Books Patrick Modiano: the French Nobel Laureate bursts into (English) print
Patrick Modiano’s hypnotic novels cast a fearless light on postwar Paris, writes Gregory Day
At the beginning of the Nazi occupation of France in May 1940, with western Europe in Hitler’s grip and the invasion of Britain seemingly a fait accompli, large sections of the demoralised French population took not only a pragmatic approach to the likelihood of a colonised future but sought out scapegoats among the local population for the humiliation. The typical victims were communists and Jews.
Despite much revisionism in postwar years, fuelled in part by Charles de Gaulle’s deliberate policy of repackaging his nation’s maligned moral identity as steadfast and heroic, the fact remains that despite the emergence of a resistance movement in underground pamphlets, flyers and journalism, it wasn’t until 14 months after the invasion that a young subaltern named Alfons Moser was shot at the Barbes-Rochechouart metro station, the first German soldier to be killed in Paris since it had been occupied.
Patrick Modiano was born in 1945, 12 months after the eventual liberation of Paris and only weeks before the official end of the war. By the time he published his first novel, La Place de l’Etoile, in April 1968 at the age of 22, the official packaging of the French Resistance as a triumph of innate Gallic integrity was beginning to unravel. Within just a few weeks of the release of La Place de l’Etoile, Paris was famously thrust into chaos, shut down by student riots and worker strikes brought on by years of denial on this and many other issues, culminating in the first police invasion of the Sorbonne.
The publication of La Place de l’Etoile resonated then and, with its bristling iconoclastic intensity, it does so today. The title refers to the broad square around the iconic Arc de Triomphe, into which 12 avenues, including the Champs-Elysees, converge to form a star. Originally this square, now called Place Charles de Gaulle but still known locally as Place de l’Etoile, or just Etoile, meaning Star, was a rise of ground where a number of feudal hunting routes converged. By calling his novel La Place de L’Etoile, with its pointed reference to the Star of David that French Jews were made to wear during the German occupation, Modiano not only adds to the layers but provocatively challenges the simplistic triumphalism of the site.
Modiano’s father was a Jew who refused to wear the star and who avoided deportation to the death camps only because of his black market dealings with gangs linked to the French Gestapo. Crucially, his son’s inheritance was therefore a morally ambiguous one, a murky legacy obscured by his parents’ reluctance to talk about what they did or didn’t do in the oppressive years between 1940 and 44. In keeping with this enigma, the Place de l’Etoile in Modiano’s novel becomes something even more complex than a former hunting ground cast anew as a triumphant national site, then further layered by its tragic reference to the Star of David. In fact it becomes not so much a star as an asterisk of ambiguity, symbolising the many and complex perspectives on Jewish identity in France and the varying reactions of the local population to German occupation.
The first English translation of La Place de L’Etoile is a consequence of Modiano winning the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, and it comes as something of a revelation. Unlike the spare, mesmeric and melancholic novels we have had access to in English so far, this is a superabundant and sparring piece of shards and fizzing fragments in which the mnemonic narrator adopts a succession of masks displaying varying degrees of Jewish assimilation, ranging from a conservative student at the Ecole Normale Superieure to a trader of middle-class French girls as whores to Brazil.
His is a vile persona but a Promethean voice, as he casts himself as both a Jew and a collaborator, a Nazi and an individualist, ‘‘a militarist Jew like Capitaine Dreyfus-Stroheim’’, a ‘‘selfloathing Jew like Simone Weil-Celine’’, ‘‘an eminent Jew in the mould of Proust-Daniel Halevy-Maurois’’, a ‘‘collaborationist Jew, a bookish Jew, a bucolic Jewish … a snobbish Jew’’. He is all these things and in sentences teeming with precocious aesthetic energy Modiano creates an incendiary mash-up that combines the chameleonic refuges of the European Jew with the neurotic tyranny of anti-Semites. It is a pyrotechnic display, pent-up, mercurial, and no doubt influenced by his early mentor and OuLiPo founder Raymond Queneau.
But the book is not just virtuosic, it detonates a whole era. Like the cobblestones hurled by the students of 1968 around the Sorbonne, La Place de l’Etoile smashes through the respectable defences and composed edifices of the postwar cultural rebuild. Such is the luminous blaze to which it exposes an officially curated past that the rest of Modiano’s work — he has published nearly 30 novels since — now seems even more like a smoking ember than it already did.
The publication in English of La Place De l’Etoile, along with his following two novels, The Night Watch and Ring Roads, in a volume called The Occupation Trilogy, is part of the Modiano awakening that has taken place in the Anglosphere since the Nobel. The Night Watch is a far more stolid affair than La Place De l’Etoile, a dense monologue narrated by a double agent of the occupation in a Paris portrayed as a morally submerged city, underwater, sinking, drowning.
