he was too busy correcting Mother to have time to tell us to shut up. Now, after considering it some more, I think it was his way of telling us we were right.

Papa had extinguished the flashlight, no doubt so as not to use up the battery, during this session with Mother. I could see nothing in the darkness, but I remember that at a given moment my father took my mother’s nose and gave it a twist, unless he crushed it, but if so, the damage would have been visible the next day, and it wasn’t.

“You beast!” cried my mother again, using her favorite insult. “You’ve broken my nose!”

“That’ll teach you.”

“You can just manage on your own now.”

That was the one thing that should never be said. But against all expectations, Papa decided to stop his attack. He acted like someone who hadn’t heard anything and continued on his way without saying a word.

It was still raining when we reached our destination, a second-class campground like all those where we spent our vacations, in the midst of the smell of soap and dirty water. Papa thought it prudent not to put up the tent on its stakes, so all five of us slept, all tangled up, in the family car, in the silence that comes after a storm.

The following day, Papa uncorked some Lambrusco and some Asti Spumante. He was ashamed. My father was always submerged in shame, afterward. He could look at no one and spent hours without unclenching his teeth. That suited us perfectly. No one spoke to him, either. As for me, I had a good reason to keep quiet. I was too busy replaying the film of the fight and planning my revenge. It was the following night, I think, that I wet the bed for the last time.

3

The air was very heavy in our house along the Seine, in Saint-Aubin-lès-Elbeuf. Over everything there reigned a certain violence that crushed you, at least when my father was there. That was surely the reason I developed the bad habit of breathing economically, in little gasps, like a person with asthma.

To this day it sometimes happens that I forget to breathe. My turn goes by. Thus I live between two apneas, more or less. If it were not for the bright lights on the sides of my eyes and the sensation of suffocating—which, from time to time, recall me to order—I think I would have died of asphyxiation long ago.

Often, Mother sent us to her parents’ house, just over a mile away from ours, to unwind a bit. They lived in an enormous apartment over the Allain Press, named after my grandfather, an austere boss, his thin hair slicked back, his eyeglasses stern, his mustache square, who was constantly working and, in order to apologize for that, showered his descendants with gifts.

Most of the time, generosity is just disguised indifference, a way to buy tranquillity. That could not have been true of Papi, as we called him. He had real goodness in his look and smile, and a kind of sweet and attentive irony escaped him, for he sought above all to give the impression, even within the family, that he was uncompromisingly stiff and rigid.

I adored Papi. There was something pathetic about his desire for his twenty grandchildren, with their mothers, to spend at least part of their summer vacations together in a big house that he rented for them in Normandy or Brittany. Or about the interminable dinner parties he organized, made up of family friends and distant cousins. He might have seemed to be seeking a kind of posterity for himself. But he was too proud to have room to be vain, too.

He doubtless foresaw that someday a great seismic event, his death or something else, would devastate everything he had patiently built up over the years: the press, the family, the dynasty. He was too imbued with the ancients he was always reading—Plato or Plutarch—to nourish the illusion that one could leave any trace of oneself on this earth. He didn’t believe in God any more than in the future. His children discovered this rather starkly when they opened his will and read that he was a Christian but not a believer, he wanted to be buried in secret at sun- set, and he wanted to go directly from the house to the cemetery.

Up till then, Papi had always acted like a model parishioner, a great consumer of hosts. That was how I learned that one knows very little about other people before their deaths, even one’s own grandfather. Once they have mounted the stage boards of life, they continue, up until the last speech, to play a character in whom they have ceased to believe. Not wanting to rock the boat, Papi let those who were familiar with his will be his judges and either carry out or not carry out his wishes. They, of course, covered what he said with a handkerchief.

I have spoken of Papi’s goodness. But however sociable he was, he couldn’t stand to have anyone put his authority in question. Not the typographical union leaders, whom he fired without hesitating. Not my father, who worked for his press in the “department of design,” as we called it. I don’t think Papi took advantage of his position to humiliate his son-in-law, but Papa had contestation in his blood, fueled by his passion for American writers like Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck.

Papa was not a Marxist. He felt a merciless hatred, in fact, for Communists and their fellow travelers, whom he accused of sowing death wherever they went. I heard him say once that he would fear for his life if they ever came to power in France thanks to an invasion by the Soviet Union—a hypothesi...

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