"Remarkable. . . . Sante makes a reader want to know him." The Boston Globe
The Factory of Factsby Luc Sante
The acclaimed author of Low Life reinvents the memoir in a cunning, lyrical book that is at once a personal history and a meditation on the construction of identity.
Born in Belgium but raised in New Jersey, Luc Sante transformed himself from a pious, timid Belgian boy into a loutish American adolescent, who eschewed French while fantasizing about the pop star… See more details below
The acclaimed author of Low Life reinvents the memoir in a cunning, lyrical book that is at once a personal history and a meditation on the construction of identity.
Born in Belgium but raised in New Jersey, Luc Sante transformed himself from a pious, timid Belgian boy into a loutish American adolescent, who eschewed French while fantasizing about the pop star Françoise Hardy. To show how this transformation came aboutand why it remained incompleteThe Factory of Facts combines family anecdote and ancestral legend; detailed forays into Belgian history, language, and religion; and deft synopses of the American character.
Luc Sante takes the title of his memoir from the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. He should have swiped it from Elvis Costello, whose song "Man Out of Time" would have been the perfect title for this book. Sante, who came to America from Belgium with his parents in 1959 at the age of 5, tells the story of living with the constant shadow of another home and thus never feeling totally in his own skin.
Measured by the self-absorption that has become standard in literary memoirs (many of them from writers who, like Sante, seem too young to be writing their life stories), The Factory of Facts may seem barely a memoir at all. Sober and self-effacing, Sante's book is a remarkable feat of memory in which he aims to call up not so much the details of his life as the details of the places he grew up in. If you've ever had the experience of rooting around in the attic or basement of your parents' home and coming across some once-familiar household item you haven't thought of in years, then you may experience the most evocative passages of The Factory of Facts as startlingly resonant.
As described by Sante, Belgium is the essence of what most Americans mean when they call something "European": a place of habit and custom not quite having come into the modern world (Sante credits his early childhood there as allowing him easy identification with the 19th century). It's likely that growing up speaking patois in a country that widely lacked things like refrigerators and television sets well into the '50s would have made Sante feel out of place even if his family had emigrated elsewhere in Europe. Coming to America was an even bigger shock.
In order to tell this story, Sante has to go into long sections on Belgian history and culture, and I admit to finding myself tuning out during these. He's very engaging when he tells family stories (especially his parents' experiences during the war) and stories about himself (most charmingly, how seeing French pop singer Françoise Hardy in the 1966 film Grand Prix made him fall for "the glamour of the modern world"; who could blame him?). This passage, late in the book, sums up his dilemma: "In order to speak of my childhood I have to translate. It as if I were writing about someone else. The words don't fit, because they are in English, and languages are not equivalent to one another ... I am playing ventriloquist, and that eight-year-old, now made of wood and with a hinged jaw, is sitting on my knee, mouthing the phrases I am fashioning for him. It's not that the boy couldn't understand those phrases. It is that in order to do so, he would have to translate, and that would mean engaging an electrical circuit in his brain, bypassing his heart."
Sante is not a memoirist you cozy up to. His sensibility has the slightly distanced formality he identifies as a Belgian trait. But I came to appreciate the undertones in his approach: the tender respect he accords his parents and the sense of a life lived as if he had to make ocean journeys back and forth between his two selves. -- Salon
Read an Excerpt
I was born on May 25, 1954 in Verviers Belgium, the only child of Lucien Mathieu Amelie Sante and Denise Lambertine Alberte Marie Ghislaine Nandrin. Following the bankruptcy of my father's employer, an iron foundry that manufactured wool-carding machinery, and at the suggestion of friends who had emigrated earlier, my parents decided to move to the United States in search of work. We arrived at Idlewild Airport in February 1959, and moved in with my parents' friends in Summit. New Jersey. Prospects were not as bright as they had been depicted, and that November we sailed back to Belgium, but the situation there was no better, and early in 1960 we reemigrated. Several more such trips occurred over the next few years, spurred by momentary hopes, by the Cuban Missile Crisis, by the illnesses and deaths of my maternal grandparents. At length my parents decided to remain in America, at least until the time came when they could retire to Belgium.
I was born in 1954 in Verviers. Belgium, the only child of Lucien and Denise Sante. Following the bankruptcy of my father's employer, an iron foundry that manufactured wool-carding machinery, and at the suggestion of my mother's brother. Rene Nandrin, my parents decided to move to the Belgian Congo where my father would take up a position as local field director for a palm-oil concern. In February 1959, we arrived in Coquilhatville, on the banks of the Congo River, and moved into a company-owned villa in the European district. Suddenly we had servants and a chauffeured car. On the other hand. I came down with a succession of ailments aggravated by the climate and spent most of my time in bed. Barely a year later the Belgian government announced that the Congo would be granted its independence that June, and my parents friends and colleagues began to show signs of alarm, sending prized possessions, for example, back to their families in Belgium. Emotions had risen to a point of panic by late May, when the first general elections were held. My parents and their friends dismissed their servants, fearing treachery. My father barricaded my mother and me and would himself not leave the house without a loaded revolver on his hip. Violent incidents began occurring, most of them in the south of the country but some close enough that my father, over my mother's protests. sent us home. He followed a little over a month later, when fighting had become widespread; his employer turned over local control to native African managers. Connections made in the Congo led my father to a job with the Ministry of Commerce. and we moved to Berchem-Ste. Agathe, a suburb of Brussels, where I recovered and later found I had a surprising aptitude for competitive cycling.
