Telling Untold Tales: Concealed Family Stories in Contemporary Fiction

Malkmus, Marie-Louise. 2010. Telling Untold Tales: Concealed Family Stories in Contemporary Fiction. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

Drawing on three twenty-first-century North American and German novels - Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (2002), Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated (2002), and Marcel Beyer's Spione (2000) -, this dissertation examines how lost or concealed family stories, marked by war, dislocation or other traumatic experiences in the grandparents' generation, are re-invented in the life narratives of third-generation descendants. The narrators, attempting to trace the lost or concealed stories of their grandparents, are confronted with a past inaccessible due to the violent historical caesurae. In the face of this experience of loss and its implication for their own sense of identity, the grandsons then forge their ancestral stories, in order to inscribe themselves in a familial continuity. Their biographical projects thus are simultaneously autobiographical, leading to complex forms of intergenerational identification and a conflation of individual, family and collective stories. All three texts foreground the role of the grandparents as connectors between personal life and larger frameworks, present and past, communicative and cultural memory, and derive their urge to reinvent the grandparental story from the void that is left by the loss of that story.

Each novel illuminates a specific issue at the core of such fictional (auto)biographies: Eugenides' Middlesex questions the issue of identity - personal, sexual, and cultural - to articulate the importance of both the ancestral heritage and the role of narrative for the protagonist's construction of a sense of self. Foer's Everything Is Illuminated illustrates the complexity of an identity quest within a historical and ancestral framework, negotiating the difficulty of recovering memory obliterated by traumatic past events, the realisation of the unreliability of memory as a fundamental element of any life writing, and yet the urge to reconstruct the past in narrative. Beyer's Spione foregrounds the role of family memory in contemporary Germany, which is still profoundly shaped by the legacy of the Third Reich, and the heritage of secrecy and silence that pervade all generational relationships. The analysis of the three texts together contributes to contemporary debates on the importance of memory in our society and the reverberations of traumatic experiences through the generations.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Safran Foer, Marcel Beyer, family, memory, trauma, novels

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature



Item ID:


Date Deposited:

01 Jun 2020 10:43

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 12:30


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