When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature, not very many people knew who he was. This was a delicious irony, if you had ever read any of his novels. Modiano’s work, when seen as a whole, is like a patchwork quilt, his books forming a coherent design, related by pattern, theme, and sometimes character, each one revolving around a fugitive, enigmatic narrator. Sometimes the narrator searches through the rare fragments of his past, trying to shed light on his personal circumstances, and sometimes it is the present that is bewildering and opaque, in which he searches for that lovely French concept a point de repère, an orientation point, an anchor, a compass direction. In both cases the same ambiance is created by the story: one of melancholy, nostalgia, an aching emptiness where there should be the bustle and roar of ordinary daily life, a sense of dislocation from others, and a quest that never ends.
I first came across Patrick Modiano when I was teaching twentieth-century French literature, some time around 2002 or 2003. The first novel I read was Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person), quintessential Modiano, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the year it was published. It is the story of Guy Roland, a private detective who is suffering from amnesia. When his amiable boss retires, Guy decides to take this opportunity to make his identity the subject of his researches. He contacts a man he knows who has a vague memory of him from the past; Paul Sonachitze takes him to meet a friend and together they ponder Guy’s oddly ageless face and their own memories. Perhaps they have seen him in a nightclub they kept, in company with a Russian named Stioppa? Guy tracks Stioppa down to a funeral and makes contact with him. Touched by his story, Stioppa gives Guy a biscuit tin containing old photos and documents. In one of the old photos Guy sees a man who maybe resembles himself a little, in the company of a woman Stioppa identifies as Gay Orlow, a Russian who emigrated to America. When Guy tries to track her down, he finds she committed suicide many years ago. But another name, another trace arises, keeping him tied to his quest. This is how his narrative will progress, a slow hopscotch from clue to clue, none of which will prove definitive, though he will tenaciously keep going.
Eventually, the pattern of his researches repeatedly circles around a single black hole. During the Occupation, Jimmy Pedro Stern (who he thinks he may have been) and his presumed girlfriend, Denise Coudreuse, retired to a chalet in the southeast of France, aiming to outwit the threat of the Nazis. They seem to have made a break for the border of Switzerland in the company of smugglers, but something must have happened, something traumatic of which Guy has no recollection, only a faint sense of unease. Denise has never been heard of since. Only one person might be able to enlighten him about this event, a friend called Freddie Howard de Luz, who shared the cabin with them. Freddie has moved to Polynesia, but when Guy arrives in Bora-Bora, Freddie has of course disappeared in his boat. The novel ends with Guy about to pursue the final clue he possesses, an address in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure in Rome where he may once have lived.
You might think that this inconclusive ending would be disappointing, but I did not find it so. Closure, an answer, the solution, would by this point have been the intolerable choice. Throughout the entire novel, Guy has been searching, until it feels that this uncertainty, the solidity of not-knowing, is precisely what defines him. And as the story wends its way through a fragmentary archive of papers, postcards and old photos, the reader understands how little such material could ever say about a person. If Guy even knew his real name for sure, what would this tell him about himself? The most audacious conceit of the novel is to pit an urgent quest for identity alongside a dawning realisation on the part of the reader (never the narrator, alas) that there is no single formulation that could define and describe a person, no one event, no one friend, no one piece of information, that could tell us what we truly need to know about ourselves. Collective memory turns out to be the great repository of our lives, and yet it is never more than patchy and discontinuous, little more than a reflection of ourselves looking back.
At the time of reading this novel, I had never been more overworked or more stressed. I had a young child and a highly demanding job and it seemed to me that I was living multiple and incompatible lives. I found this novel unusually soothing. Guy’s world was so serenely empty, rarely containing more than one person at a time alongside himself. The places he visited—restaurants, manor houses, apartment blocks, rural railway stations—were always empty or abandoned. He was dislocated, for sure, but, considered from another perspective, he was free. In the way that reading a book can provide a fantasy environment inhabitable for the duration of a story, a sort of holiday destination for the mind, Modiano provided me with a refreshing void. I felt a rush of hopefulness that the networks of love and responsibility that bound me might one day fall away, leaving no trace. It was so peaceful, this untethered existence in a barren place, from which the whole of a life might be seen if one could climb high enough into the depleted air.
