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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Gre­gory Day is a nov­el­ist and poet. His most re­cent novel is Ar­chi­pel­ago of Souls.

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

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