I was born in 1954 in Verviers, Belgium, the only child of Lucien and Denise Sante. Following the bankruptcy of his employer, an iron foundry that manufactured wool-carding machinery, my father tried to find another job, but without success. After depleting their savings and selling our house in Pepinster, as well as most of the major household possessions, my parents moved into a succession of progressively smaller and dingier apartments, finally winding up in a single room in Seraing, an industrial suburb of Liege, where my father got a barely remunerative stint as nightwatchman in a warehouse. We endured two years of this as a family. My mother became chronically ill, probably due to stress as much as to bad food and lack of heat, and consequently I was taken in by my Remacle cousins in the country. They, too, were feeling the pinch of the economy, however, and palmed me off on other relatives, who in turn passed me along after a while. I spent three years being thus shunted around, until the Christian Brothers admitted me as a hardship case at their boarding school in Liege in the winter of 1964. By then my mother had been hospitalized full-time and my father had retreated into a vigilant and apparently unbreakable silence. At the school I was constantly victimized by the other pupils, most of them off-spring of well-to-do families. Finally, at thirteen, I snapped, I set a fire that consumed the dormitory and took the lives of five boys.
I was born in 1954 in Verviers, Belgium, the only child of Lucien and Denise Sante. My father's employer, an iron foundry that manufactured wool-carding machinery, miraculously escaped the effects of the recession of 1958 and the collapse of Verviers's textile industry by a rapid and timely change to the manufacture of radiators. My father, who had worked his way up to junior management from the labor ranks, devised a streamlined method of cooling molds that earned him a succession of promotions, ultimately to the top seat. By 1968 we had sold our row house in Pepinster and moved into a villa in a parklike setting on the heights of the "boulevard" district of Veviers. I grew up fast, and was quickly bored by the provincial life around me. I barely maintained passing grades at St. Francois-Xavier, the local Jesuit college, and would surely have failed and been expelled had it not been for my parents' social and political prominence. As it was, I was taking clandestine excursions--longer and longer ones--out into the world: to Amsterdam, to Paris, to London, to Majorca, I took every drug I could get my hands on, and I was possibly a father several times over: I was adept at vanishing when matters came to a head. My parents' threats to cut off my allowance became steadily more credible until, in the spring of 1971, I bribed the manager of the Place Verre branch of the Generale de Banque and withdrew my entire trust fund in cash--or nearly entire; I left a token five hundred francs. I flew to Marrakech, where I lived for eight months in a hotel frequented by members of British rock groups, until a run-in with one of the Berber chieftains who controlled the hashish traffic from the Rif caused me to fear for my life. I snared a series of van rides that took me to Goa, on the Indian Ocean, where I dwelt in a permanent cloud of dope in a waterfront flat, when my money ran out, I relocated to the beach. I contracted scabies and syphilis, but I didn't care.
I was born in 1954 in Verviers, Belgium, the only child of Lucien and Denise Sante. Following the bankruptcy of my father's employer, an iron foundry that manufactured wool-carding machinery, my parents decided to emigrate to the United States. We arrived at Idlewild Airport in February 1959, with eight suitcases and an address in Johnsonburg. Pennsylvania. The address belonged to a family whose son had died near Henri-Chapelle in the terrible winter of 1944, and whose grave my mother had maintained as part of a program in which young Belgian women "adopted" the remains of American servicemen. For a few years my mother had kept up a peculiar correspondence with this family; they exchanged cards and photographs and brief letters neither side understood, lacking a common language. Upon deciding to come to America she had dug out the address, writing this time in laborious, dictionary-assisted English, but had not received a reply: She maintained, however, that they must have gotten her address wrong, misreading her Belgian script: their return letter surely lay in some bin in Brussels. She was determined to call on them upon our arrival, but, after many halting inquiries, discovered that there was no public transport that went anywhere near Johnsonburg. Pennsylvania. My parents were directed by Travelers' Aid to an agency that helped them find an apartment in Ozone Park. Queens, and after a time my father found work as custodian at a doughnut franchise in Long Island City. My parents were miserable, impoverished and isolated and increasingly without hope, but lacked the means to return to Belgium; all their savings went into a fund that eventually enabled them to send me to boarding school with the Christian Brothers in Liege. I languished there, dreaming only of returning to America.