Naturally, this was not what I taught the students when we read Modiano together. We spoke about the more obvious themes of memory and identity and trauma. But when I reread this novel, beginning to think about writing this article, those were not the themes that touched me still. Twelve years after that first encounter with Rue des boutiques obscures, my life had changed beyond recognition. I had left the university, my son had grown and moved away, I now worked every day alone. I had in fact moved into the position that Modiano’s narrators occupied, often obliged to look back over my own past and try to make some sense of my memories. This time I identified with the melancholy and the nostalgia in the writing. I felt within my body the perplexity of missing a past that had been so intense, so urgent, so overwhelming. It is the strangest feeling to look back on times of passionate engagement and find the old emotions worn so thin and threadbare. What odd creatures we are that we can lose the best and worst of ourselves with equal disregard, no matter how hard we try to cling on.
This was the experience that reading Modiano offered me: a game of two halves, each so different to the other as to be unreconcilable. Yet that stretch of time in between my readings seems crucial to understanding Modiano as a writer. The fracture that runs between the present and the past lies at the origin of all his novels. For Modiano’s formative experiences came from a time that he had not lived through himself, but for which he would vicariously search across his books: the dark and troubled era of the Occupation in France during the Second World War.
Born in 1945, Patrick Modiano was the son of a Jewish businessman of distinctly shady transactions and a Flemish bit-part actress. Neither had any interest in being a parent or was able to show any kind of affection. Patrick and his younger brother, Rudy, were shuttled between caretakers and friends when small, and then sent to boarding schools, even when the parents were living less than a hundred meters away. His mother was a ‘pretty girl with an arid heart’, whose emotional crimes Modiano couldn’t even bring himself to enumerate in his brief memoir, Pedigree. The admission that he felt ‘the childish urge to set down in black and white just what she put me through, with her insensitivity and heartlessness,’ is immediately countered by the assertion that he will ‘keep it to myself. And I forgive her. It’s all so distant now….’ Distance becomes the key note of Modiano’s account of his early life; the death of his younger brother aged nine is recounted in a paragraph, entirely without specific details. But it seems evident that it is not a lack of emotion that fuels his brevity, more the sense of skimming narrative stones over pools of memory that have the quality of molten lava. ‘It’s not my fault if the words jumble together’, he writes. ‘I have to move quickly, before I lose heart.’
His father warrants more attention in the memoir. Alberto Modiano survived the Occupation, which resulted in nearly 76,000 Jews being deported from France to the German death camps, from whence a mere 2,500 returned alive. Between 1940 and 1944, his father lived in permanent danger. He found a security of sorts in underground collaboration work, becoming a black marketeer and engaging the patronage of a group of morally deplorable demimondains. Modiano believed that his father was on the outskirts of the notorious rue Lauriston gang, also known as the Bonny-Lafont gang. Henri Lafont began his life of petty crime aged 17 and used the confusion of the French exode to escape from prison. Aided by a number of spies for the German army and a handful of military men whose speciality was punishment, he let it be known to the German powers that he could provide information and goods that could not be obtained legitimately, and even conduct kidnappings and assassinations if need be. When Lafont teamed up with corrupt French police inspector Pierre Bonny, his black market business took off in ways that blurred the distinction between policing and crime. The Bonny-Lafont gang represented the most shameful element of the Occupation, the sort of organization that arose out of the vortex of normalized brutality and petty crime, and that sucked in the poor and the vulnerable alongside the immoral and the violent.
