Memmi, Albert 1920–
Albert Memmi 1920–
Eminent North African writer Albert Memmi is best known for his two autobiographical novels from the 1950s, Pillar of Salt and Strangers. Each examines the quandary of being a Jew in a predominantly Muslim land, and a North African in Europe, and are known in English translation. A highly respected sociologist, Memmi has also written a number of nonfiction works on racism and the legacy of colonialism in Africa.
Memmi was born in 1920 in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. His father was a saddle maker with a workshop that Memmi liked to visit as a boy. The family lived near to, but not directly within, Tunis’s Jewish ghetto, known as the Hara. Tunisia was a predominantly Arab Muslim country, but at the time of Memmi’s childhood there was a thriving Jewish minority of about 50,000. Tunisia was also home to a similar number of French, who came from Europe after the small country, wedged between Algeria and Libya, became a French protectorate in 1881; some Italians and Maltese also made the city their home. There were long-simmering tensions between Tunis’s Muslims and Jews, however, and one of Memmi’s novels, La Terre intérieure (The Interior Land), relates a notorious incident from 1857 when a Jewish man named Samuel Sfez had a heated argument with a Muslim, and was sentenced to death.
During Memmi’s younger years, Tunis’s Jews were quietly assimilating into its French colonial culture. Memmi was sent to a Hebrew school at the age of four, but at seven began classes at a school run by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Paris-based organization that aimed to merge Jewish traditions with modern European educational principles. At 12, Memmi began studies at a French lycée in Tunis, from which he graduated in 1939 with the top philosophy prize. He then enrolled in the University of Algiers, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. The anti-Semitic laws carried out by the Vichy collaborationist government in France also applied to French North Africa, and Jews there were imperiled. Memmi was expelled from the university and sent to a forced labor camp in the eastern part of Tunisia.
Memmi had already begun writing for Jewish newspapers, and following the war he moved to Paris for further university study in 1946. He began writing his first novel during this time, and married a French Catholic woman, Marie-Germaine Dubach. They returned to Tunis in 1951, where he taught at his former lycée. His first novel, La Statue du sel, appeared in 1953 and in English translation two years later as Pillar of Salt. The title of Memmi’s novel is a reference to the biblical tale of Lot’s wife, who turns into a pillar of salt when she looks back as her family is fleeing from Sodom. Its plot centers around Alexandre Mordekhai Benillouche, who grows up in Tunis’s Hara district, part of a loving family and a close-knit community. His dilemma begins when he enrolls in the esteemed French lycée and begins to harbor ambitions for the larger world. He comes to believe his family’s Judaism is not authentic, and sees the great distance between himself and his French classmates. “Little by little, Mordecai discovers that his native culture, inbred con-
At a Glance…
Born on December 15,1920, in Tunis, Tunisia; son of Francois (an artisan) and Marguerite (Sarfati) Memmi; married Marie-Germaine Dubach, 1946; children; Daniel, Dominique, Nicolas Education: University of Algiers, licence des philosophie, 1943; Sorbonne, University of Paris, Dr. es lettres, 1970
Career; High school teacher of philosophy in Tunis, Tunisia, 1953-56; Center of Educational Research, Tunis, director, 1953-57; National Center of Scientific Research, Paris, France, researcher, 1958-60; University of Paris, Sorbonne, École practique des hautes etudes, assistant professor, 1959-66, professor of social psychology, 1966-70; University of Paris, Nanterre, France, professor of sociology, 1970-; School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences, conference director, 1958, director of department of social sciences, 1975-78; Walker Ames Professor, University of Seattle, 1972.
Member: Societe des Gens de Lettres; International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists, vice-president of French chapter, 1977-80; Academie des Sciences d’Outremer.
Awards: Commander of Ordre de Nichan Iftikhar (Tunisia); Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur; Officier of Tunisian Republic; Officier des Arts et des Lettres; Officier des Palmes Academiques; Prix Carthage (Tunis), 1953; Prix Fénéon (Paris), 1954; Prix Simba (Rome).
Address: Home —Paris, France. Office —University of Paris, 92 Nanterre, France.
ditioning, basic way of life, and humble ghetto dialect have all created a gulf between himself and the world he strives to enter,” noted an essay by Guy Dugas in African Writers.
Pillar of Salt took two prestigious prizes when it first appeared: the Carthage Prize in 1953 and the Fénéon Prize in 1954. Nearly forty years later, the book was still earning critical praise: a Publishers Weekly review of a 1992 English-language edition asserted that it was a work that “powerfully distinguishes itself through its unblinking examination of the contradictions that thwart even Alexandre’s most altruistic ambitions.” Memmi’s second novel, Agar, was published in 1955 and translated into English in 1958 as Strangers. Its protagonist is anonymous, but seems to be Alexandre at a later age. Like Memmi, the hero has married a French Christian woman, and their union is tested—along with the husband’s sense of self—when they move to Tunis and she questions her husband’s criticisms of his culture. The novel was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary honor.
