This is the story of two flawed eccentrics. Everything they do subverts their firm intention of keeping up appearances. They meet just after the war in liberated Paris but they cannot quite free themselves from the many strings attached to them – the old aunts, the sisters, the cousins, the nuns and the ominous concierges who dog their footsteps.
Alexandre is a banker and a Resistant and lives in a world of numbers and Roman emperors. Poum resides in the Odyssey and in her bed, hiding from the mysterious disapproval of their relatives, for they both seem to persist in some irreparable faux pas which has them wading through a lifetime pickle. Their daughter, Catherine, would like to help but she seems to be part of the problem.
This is no ordinary childhood, and Catherine de Saint Phalle’s acceptance of her parents shines through, propelling us head first into their strange, yet beautiful, Parisian world.
Poum and Alexandre is a searingly honest, humorous and moving elegy to family and place, and a meditation on the ways they ultimately define us.
Catherine de Saint Phalle has been published in France by Actes Sud, Buchet/Chastel and Sabine Wespieser Editeur. She is the author of On Brunswick Ground (Transit Lounge 2015), also published in France. A tutor and translator, she lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she is ensconced with her partner, a poet and bookseller. Poum and Alexandre is her first work of nonfiction.
Catherine de Saint Phalle’s tender portrait of a lifelong partnership deserves to be an instant classic of the biography genre. De Saint Phalle grew up in Paris, the only child of charming but damaged parents: fragile, death-obsessed Poum and ebullient, older Alexandre, whose lives were ruled by their “sin” of being unmarried. De Saint Phalle’s narrative of an unusual childhood with this haunted, sometimes childlike and deeply bonded couple is remarkable for its lack of self-pity and its depth of recollection. The reader is treated to a study of two wonderfully flawed people, meeting in the aftermath of war and negotiating a peculiar union of love and eccentricity. Always seeing Poum and Alexandre as people first, then parents, her book is both funny and tragic at the same time. De Saint Phalle writes with a clear-eyed humanity and wisdom about human nature that is reminiscent of Nabokov’s account of memory and childhood.
‘Amid the deluge of memoirs, few are great literature. Poum and Alexandre is a rare and wonderful exception, a work that deserves to become a classic.’ Fiona Capp, Sydney Morning Herald
‘Saint Phalle’s book is thought-provoking and beautiful to read. Its mystery and elegance, the red threads of exotic history narrated by her parents, and the author’s close examination of shifting manners and morals create a shadow world that is difficult to emerge from when the last page is done.’ Miriam Cosic, The Australian