Con­sum­mate mas­ter of mys­tery

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

‘ 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


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