In both of these books, Memmi was attacked by some for his portrayal of Tunisian Jews. When he wrote an article advocating the destruction of the Hara, he was further slandered. Many Jews in Tunisia, however, began emigrating when the country was granted its independence in 1956, fearful of the secular, though predominantly Muslim, new order coming into power. Many, like Memmi and his wife, settled in France. He published his first nonfiction work, Portrait du colonise precede du portrait du colinisateur, in 1957, and it appeared in English translation eight years later as The Colonizer and the Colonized. The book caused a stir in both North Africa and France for its provocative essays, because France was engaged in a bitter war with Algeria over independence, and questions of French domination and Arab sovereignty were hotly debated at the time by politicians, in the press, and among the public. In his book, Memmi dismissed the leftist dogma, then in vogue, that such independence struggles followed a Marxist model. He argued instead that the oppressed and the oppressor, regardless of place, “were indissolubly linked within a system that took the shape of a pyramid of petty tyranny,” according to Dugas in the African Writers essay. “Within that pyramidal structure, the oppressor and the oppressed enjoy small advantages, minor privileges that result in each participant dominating someone else.”
Memmi’s work also attracted controversy over his assertions about Jews in Tunisia. He reflected in The Colonizer and the Colonized that, “unlike the Muslims, they passionately endeavored to identify themselves with the French. To them the West was the paragon of all civilization, all culture. The Jew turned his back happily on the East. They chose the French language, dressed in the Italian style, and joyfully adopted every idiosyncrasy of the Europeans.” The author and his book also earned the enmity of writer Albert Camus, with whom he was sometimes compared; the French writer, born in Algeria, wrote extensively on North African-French culture, and had penned the introduction to a second edition of Memmi’s debut novel. Camus was reportedly angered over a chapter in The Colonizer and the Colonized titled “The Well-Meaning Colonialist” that he felt was a veiled portrait of himself, but he was killed in an automobile accident in 1960 before his friendship with Memmi could be restored.
In France Memmi enjoyed an impressive academic career as a sociology researcher. Over the years he was affiliated with the National Center of Scientific Research, the Sorbonne, and the university in Nanterre. His increasing scholarship, especially on the topic of the sociology of literature in a colonial and post-colonial time-frame, brought invitations from French publishers to write introductions for books by African-American writers. He did so for the French translation of The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, as well as subsequent works. “In these texts he drew parallels between the conditions of Jews, African Americans, and colonized peoples,” noted Dugas, “for all were classifiable as oppressed minorities.”
Memmi made a lecture tour of the United States in 1966, during a time when the post-civil rights quiet had evaporated in favor of a more politicized climate among American blacks. He also wrote another work of nonfiction, L’Homme dominé, published in France in 1968 and in the United States as Dominated Man: Notes Toward a Portrait. A New York Times article by Richard Locke described it as “a collection of essays that sketched a generalized portrait of victims of social and psychological oppression.”
After a long absence, Memmi also returned to writing fiction with the publication of Le Scorpion ou la confession imaginaire in 1969. It appeared in English two years later as The Scorpion or the Imaginary Confession. The work takes place during the time of Tunisia’s move toward independence in the mid-1950s and centers on two brothers, Emile and Marcel. Emile has disappeared, and when his brother begins sorting through the papers he left behind, he realizes that his brother was writing a novel about a disturbed Tunisian Jew who has killed his authoritarian saddle-maker father. Emile has apparently uncovered—or perhaps fabricated—a fascinating genealogical portrait of his family’s ancestry, going back several centuries to the Roman era. Both novel and life begin to blur for Marcel, as political developments make him begin to question his identity as well.
In his review of The Scorpion or the Imaginari; Confession for the Neu; York Times, Locke described the complex work as a novel-within-a-novel with several other narrative digressions, and concluded: “But ultimately it is Memmi’s heart, not his skill, that moves you: the sights and sounds of Tunis, the childhood memories, the brothers’ sympathetic and contrasting voices, their all-too-human feelings, have a resonance that re-awakens for a while the ghost of European humanism.”
Memmi has been a professor of sociology and is active in France’s chapter of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN). He published another seminal work in 1982, La Racisme: Description, définition, traitement, which appeared in English translation as Racism. The work delves into the underlying issues behind both subtle and overt forms of prejudice, and the author asserted that “the temptation of racism is the most commonly shared thing in the world.” Memmi has also written about Islamic fundamentalism in his 1993 work Λ contre-courants (Against the Tide), in which he observed, “We are witnessing the return in insolent strength of fascism and fundamentalism. Against such demons there is only one untainted banner for us to march under, and that is the banner of secular humanism.”
