Albert Memmi

Insolent Testament Publication date : August 27, 2009

“Besides being fuelled by the urgency of age, the testament of a man of letters translates the desire to offer both the essence and the best of oneself — not only out of sheer altruism, since it is a comfort to think that one has made a contribution, no matter how small, to our common culture. But perhaps I was obeying a more deeply hidden drive in offering myself the illusion that I could conquer death by improving my chances of acquiring lasting fame. A curious wish for a non-believer! This form of self-presentation may also reveal shreds of vanity — even while it acknowledges and recognises weaknesses. But isn't all literature a form of vanity and narcissism, avowed to a greater or lesser extent? Reconciling gravity and irony, the lesson of life I give here aims to be insolent, and it reveals both the indulgence and the irritation my peer group arouses in me. Real insolence is the privilege of age — when there is nothing left to lose and no one to spare. Of course, such insolence must also be applied to the self — an exercise that results in a final dialogue with oneself, during which one accepts not to cheat regarding one's weaknesses, temptations and failures, and agrees to overcome prejudices and to recognise one's stupidities and mistakes,” writes Albert Memmi.

Racism, the blending of cultures and the tensions between them, questions of identity and roots: these are the major themes of Albert Memmi's works. They remain at the heart of current preoccupations and thought. As a writer at the crossroads of three cultures — Jewish, Arab and French — Memmi reviews his past and re-examines his own works, summarising some of their salient features and applying them to the present day.

This is a powerful life lesson by an eminent activist and intellectual.

A writer and activist, Albert Memmi was born in Tunis in 1920 into an Arab-speaking Jewish family. He was a student of the poet Jean Amrouche and later went to France to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. On his return to Tunisia he became a teacher. He obtained notoriety with his novel La Statue de sel (translated as The Pillar of Salt), which was prefaced by Albert Camus. After Tunisian independence, in 1956, he settled in France, where he taught for many years, notably at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and at the University of Nanterre. His Portrait du colonisé (The Colonized and the Decolonized), with a preface by Sartre, was a landmark in the denunciation of colonialism; in 2004 he wrote a follow-up to this work, titled Portrait du décolonisé (Decolonization and the Decolonized). A leading figure in French-language Tunisian literature, he was awarded the 2004 Grand Prix de la Francophonie for his work, much of which has focused on racism. He became a French citizen in 1973.

List of works: Portrait du décolonisé (2004), Le Nomade immobile (2000), Le Juif et l'Autre (1996), Le Racisme (1994), La Dépendance (1979), Le Scorpion (1969), Portrait d'un juif (1962), Portrait du colonisé (1957), Agar (1955) and La Statue de sel (1953).