Life, After by Antoine Leiris review – embracing the now | Autobiography and memoir


On 13 November 2015, Islamist gunmen opened fire on concertgoers at the Bataclan theatre in Paris, killing 90 people. Among the victims was Hélène Muyal-Leiris, who was survived by her husband Antoine Leiris and their 19-month-old son Melvil. Three days later Leiris, a journalist, addressed his wife’s killers in a Facebook post, declaring: “I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know … I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you”. This wasn’t just a bereaved man’s cri de coeur, it was a pre-emptive protest against a far right that would try to leverage France’s grief for its nationalist agenda. Leiris’s post went viral, was adopted as a liberal rallying cry, and was followed in 2016 by You Will Not Have My Hate, a slim memoir which quickly became an international bestseller.

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Now, six years later, comes a kind of sequel. Whereas the first book zoomed in, recounting how Leiris and Melvil survived the 12 days after the attack, the second pans back. Life, After covers four years, describing how they build a life together “like two escapees from the ordinary world”. Seeking a fresh start, Leiris moves them from a historic street in Montmartre to a sixth-floor new-build apartment in the 16th arrondissement. “I am embracing the now,” he tells us in his brisk present tense, lucidly translated by Sam Taylor: “the immediate, the convenient, the practical, the ephemeral, the washable, the soundproofed”.

Both father and son must deal, in their different ways, with the problem of memory. As Melvil turns four and five, Leiris wrestles with what to tell him about the mother he’ll never remember but whose absence will shape his whole life. For Leiris himself, memory is a ghost to be exorcised. At first he stores Hélène’s possessions in a basement eight flights beneath his apartment. Then, one day, he impulsively throws everything – bar two dresses and the jacket his wife was wearing the night she died – in black bin liners: “The letters, the photographs, the clothes … they were the new body that death gave Hélène. A scattered body that I am now tearing to pieces so I can rid myself of it.”

Violent, troubling moments like this are what make Life, After a more interesting book than its determinedly dignified predecessor. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that this man, who became famous for disavowing hate, is in fact brimming with fury. When he’s ready to date again, he’s baffled to find himself taking out his pain on a new partner: “I became cruel. I made her pay for something that I hadn’t yet identified by showing her that I could be cowardly, vile, insecure”. The book’s most powerful and revealing passages hint that Leiris’s hate, and his need to repudiate it, go much further back. His unhappy parents quarrelled bitterly and then divorced. His mother went on to numb her pain with pills and alcohol before one day falling asleep while smoking a cigarette, sustaining burns that would go on to kill her. “From above, I watched myself acting as if nothing was wrong,” writes Leiris; “I was split in two.” When, after Hélène’s death, he occasionally finds himself angry with his son, he has “the impression that that rage doesn’t belong to me. I try to get rid of it. I wonder where it comes from.”

In History of Violence, published in France in the same year as Leiris’s first book, the author Édouard Louis recounted a brutal sexual assault he suffered at the hands of a man whose father was a migrant from Algeria. For Louis, memory is a psychic and political tool, a sharp shovel blade to excavate not only his own pain but that of his attacker and the colonial racism that produced it. By looking his enemy in the eye, he attempts to see himself and his country more clearly. By contrast, Leiris’s writing can be read as a heartbreaking study in the unconscious denial that so often attends traumatic loss, as eloquent in what it doesn’t (or can’t) say as in what it does. You think back to the words Leiris addressed to Hélène’s murderers – I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know – and wonder who else in his history of violence he might be addressing.

Life, After by Antoine Leiris, translated by Sam Taylor, is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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