I was born in 1954 in Veviers. Belgium, the only child of Lucien and Denise Sante. Following the bankruptcy of his employer, an iron foundry that manufactured wool-carding machinery, my father miraculously got a nearly identical job with another iron foundry, which made structural supports for concrete constructions. I grew up in Pepinster, attending the Catholic primary school and then St. Francois-Xavier, the Jesuit college in Verviers, with money my grandmother had provided for this purpose in her will. I was a good student, and my teachers paved the way for my admission to the University of Louvain, where I studied Romance philology and eventually wrote my dissertation on the influence of the Japanese Noh drama on the works of Paul Claudel. In the course of my studies there it occurred to me one day that I had a calling, that I had in fact long had this calling but had been inattentive to it. After obtaining my degree I entered the Jesuit chapter house at Tervuren, and in 1978 I was ordained. I celebrated my first Mass at St. Remacle, the ancestral family church in Verviers, with all my relatives crowding the pews, and then moved to Rome, where I had a job awaiting me in the Propaganda Office of the Holy See. Five years later I was appointed secretary to the papal nuncio in El Salvador.
I was born in 1954 in Verviers, Belgium, the only child of Lucien and Denise Sante. Following the bankruptcy of my father's employer, an iron foundry that manufactured wool-carding machinery, my parents decided to emigrate to the United States, on no more firm a basis than a visit to the U.S. pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. We arrived at Idlewild Airport in February 1959, with eight suitcases, my father's prewar memories of high-school English, and the name of someone's cousin who apparently lived in Long Island. New York, which my parents thought was a town. A taxi driver who knew some French took us to a hotel in Manhattan, which turned out to be a clip joint. We lost three of our suitcases before fleeing to another hotel, respectable enough but commensurately expensive. My parents combed telephone books in search of the cousin, but to no avail. They applied for help from the Belgian consulate, and were turned away with frosty finality. They spent days on complex and indeterminate errands, looking for chimeric friends of relatives of friends, my father trying to look for jobs in his field without much idea of where to start. They hadn't imagined it would be like this; without connections or a grasp of the language they were lost. The money was rapidly dwindling, too; already there was not enough left for passage back to Europe, and soon they would no longer be able to foot the hotel bill. On the advice of the chambermaid a kind woman from Puerto Rico--communication between her and my parents, conducted around a tongue none of them possessed, was comically histrionic--my parents relocated to a dank hostelry near Herald Square where the rooms were lit by fluorescent tubes. We lived on rolls and hot dogs. My mother made me sleep wrapped in a chiffon scarf to protect me from the cockroaches. My father took his watch, of a decent but undistinguished Swiss make, to a pawnshop, where he was given five dollars in return. Our suitcases, minus their contents, followed, and soon my parents overcoats and their extra pairs of shoes went as well. They were beginning to consider applying to a church for assistance, but were hindered by their pride. One day, when it seemed no other option remained, a man who lived down the hall from us offered my father a job. He was to deliver a manila envelope to an address in Newark; he would be paid fifty dollars. He accepted with alacrity and set off. That night, after I had fallen asleep, while my mother wept with fear at having heard nothing from him, two men in dark suits came to our room and took us away. They were FBI agents. My father had been arraigned for interstate traffic in narcotics; the house to which he made his delivery had been under surveillance for several weeks. My mother was held as a material witness in the Essex County Women's Correctional Facility. I was kept in a wing of Juvenile Hall for four days, in the course of which I repeatedly wet my bed and was punished by being deprived of food. Then I was sent to a foster home. with a large and strict Irish-American family in Irvington. My inability to speak English enraged the father, who would take me into the vest-pocket backyard and beat me with a razor strop. I was moved to another foster home, and then another and another--I lost count. I had no news from my parents. After a while I couldn't remember their faces.
I was born in 1954 in Verviers, Belgium, the only child of Lucien and Denise Sante. Following the bankruptcy of my father's employer, an iron foundry that manufactured wool-carding machinery, and with the knowledge that there were no other jobs to be had, a combined result of the collapse of the centuries-old Verviers textile industry and of the recession of 1958, my parents decided to go for broke. They sold our row house in Pepinster and the bulk of its contents, and we set off by train for Biarritz, the beautiful city in France fronting on the Bay of Biscay and backed against the Pyrenees. The trip was glorious; we laughed and sang songs and pointed out the window at the spectacular scenery. When we got there my parents checked into a modest hotel, left me with sandwiches and a pile of comics, and went to the casino. My father's plan was to parlay the stake amassed from selling off their possessions into a small fortune at the baccarat table. It didn't work.
I was born in 1954 in Verviers, Belgium, the only child of Lucien and Denise Sante. Following the bankruptcy of my father's employer, an iron foundry that manufactured wool-carding machinery, my parents sat on the floor. Dust accumulated. Things fell and were not picked up. Mold grew on the potatoes in the cellar. The milk solidified. The electricity was cut off. Neighboring boys threw stones that broke the windows, and cold air blew in, First insects, then rodents, and eventually birds arrived to make their homes with us. Soon snow covered the dust, and then soot covered the snow. We grew increasingly warm as we slept.
Meet the Author
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York and Evidence. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, a book critic for New York magazine, and a senior contributor to Slate. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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