Jean-Paul Kauffmann, La Maison du Retour (2007)

Jean-Paul Kauffmann was a journalist, specialized in Middle-east reports. During the 1980s, he was kidnapped in Lebanon and kept hostage for 3 years alone, a terrible ordeal. Free at last, coming back to life, his family and country, he bought a desolate house in a remote French countryside, in the southwestern region of the Landes, a moor area, flat and swept by winds, with acres and acres of pine forest, not far from Bordeaux and its vineyards. 

This book is the story of his love affair with this region, this house named The Lime-trees and his return to the beauty of life: listening to nature, planting trees, sharing good wines and food with neighbors and friends. Its title is difficult to translate, it would be something like: “The house when I got back”, and not “Back home”, or “The house I got back to”, because he chooses to start over in a new region, a new house and a new life and not to go back to his previous life, as others would have expected.

To go back to a normal life was out of question. As soon as I came back, I quickly chose to lead at The Lime-trees a resolutely abnormal life. That probably saved me. Once I’d been freed, I soon understood that I could not revive my previous life. For this occasion, I invented the Luis de Leon syndrome, using the name of a famous theologian from Salamanque, who got arrested by the Inquisition while he was teaching. Tortured and sentenced, Leon spent about ten years in jail. When he got out, he got back to teaching his university course, the very same lesson he’d never finished, and said “As I said yesterday…”, meaning that he shrugged off the years of his ordeal. Everything leads the former prisoner and his loved ones to get back to the time before, to start again as if nothing had happened. I don’t like to boast my past misfortune. But I don’t forget it either. I remain absolutely true to it. […] 

This old farmhouse in the Landes, that used to be a brothel for Nazi soldiers during WWII, needs a lot of work. The narrator decides to camp in the house while it’s being renovated, under the pretext to keep an eye on the workers, but in reality because he needs solitude, and time to adjust back to life.  He also speaks about books and writing, how books helped him during his captivity but have seemed to lose their magic afterwards. 

The deep link between me and books was cut. I believe that this cut is a true handicap. At the Lime-trees more than anywhere else, I became aware of this curse. I am among books and I’m not hungry. I nibble, I take a bite, I don’t read through. I often think of Borges, after he became blind, still buying books. I can’t read normally anymore. But what is normality in this realm? A steady application, or at least reasonable, a way to let a text carry you away, to stick to conventions of characters and story. This lack of restraint doesn’t work anymore, or not well enough. Handicapped people like me are only partially affected. Sometimes the pact with text works, but this miracle occurs very rarely indeed. I work at reestablishing this severed link. Apparently nothing has changed. I sometimes speak of books I read with feelings and even now and again with sagacity. But I have the feeling that they’ve lost a large part of their power on my life. 

The book is quite pleasant because instead of nursing his resentment and self-pity over his terrible experience, he concentrates on the joys of rediscovering everyday life. His description is full of sensory details. The horror he went through is only present by contrast, never forgotten but muffled, as a result of years of reconstructing himself in peace and wisdom.

At The Lime-Trees the imperious desire to write became manifest. More than a desire, a demand. […] This time the stakes were high. Vital. I wanted to write to fill a void, attempt to rebuild a memory, to reconstruct the past. Also not let the present slip away. My own self had been under attack. Going back among the living had knocked me out. I was afraid of falling apart. My heart was close to a state of fission. I was unable to collect the divided pieces. An almost dead life. If I tried and put a name on what had happened to, would I find unity again ? It was useless to understand the meaning of this aggression. There was no meaning, but I still had to explore, to dig. Searching was the most important part. Coming to terms by going deep inside my pain, instead of refusing it. Too bad if nothing came out of it.

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7 thoughts on “Jean-Paul Kauffmann, La Maison du Retour (2007)

  1. Amy, it doesn’t seem to have been translated into English yet. When I review a French book, I usually translate quotes myself. I hope this will be published one day in the rest of the world.

  2. Just finished reading the original in French which I’d received as a gift from a former colleague. Kauffmann’s account of the healing process after severe psychological trauma is superb. In a different context, and without the life-threatening dimension, I too experienced a similar alienation, and found a way through it by immersing myself in the restauration of an old country cottage “away from it all”. La Maison du retour is a profoundly insightful piece of writing.

  3. I’m Jean-Paul Kauffmann’s English translator and was as impressed as you are with La Maison du retour. I recommended it to my publishers – Harvill Secker, part of Random House, London – but unfortunately they didn’t take it up. If you feel strongly enough about it, you could let them know. I’m not at liberty to give his contact details, but I think that with some persistent Googling you could find some way to reach him.

  4. Sirs,
    I hace just finished reading his book. Did like it very much. I’m a french writer and poet. Would very much like to get in touch with him to talk about trees and wine.
    Could you help me with his e-mail ?
    Very grateful,
    F

  5. Pingback: Jean-Paul Kauffmann, The Black Room at Longwood, Napoleon’s Exile at Saint Helena (French, 1997) | Smithereens

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