High expectations inevitably attend the memoirs of Pierre Nora, which appear in the classic cream-and-rust livery of Gallimard, the publishing house where he presided for over fifty years, producing a stellar list—a thousand books, he says—of social and historical thought, while also editing Le Débat, the flagship journal of anti-Marxist French intellectual life, and pioneering new forms of historiography at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. An American or English equivalent would be almost unimaginable: governing non-fiction at fsg while editing the New York Review of Books and running research at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, for example; or transforming Faber & Faber while putting out the lrb and leading a new historical school at Cambridge. More pointedly, Nora’s work in the field of history has long foregrounded the question of memory. In his ego-histoire series at Gallimard, he asked some of France’s leading historians to apply their training to their own lives. Delivering, in his nineties, the first two volumes of his own contribution to the genre—Jeunesse, on his formative years, and Une étrange obstination, on his role at the heart of French intellectual life—Nora does not disappoint.

Jeunesse opens with what Nora describes as a ‘primal scene.’ It is spring 1940 and the author, age nine, is fleeing with his mother and three siblings to the border town of Hendaye, hoping to cross over into Spain and sail to America. The mother, Julie, is the eldest of the four beautiful Lehman sisters, married to feuding husbands, all members of the French Jewish haute bourgeoisie. Aunt Bella’s husband, André Meyer, head of Lazards Bank, who had avoided call-up in the First World War and made a fortune, is at daggers drawn with Pierre’s father, Gaston Nora, decorated multiple times for his service to France in 1914–18 and a distinguished doctor at the Rothschild Hospital. Gaston remains in Paris, having dispatched his wife and children to safety.

At Hendaye, all the hotels are full. The Noras sleep in their car in the town square, in a rainstorm ‘such as one only sees in the cinema’, waiting for dawn. But orders had just been given that men aged eighteen and over should not be allowed to leave France. At the border post, Pierre’s papers are stamped, with his mother’s and sister’s, but the two older brothers, Simon and Jean, are pulled aside. Simon waves the others to go on across, where aunts and uncles are signalling their impatience. In the confusion, Pierre remembers his mother parting the crowd, ‘like a furious lioness who’s been separated from her cubs’, to reclaim her sons. At eight in the morning they found themselves in a café in the square. The rain had stopped. After a moment’s stupefaction—‘What are we going to do?’—there was an explosion of joy: they would not be leaving France.

For Nora, the episode provides an occasion to remark on the contingencies of life: had things at the border gone differently, he might have become a scholar in the United States, like the Berkeley professor he meets at a conference whose family had crossed the frontier that very day. Yet by calling it a ‘primal scene’ and placing it at the beginning of his memoirs, Nora is asking us to look deeper. In what senses is this a formative moment for Nora—a key to understanding his later path as a historian, an editor, a Jew? What are the threads running through these two volumes, and what can they tell us about intellectual life in postwar France? At the outset of Jeunesse, Nora somewhat disingenuously explains that his work on memory as an editor and publisher has made it more difficult to write about his own life. Having ‘gone down this road with so many others’, he is all too aware of the tropes and conventions that typically affect the genre. Moreover, his memories ‘refuse to organize themselves into a coherent whole’. Instead of a memoir as such, he offers ‘a mixture of what I have baptized “lieux de mémoire” and “ego-histoire”’—that is, a return to key scenes and a self-historicization.

After Hendaye, the Noras eventually took refuge, like many Jewish families, in Grenoble. Nora recounts a series of terrifying near-misses. They were holidaying for a few days in a pension outside the city in the summer of 1943, when their Grenoble apartment bloc was requisitioned for the Gestapo. Coming in for lunch one day, they were signalled by the landlady to disappear: the Germans had been looking for them and had dragged off a young man who had no papers. Simon and Jean had joined the student resistance, aided by a teacher, Jean Beaufret, later France’s leading promoter of Heidegger. Pierre boarded at a local school, a refuge for Jews and communists. One night the headmaster burst into his room and told him to get dressed and jump out of the first-floor window into the snow beneath. Above him, he could hear the Germans shouting, a sound ‘that stayed forever in my ears’. Remembering a farm that Simon had told him about, higher up the mountain, the twelve-year-old took refuge there for a few days in a barn. The Vercors region remained a major flashpoint. In the summer of 1944, on a sign from London, the maquis declared ‘the Free Republic of the Vercors’, hoping for Allied weapons drops. Instead, four hundred Nazi parachutists descended on the region and went on the rampage. Here too, the family narrowly escaped disaster, as hundreds were rounded up and shot. Pierre retained the indelible memory of a young résistante, Germaine, ‘warm and strong’, who took him into her arms, recited to him Aragon’s poem, ‘Ah Paris, mon Paris’, and reassured him that everything would be alright.

The Noras returned to Paris after five years of internal exile, and it was then, Nora writes, that the ‘mystique around my family began to form’. Simon was the first to make a brilliant career, entering the Ministry of Finance, the first Jew to be employed in the Inspection générale des finances. Gaston Nora went with him to ask whether there would be any obstacles to such a candidate. ‘But why?’, was the official response. ‘Jewish, a member of the Resistance, on the reformist left, handsome and highly intelligent, he was just right for a society whose centre of gravity had distanced itself from the defeated right, and had a great deal to forgive itself for’, Nora comments. The sons of grand families became constant visitors at their home in rue La Boétie, as well as a ‘constant traffic’ of young women attracted by Simon and Jean; all finding there ‘a freedom of tone and reciprocal affection’ quite different to their own families. It drew in a mix of talents, Nora writes, from Merleau-Ponty to Roger Vailland, Lacan and Servan-Schreiber. Mendès France and his wife would come for dinner: ‘In those days, if one wasn’t a communist or a gaullist, one could only be a mendésiste.’

On completing his education at the Lycée Carnot, Nora was destined, so he believed, to become a star student at the École Normale Supérieure: ‘it had been promised to me at a young age by everyone around me’. A well-meaning teacher at the lycée took him to a party at the ens and introduced him to the professors as one of their future pupils. But he failed the entrance exam three times. ‘While passionately wanting to succeed, I did everything, more or less consciously, not to get through . . . excessive nervous tension, unfinished answers, disproportionate somatic reactions.’ Nora is characteristically frank about a setback that other writers might have omitted from the account—‘Youth does not offer many such occasions to be judged with such precision, globally and on the essential point. Humiliated, to the bone’—and characteristically satisfied with the final outcome: ‘It was much later that I understood that I owed everything to that failure at the École, without which my life would undoubtedly have been much less rich and less interesting.’