Consummate master of mystery
‘ In June 1942,” writes Patrick Modiano at the beginning of his first book, “a German officer approaches a young man and says, ‘Excuse me, monsieur, where is the Place de l’Étoile?’ The young man gestures to the left side of his chest.” The dark play on words is that La Place de l’Étoile is a square in Paris but it is also where French Jews had to wear the yellow star.
Modiano, the 2014 Nobel Literature Laureate, was born in the suburbs of Paris in 1945. Paris and, in particular, the Nazi occupation of France have been his subjects for half a century. Usually when we think of French novels or films about Vichy France we think of the heroism of the Resistance. Modiano has a much darker subject: the grey zone of French collaboration. He is drawn to the murky worldof gangsters,informers,collabora- tors and black marketeers. The narrator of The Night Watch, the second novella in this trilogy, writes of “a shady underworld… [of] hucksters, heroin addicts, charlatans, whores who invariably come to the surface in ‘troubled times’.” This is Modiano’s world as it was the world of his father in wartime Paris.
The Occupation Trilogy isn’t really a trilogy. La Place de l’Étoile was Modiano’s first work, published in 1968 whenhewasinhis early 20s. TheNight Watch appearedin 1969 and Ring Roads was published in 1972. These were his first three published works but they are very different in style and subject matter.
La Place de l’Étoile is very unusual for Modiano. It’s a shocking, almost hysterical rant by a French, Jewish antisemite, Raphael Schlemilovitch. It is nasty, brutish and short. It’s a very knowing, literary work with references to French writers,
Patrick Modiano: fascinating Jewishandantisemiticalike,fromProust and Sartre to the notorious Jew-hater Brasillach. Schlemilovitch constantly changes his identity. Few of Modiano’s characters are sympathetic but Schlemilovitch is easily the least likeable. Physically and verbally violent, welcomed by Hitler and Eva Braun, he ends up in Freud’s consulting room in Vienna.
The Night Watch marks Modiano’s breakthrough. We are introduced to his underworld of gangsters and collaborators in wartime Paris. The young narrator is a double agent, acting for the police against the Resistance and for the Resistance against the Vichy police. Where do his true loyalties lie?
But the real change is in style. The narrative moves between a hazy, imprecise world where things are “blurred” and “fogged” to a precise world where everything is described in minute detail. Above all, there is a sense of mystery.
Ring Roads is similar. A young narrator becomes embroiled in the lives of a mysterious gang whose members move between Paris and a small village in Seine-et-Marne. Who are these men? How did they make all their money?
By the end of Ring Roads, Modianohad found his voice and was on his way to becoming one of France’s most fascinating contemporary writers.
Modiano is drawn to the murky world of gangsters, informers and collaborators
David Herman is the JC’s senior fiction reviewer