Modiano clearly longed to have some genuine insight into his father’s emotional life during the Occupation. But his father was a ruined man by the time he knew him, a man who held him at arm’s length, explained nothing, and wrote terrible letters of accusation and reproach as his only contact with a son abandoned in unsavoury boarding schools. ‘He never told me what he had felt, deep inside, in Paris during that period’, Modiano wrote in his memoir. ‘Fear? The strange sensation of being hunted simply because someone had classified him as a specific type of prey, when he himself didn’t really know what he was?’ To understand the emotions that motivated him would justify Modiano’s compassion and encourage a fantasy of reconciliation. But Modiano would never know whether his father fell into crime because he had no other recourse or because it suited him as well as anything else.
In 1968 at the precocious age of 22, Modiano burst onto the French literary scene with his first novel, La Place de l’étoile, which won him both the Prix Fénéon and the Prix Roger-Nimier. It was the wildly picaresque story of Rafael Schlemilovitch, a French Jew born at the end of the war, though seemingly with the capacity for time travel. The narrative hops and skips frenetically through the history of anti-Semitism, with Rafael working in the white slave trade and then becoming a confidant of Hitler. He is tortured for collaboration and about to be executed when he wakes up on an analyst’s couch. Never again would Modiano write such a fierce and scattered novel, and that was just as well. By his second novel, La Ronde de nuit (The Night Watch), his focus had narrowed in ways that added intrinsic power to his narrative. This novel employed stream of consciousness to depict the schizophrenic life of a young man who is working as a double agent for both the French Gestapo and the Resistance. It has a nightmarish tone as the narrator sinks into hopeless confusion over his identity, torn as he is between the conflicting demands of the groups he works for, either of whom will denounce and execute him should he fail in carrying out their demands. The novel could be read from one perspective as a loose dramatisation of the Bonny-Lafont gang, and it contains a large selection of repulsive characters, many of whom carry the real names of people his father had known.
By his third novel, Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads), published in 1972, Modiano’s intent to merge himself with the fantasized place of his father in history becomes clear and is used as a masterful narrative conceit. The novel opens with the description of a photograph: three men in a bar, one of whom is the narrator’s father. As the narrator sinks his gaze into the photograph so the frame falls away and we enter the scene with him. The narrator is a young man attempting to have a relationship with a father he barely knows; in fact, the most memorable event they shared was his father’s failed attempt to push him under a metro train. Still, the son is determined to create some sort of intimacy, and in order to get closer to him, he infiltrates the ring of collaborators and black marketeers with whom his father is working, though he keeps his filial association secret. As the narrator gets closer to his father, the ambivalence of his feelings of love and hatred become stark. He begins to realise how pitiful and impotent the man is, how desperately tenuous his hold on security, how little respect he has for him. And at the same time, the things the narrator must do and the people he must associate with sicken him ever more.
Plunging into an atmosphere that sapped me mentally and physically; putting up with the company of these sickening people; lying in wait for days on end, never weakening. And all for the tawdry mirage I now saw before me. But I will hound you to the bitter end. You interest me, ‘papa.’ One is always curious to know one’s family background.
The narrator does indeed accompany his father to the bitter end. When his father tells him that he has paid for safe passage out of Paris and an escape route to Belgium, the narrator is convinced it is a trap. And when the two of them go to meet their contact, they are arrested and put in a police van. At which point, the narrator steps neatly out of the fiction he has created, the one that began when he stepped into the photograph, reminding the reader that there was nothing of substance being recounted here, just the fantasies provoked by an evocative old snap. It’s a moment of brilliant dislocation for the reader, although it’s not as if we haven’t been warned over the course of the narrative. ‘You become interested in a man who vanished long ago’, the narrator tells us at one point. ‘You try to question the people who knew him, but their traces disappeared with him. Of his life, only vague, often contradictory rumours remain, one or two pointers. Hard evidence? A postage stamp and a fake Légion d’honneur. So all one can do is imagine.’