The narrator describes himself as an ‘‘informant, looter, assassin, perhaps. But no worse than the next man. I followed the crowd, nothing more’’. Night Watch shows how someone prepared to just go with the flow can find themselves drowning in a surfeit of crime and guilt. The important point here is not that the nar-
rator is amoral but that he is unconscious. Ring Roads, however, published in 1972, was Modiano’s first exploration of the father-son relationship so crucial to his work. By keeping his shady activities between 1940 and 1944 from his son, Modiano’s father left not only a moral but a narrative vacuum. In doing so he unwittingly turned that son into a unique and alchemical archivist. In Ring Roads Paris is converted again into a preternatural realm, this time ‘‘a great dark forest filled with traps’’. As with Modiano’s later masterpiece Dora Bruder the novel starts from an archival source, an old photograph of the narrator’s father drinking with friends in a provincial bar outside Paris. We scan the photograph closely before Modiano sets it in motion, extrapolating a plot and mise-en-scene in order to investigate his inheritance of survivor-shame. A small coterie publishes an anti-Semitic newspaper called C’est la Vie. The father of the young novelistnarrator is not only involved in the project but is simultaneously despised as a Jew within it.
Immersed among these noirish eidolons of the past, the action takes on the disjunctive logic of a dream and we are reeled through the viewfinder as if in search of the narrator’s spine. But when we return at the end of the plot to the plasticity of the photograph, it comes with reality’s sting. By way of contrast we are forced to confront the convenient amnesia of official renditions, and of cultural tourism, where the image of the provincial France of yesteryear is fetishised for its grainy retinal charm, commodified as a kind of historical porn disassociated from the labyrinthine truths of the war.
With formal reflexivity such as this, Modiano’s novels focus the wider communal significance of his personal archeology. The more he narrows the focus, the wider his lens becomes. The effect across his body of work is hypnotic, the novels being painstakingly braided together. He has said that he writes the same book over and over, and so he does. So too does the sun shine a subtly different light each day on the same old world.
In Modiano’s case this repetition becomes musical in its effect. He limits the stops of his instrument so as to strike a slightly different chord each time, the hints and strains overlapping and resounding, first from the inside, then from the outside; first from the obliquities of memory, then from the necessities of the heart.
If La Place de l’Etoile is brilliant anger blaring from the experimental era of the 1960s, by the time we get to Little Jewel in 2001 we find ourselves soulfully embedded among quieter and deeper reeds. By this stage Modiano’s narrator has come full circle, she is unassuming, her language clear and sparse, yet she is at sea in the same old drowning city of Paris, the same city full of claustrophobic traps, ghost-arrondissements and sudden pastoral breaches.
A trick of Modiano’s lasting popularity in France is that his books are often built on structures reminiscent of the detective novel. In Lit
tle Jewel the narrator, many years after being abandoned, catches sight of her mother in a yellow coat on the metro and sets out to track her. We travel from Chatelet to the streets of Vincennes, we search the Bois de Boulogne and the shadows around the Moulin Rouge.
Each encounter, each neon sign and garage becomes a node of significance in the author’s cartography of loss. By this we are made to feel the awful emotional vulnerability of a small girl’s abandonment, almost as if we are reading Madame Bovary from the perspective of her child. Of the Gare d’Austerlitz, where the child was dropped off by the mother so long ago, she recalls wearing a name tag around her neck for those who would collect her down the line. ‘‘Many years later,’’ she says, ‘‘I noticed that if I happened to be near the Gare d’Austerlitz I experienced an odd sensation. Everything suddenly felt colder and darker.’’
Psycho-geographical sensitivities such as this are Modiano’s speciality. In his hands Paris becomes a sensory field, a somatic city in which memory is located on the street and in the body. In this way, and in this powerful translation by Penny Hueston, Little Jewel brings us right up close to the legacy of lovelessness at the heart of Modiano’s long retrieval process.
In Paris Nocturne, published two years later in 2003, the eternal return at the core of the novels is made explicit. Here the triggering event is t a minor yet eerie car accident on the Place des Pyramides.
As the narrator begins an obsessive investigation into the circumstances and people involved in the accident we find ourselves bound again into the Modiano echo chamber. Specific ingredients recur from Little Jewel and other novels — a lost dog, the smell of ether, a phrase: the ‘‘murmur of wind through leaves’’. A seemingly innocuous event has occurred, but like a pebble in a pool the ripples begin to radiate across what, in the aftermath of the war, de Gaulle and others chose to portray as the smooth surface of things.
The ripples of Modiano’s pool, however, refuse such narcissistic reflections; instead, they overlap and interfere with each other in a way that the facile clarity of official national histories would never allow. The natural intervals between the arcs buckle and warp with sorrowful intimacy. The past and the present become the one painful but somehow beautiful contusion.
Ultimately we become aware that these novels are not just a collection of marks on a collection of pages but a metaphysical archive of a time of complex personal and collective trauma. In Modiano, the city is a mirror, each of its streets a palimpsest. We gain access to an inner life that otherwise goes undetected.
Eugene Galien-Laloue’s 1941 painting L’Arc de Triomphe, Paris, far left; occupying German soldiers salute Nazi officers at a Parisian cafe in 1940, left; French author Patrick Modiano, below left