Looking back on a vanished past
Maxime Rodinson, Souvenirs d'un marginal (Memories of a Marginal), Paris: Fayard, 2005. pp413
Described by the French newspaper Le Monde as having an "unquestionable knowledge of the Muslim world," the French orientalist Maxime Rodinson, who died last year at the age of 89, was the author of a series of well-known books on Arab and Muslim history and civilisation, including Mahomet (1961), a biography of the Prophet Mohamed, and Islam et capitalisme (1966), a title echoing Max Weber's famous thesis regarding the development of capitalism in Europe and the Protestant work ethic. His many admirers will now be pleased to learn of the publication of his memoirs, Souvenirs d'un marginal, in which Rodinson looks back on his early life in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, supplying fascinating background to a life spent as one of France's most distinguished writers on Arab and Muslim affairs.
Unfinished at the time of his death, in his memoirs Rodinson describes in detail the political and economic circumstances of his family, Jews of Russian and Eastern European descent, as well as the émigré community in France of which it was a part. By turns humorous and almost unbearably painful, the volume bears witness to this now vanished milieu and to Rodinson's own unorthodox early career.
The bulk of the text describes Rodinson's background and upbringing, breaking off during his adolescence, when, owing to the family's lack of funds, the young Maxime was obliged to stop formal schooling and take a job as a garçon de courses, a kind of office boy, at a Paris haulage company. This means that Rodinson sketches his parents' political interests and social circle in considerable detail, including his father's arrival in France at the end of the 19th century as a refugee from the anti-Semitic pogroms in the then Russian Empire, and his setting up a business making waterproof clothing in what was then a largely Yiddish-speaking part of Paris, called the Pletzl, in the district of the Marais. The family subsequently established itself as a necessary port-of-call for similarly placed Russian exiles, as well as a pillar of the radically inclined, working-class Jewish community established in the French capital at the time and later decimated during the Second World War.
Something of the atmosphere of Conrad's novel The Secret Agent hangs over Rodinson's description of these years, his father having played chess with Trotsky on one of the latter's missionary journeys through France and having heard Lenin when the latter was living in Paris between 1908 and 1912. However, the Rodinsons were far from being in the Lenin-Trotsky mould, and what emerges from these memoirs is his father's quietly determined efforts to organise educational and other services for the working-class Jewish community, as well as to unionise. "In 1892," Rodinson writes, "my father helped to establish a Jewish working- class library at 147 rue de la Vieille-du- Temple, containing hundreds of works in Yiddish, Russian and French," among them works that later inspired his son Maxime to undertake a scholarly career.
"Having been unable himself to study, my father looked after libraries... [including] the Russian Turgenev library near our house at 61-63 rue des Gobelins," Rodinson writes. These institutions naturally attracted "a great concentration of Russian émigrés, most of them 'revolutionaries' and hostile to the Tsarist regime." Following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 and the subsequent establishment of the Soviet Union, many of these revolutionaries, friends and acquaintances of the Rodinson family, returned to Russia, in many cases being given positions of responsibility in the new state structures only to die some years later in Stalin's purges. For their part, the Rodinsons joined the French Communist Party at its inception in 1920, attending its events and reading the Party newspaper, if not always strictly following the Party line. The Rodinson family applied for Soviet citizenship as soon as France recognised Soviet Russia in 1924, when the country also rid itself of the previous Russian ambassador, appointed by Kerensky, who had continued to hold court at the embassy building in the rue de Grenelle. However, being a Soviet citizen in France seems further to have complicated the young Maxime's relationship to his host country.
Indeed, Rodinson's relationship with French society, together with his relationship with his Jewish and Russian heritage, is a theme that soon emerges in the book. Early in the memoirs, Rodinson writes that for his family political differences in the Russian émigré community over the way forward for Russia were superimposed on "the usual tensions between separatism based on a Jewish identity and the desire to assimilate into the larger surrounding society." The Rodinsons chose the latter course, "which is why neither my sister nor I learned Yiddish", though there were still obstacles on the path to assimilation. These, however, were not so much to do with Rodinson's Jewish heritage, he says, but rather had to do with the family's ambiguous nationality, "directly linked to Soviet Russia," and with its comparative poverty.
Invited to the grand apartment of Aline Lévy, for example, whose father held a prestigious chair in the Ancient History of the Orient at the Ecole pratique des hauts études (EPHE) in Paris, Rodinson describes how he felt "horribly intimidated and ill at ease....despite Mme Lévy's kindness. The clothes I wore, often made by my mother...appeared to me horribly out of tune with what other children wore... and the cutlery given us to eat the cake we were given only made my confusion worse. How was one supposed to use this instrument half way between a fork and a knife? All this reinforced my feelings of frustration, of being apart, and of being excluded from the world of good manners and decent life." There are many comparable instances of such feelings in the memoirs.
Yet despite these social obstacles, and with only a primary school certificate as a qualification in a country obsessed with qualifications, Rodinson thrived, following up his interest in oriental languages at first on Saturday afternoons and in the evenings and eventually gathering up sheaves of diplomas before himself proceeding to a chair in "Ethiopian and South Arabic" at the EPHE to replace his former teacher in 1955. All of this must have called for astonishing talent and application, and large sections of Rodinson's memoirs are given over to his self-education and to the enormous energy and enthusiasm that he invested in it.
By far the most painful parts of the book are those that have to do with Rodinson's half-sister Olga, and particularly with what he believes was her failure to do enough to frustrate the deportation, during the German occupation of Paris during the Second World War, of his parents to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where both perished. Maxime Rodinson himself, called up for military service in 1939 and sent to Lebanon and Syria, was unable to be with them, and the catastrophic failure to protect his parents in his absence, returned to again and again in the memoirs and devastating for Rodinson and painful for the reader, he in part blames on his sister. Sometimes he presents her as a vain and trivial woman, sometimes as merely ignorant and fearful. It is impossible to know the truth.
Some 76,000 Jews, many of them French nationals, many holding Russian and Eastern European passports but living in France, were deported from France during the German occupation, most of them murdered at Nazi concentration or extermination camps. Rodinson's parents, who had never taken French citizenship and whose links outside of their community were comparatively few, were especially exposed, all those identified as Jews of foreign nationality being obliged to register with the occupying authorities as early as 1940. Aside from the references to these events scattered through the text, Rodinson does not himself explain the circumstances of his parents' arrest and deportation in 1943, and it is left to Charles Reine, in an account included as an appendix to the volume by Michel Rodinson, to supply the terrible details.
Finally, for those whose knowledge of Maxime Rodinson stops with his activities as an orientalist and as the author of a series of well-known books on the Middle East, Islam and the Arab world, this book will come as a revelation, perhaps illuminating some of its author's later attitudes.