Memmi is the recipient of numerous honors, including Tunisia’s Commander of Ordre de Nichan Iftikhar and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. His brother, Georges Memmi, is also a novelist.
La Statue du sel (novel), introduction by Albert Camus, Correa, 1953, translation by Edouard Roditi published as Pillar of Salt, Criterion, 1955, reprinted, O’Hara, 1975.
Agar (novel), Correa, 1955, translation by Brian Rhys published as Strangers, 1958, Orion Press, 1960.
Portrait du colonise precede du portrait du colini-sateur, introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, Buchet/Chastel, 1957, translation by Howard Greenfield published as The Colonizer and the Colonized, Orion Press, 1965, reprinted, Beacon Press, 1984.
Portrait d’un Juif, Gallimard, 1962, translation by Elisabeth Abbott published as Portrait of a Jew, Orion Press, 1962.
La Liberation d’un Juif, Gallimard, 1962, translation by Judy Hyun published as The Liberation of a Jew, Orion Press, 1966.
L’Homme dominé (essays), Gallimard, 1968, new edition, Payot, 1973, translation published as Dominated Man: Notes Towards a Portrait, Orion Press, 1968.
Le Scorpion ou la confession imaginaire (novel), Gallimard, 1969, translation by Eleanor Levieux published as The Scorpion or the Imaginary Confession, Grossman, 1971, 2nd edition, J. Philip O’Hara, 1975.
Juifs et Arabes, Gallimard, 1974, translation by Levieux published as Jews and Arabs, J. Philip O’Hara, 1975.
La Terre intérieure (title means The Interior Land), Gallimard, 1976.
La dependance: esquisse pour un portrait du dependant, Gallimard, 1979, translation published as Dependence, Beacon Press, 1983.
La Racisme: Description, définition, traitement, Gallimard, 1982, revised edition translated by Steve Martinot as Racism, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis), 2000.
À contre-courants (title means Against the Tide), Nouvel Objet, 1993.
African Writers, Vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997, pp. 467-477.
Canadian Journal of Sociology, Winter 2001, p. 127.
New York Times, May 22, 1971.
"Memmi, Albert 1920–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/memmi-albert-1920
"Memmi, Albert 1920–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved November 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/memmi-albert-1920
Writer, educator, and sociologist Albert Memmi (born 1920) is the author of the novels Pillar of Salt and Strangers, works praised as among the best fiction published in post-World War II Europe. Not only respected in the world of fiction, Memmi has authored several sociological works, among them The Colonizer and the Colonized, that focus on racism and African colonialism, both of which he experienced first-hand as a Jew growing up in a predominantly Muslim Tunisia. Translations of Memmi's works have been published in Israel, Italy, Germany, England, Spain, Argentina, Yugoslavia, Japan, and the United States, where they have been well received.
Memmi was born on December 15, 1920, in the Tunisian city of Tunis. The son of artisan and saddlemaker François Memmi and his wife Marguerite (Sarfati) Memmi, the boy grew up in a traditional Jewish household, spending a great deal of time in his father's saddle-making shop. The Memmi family lived near Tunis's Jewish ghetto, known as the Hara. During the early 20th century Tunisia, a colony of France, had a thriving Jewish minority that numbered about 50,000 people, although age-old tensions between the country's Jews and its Muslim majority continued to simmer, particularly in Tunis. During Memmi's childhood, Tunisian Jews focused their efforts on assimilating into the French colonial culture of the region.
Roots in Jewish Tunisia
At age four Memmi was sent to Hebrew school and by age seven he began classes at a school run by the Alliance Israelite Universalle. The Universalle was an organization that merged Jewish tradition with modern European education, a system in keeping with the colonialism of the Tunis Jews. At age 12 Memmi began studies at a French lycée in Tunis, graduating in 1939 with the school's top prize in philosophy.
Memmi enrolled at the University of Algiers, but his studies were soon interrupted by the onset of World War II. North African Jews were soon imperiled by the Vichy collaborationist government in France and its support of Nazi Germany's anti-Semitic laws. As a Jew, Memmi was expelled from the University of Algiers and sent to a forced labor camp in eastern Tunisia. Finally released, he returned to the University of Algiers in 1943 and received his licence es philosophie. By this time, he had already begun writing for Jewish newspapers.
Two Novels Critically Acclaimed
In 1946 Memmi moved to Paris, France, intending to continue his academic studies. He also started writing his first novel, and also married a French-Catholic woman named Marie-Germaine Dubach, with whom he would have three children. In 1951 Memmi returned to Tunis with his wife, and got a job teaching at his former lycée. Two years later he published his first novel, La statue de sel—translated as Pillar of Salt—which is a largely autobiographical account of the 30-year-old author's life. The novel also examines Jewish life in a predominantly Muslim land, and also views circumstances from the point of view of a North African living in Europe. Pillar of Salt took the Carthage Prize the year it appeared, and also received the Feneon Prize in 1954. In 1955 the novel appeared in English translation.