And imagine is what Modiano does. These three novels, published in English together as The Occupation Trilogy, are resolutely cerebral affairs, red-flagged works of fantasy that proclaim their uncertain status every step of the way. But there are touchstones that return repeatedly—the desire to plunge deep into the collaborationist experience with sympathy for the complex emotions and necessities that compel it, guilt, shame and pity for the father and the wretched filial love that seeks to absolve and rescue him. The critic Nathalie Rachlin ties these components of Modiano’s texts in with the findings of Austrian journalist Peter Sichrovsky, who interviewed the sons and daughters of Nazis for his book, Naître coupable, naître victime. Sichrovsky found that these children ‘often charged themselves with and experienced the guilt and remorse their parents never expressed or perhaps never felt about their roles in Nazi crimes.’ Sichrovsky saw it as a strategy that would whitewash the parent’s image in the imagination of the child, making that parent a viable role model again. It would seem that the sins of the fathers do indeed become the psychic burden of their offspring.
Or, at least, the legacy of the Second World War for the next generation in France and Germany was one of unresolved guilt. In the aftermath of the Occupation, emotions swung violently between extremes. The retreat of the Germany army was followed by immediate reprisals in a wave of violence against collaborators that became known as l’épuration sauvage—the brutal purge. Some statistics suggest that more French people were killed by vengeful resistance fighters than lost their lives in the war. But when de Gaulle returned to liberate Paris and head up the provisional new government, he came with a ready-made narrative to soothe the troubled French soul. De Gaulle believed in a country that had been united in solidarity against the occupying forces, and a vast resistance network that had worked tirelessly and unflinchingly throughout the war. This was the myth that salved the conscience of a nation, but produced what the historian Henry Rousso would describe as unresolved mourning for the reality of its traumatic past.
Modiano started writing about the black truth of the Occupation while it was still a taboo subject, but he wrote for a generation that was ready and willing to catch him up. Rousso argued in his book The Vichy Syndrome that in the years between 1975 and 1994 France became obsessed with reviewing the Occupation. The death of de Gaulle signalled the end of an era, and previously hidden documents were coming to light during the trials of war criminals in Germany that proved the extent of French involvement in the deportation of the Jews. Rousso declared that ‘Patrick Modiano must be placed in a category of his own, so great was his influence in those years.’ The novelist spoke directly to a powerful cultural upheaval, and spoke in the terms of bewilderment and loss that seemed so pervasive. For Modiano, it was a private compulsion to peer into the obscure regions of the past and to dredge through the ambiguous mess he found there. But it happened to coincide with the nationwide shock and vertigo that accompanied revelations of scarcely imaginable wrongdoing.
To read Modiano purely as an elucidator of great historical concerns is to miss how crucial the personal is to his work. And without that personal element, we underestimate his extraordinary technical audacity. The book that perhaps shows this the best is Dora Bruder, in which Modiano describes his attempt over many years to uncover the biography of a young Jewish girl who was deported with her father to Auschwitz and died there. Some reviews of the book in translation call it a novel, which is most certainly is not, but given its structural similarity to so many other Modiano works, it’s a forgivable error. Fiction, in Modiano’s hands, is always a sort of autobiographical fiction, and non-fiction, in the form of Dora Bruder, is somewhere between a Holocaust memoir and a highly speculative historical reconstruction. It is written in the cool reportage style that is so quintessentially his, and which in its very serenity seems able to provoke a storm of emotion in the reader. (Modiano reminds me of Edith Wharton in this way—terrible things are recounted in a voice of supine elegance, as lives are ruined for the failure to adhere to a dominant social code.) But what Modiano has to report is his usual tale of loss and fragmentation.