Beginning in 1953, Memmi taught high school in Tunis, and continued at this job for three years. From 1953 to 1957 he also served as the director of the city's Center for Educational Research. In 1955 he published his second novel, Agar—Strangers—which explores mixed marriages. Highly popular, Strangers was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, France's top literary honor. Like Pillar of Salt, Strangers is also highly autobiographical, and explores similar themes regarding the problems of Jews living in a Muslim society. In Memmi's La terre interieure—The Interior Land—he relates an incident from 1857 when a Tunisian Muslim and a Tunisian Jew have a heated argument and the Jew is sentenced to death.
Succeeded in Nonfiction
When the French colonial government left Tunisia in 1956, many Jews also decided to leave the country, fearing reprisals from the predominantly Muslim government that stepped into power. Memmi and his wife immigrated to France, and the following year he published his first nonfiction work, Portrait du colonise precede du portrait du colinisateur. Translated in the mid-1960s as The Colonizer and the Colonized, the book explores theories of colonization, and its provocative essays caused an immediate stir throughout North Africa and in France. The book caused an upheaval in its author's personal life as well, when writer Albert Camus took affront at an article in the book titled "The Well-meaning Colonialist." Convinced that it was a couched portrait of himself, Camus ended his friendship with Memmi, and his death in 1960 prevented the rift between the two writers from ever being bridged.
The Colonizer and the Colonized proved to be a highly influential—as well as highly controversial—work. Citing colonization as a variant of fascism, Memmi especially reacts to the decolonization of North Africa in 1956, but states that the dynamics are similar in any colonial system. In his view, although minority populations are exploited under colonial governments, once they gain their freedom and gain political and economic power they in turn become the exploiters.
Taught in France
In 1958 Memmi became a researcher for the National Center of Scientific Research based in Paris, France, and remained there until 1960. He also became conference director of the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences. From 1959 to 1966 he was an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. He also began working toward an advanced degree, which he would earn in 1970.
During and after his professorship in Paris, Memmi continued writing. 1962 saw the publication of Memmi's Portrait d'un Juif—Portrait of a Jew—a theoretical work which further explores the exploitation of minorities. In 1962 he also published La liberation d'un Juif, which was translated as The Liberation of a Jew. He made a lecture tour of the United States in 1966, the same year he gained his professorship at the Sorbonne, and in 1968 he published the essay collection L'homme domine—Dominated Man—which explores victims of social and psychological oppression.
Continued Penning Fiction and
In 1969 Memmi returned to fiction with the publication of Le scorpion ou la confession imaginaire, published in translation in 1971 as The Scorpion; or, The Imaginary Confession. This novel, like Memmi's previous fiction, is autobiographical, and also contains commentary, parables, and a fictional storyline. In 1970 Memmi finally completed his doctorate in letters at the Sorbonne, and after receiving his degree decided to move from the city where he had lived for over a decade. He became a professor of sociology at the University of Paris in Nanterre, France, and in 1972 traveled to North America to become Walker Ames Professor at the University of Seattle. In addition to his degree from the Sorbonne, Memmi earned a Ph.D. from the Universitéde Beer Scheba.
Continuing to publish during the 1970s, Memmi also continued his role as educator. Returning to France, from 1975 to 1978 he served as director of the department of social sciences at the French School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences. In 1977 he became vice president of the French chapter of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN), which position he retained until 1980. Throughout his writing career Memmi was an active presence in the French chapter of PEN.
Memmi published La dependance: esquisse pour un portrait de dependant—translated as Dependance—in 1979 and followed it three years later with one of his most noted works, La racisme: description, definition, traitment. Published in English translation as Racism after it went into a second edition, the book focuses on the issues behind subtle and overt prejudice. Discussing the book in the Canadian Journal of Sociology, Sean P. Hier explained that in Racism Memmi "argues that racism is a 'lived experience' arising within human situations." Noting that racism is destructive to all human societies, he contends that "the magnitude of racism is contingent on how the concepts of race and difference are generalized and accepted as social knowledge."
Into his seventies Memmi continued to write, publishing A contre-courants—Against the Tide in 1993. In this work he warned of the rising tide of fascism he perceived in Western society, and promoted secular humanism as an antidote. In 1994 he was honored with the Prix de Ratoinalist and in 1995 he received the Union Prize of the Magreb Foundation in Noureddine. Memmi's brother, George Memmi, is also a novelist.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 37, Gale, 2003.
Contemporary World Writers, second edition, St. James Press, 1993.
African Writers, Volume 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997.
Canadian Journal of Sociology, December-February, 2000.
Research in African Literatures, Volume 1, number 1, 1970.
"Memmi, Albert." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/memmi-albert
"Memmi, Albert." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved November 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/memmi-albert