‘Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris-Soir dated 31 December 1941, a heading of page 3 caught my eye’, Modiano begins. It’s a petit annonce, asking for information about a 15-year-old runaway, Dora Bruder. The fact that her parents live on the Boulevard Ornano is really what captures Modiano’s imagination. For it is an area of Paris he knows well from childhood visits with his mother and adolescent dates with a girlfriend. He can conjure up a number of memories, all mundane and yet resonant for him, of his presence in this place, and as always for this author, the pull of psychogeography is immensely powerful. All Modiano’s narrators walk the streets of Paris, aware of traces of the past—their own or other people’s, it really doesn’t matter. The point is to be attentive to a kind of profound historical vibration that keeps the past enmeshed with the present. For instance, when Modiano finds himself watching a film from the 40s, he writes that: ‘I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation….[B]y some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film.’ In the immediate surroundings of his characters, the material meets the ineffable in a way that enriches their experiences. For Modiano it’s a sixth sense, one he appeals to when he declares that his memory begins before he does. ‘So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born’, he remarks at one point. The elusive Dora Bruder, whose traces he will follow with increasing tenacity as the points of contact between them multiply, becomes one of them. The traces her presence has left on Paris will be there for Modiano’s perception.
Finding out anything factual about her is painstaking and time-consuming work. It takes four years for Modiano to discover her date of birth, longer to discover when Dora and her father were deported to Auschwitz. At one point, Modiano writes a novel inspired by Dora (the brilliant Voyage de noces, or Honeymoon) in the hope he might exorcise the hold she has over him, but it doesn’t prove to be satisfying enough, and back he goes to the hard-to-access records, the fading testimonies, the endless speculation. Gradually a shadowy and incomplete portrait of Dora begins to emerge, a possibly headstrong young woman who runs away from the convent where her parents placed her in the hope of keeping her safe from the Nazis. The notion of the fugue is a very redolent one in Modiano’s writing, for he, too, was a runaway aged 15. That experience in 1960 was one of the most intense of his life:
It was the intoxication of cutting all ties at a stroke: the clean break, deliberately made, from enforced rules, boarding school, teachers, classmates; you have nothing to do with these people from now on; the break from your parents, who have never understood you, and from whom, you tell yourself, it’s useless to to expect any help; feelings of rebellion and solitude carried to flash point, taking your breath away and leaving you in a state of weightlessness. It was probably one of the few times in my life when I was truly myself and following my own bent. This ecstasy cannot last. It has no future.
The shift into the present tense is a subtle moment of coincidence between Patrick Modiano and Dora Bruder, and the extended community of runaways and self-selecting outcasts. By settling his emotional experience down over her rare facts, Modiano comes closer to Dora, breathing life back into his insufficient data. There is more: his father’s account of being picked up by the French gestapo one evening in February 1942 and narrowly avoiding detention is one of the few family stories Patrick has. Now it begins to seem likely to him that Dora might be the young woman his father mentioned, who was one of the other passengers in that same police van. ‘Perhaps I wanted the two to cross paths, my father and her, during that winter of 1942’, Modiano admits. This is, after all, the strategy that is continually deployed—Modiano’s memories bring him closer to Dora, and the thought that Dora’s life has touched his, even at a generational remove, adds depth and meaning to the paucity of Modiano’s family history.
Where lives touch across time, in Modiano’s reckoning, there is a spark, an illumination. A process of osmosis occurs, which Modiano describes with extraordinary transparency. Whilst we see it as a function of the talented writer, who reanimates a lost Jewish woman from meagre details, we are aware that he also writes as a private individual trying to make sense of his sparse personal history. For how much of our understanding relies on our ability to occupy the same emotional space as another person? This is how we identify, this is how we relate, and yet this is also how we use our imaginations and how we create fiction.
Modiano remains ever-vigilant to the limits of his knowledge. By the end of the book, Dora’s life remains mostly obscure, and he acknowleges some gladness that Dora retains ‘her secret’, an essential privacy that even the death camps could not take away. Some of the most heart-rending parts of the book are the fragments of letters of enquiry which Modiano came across in his researches, sent to the authorities in the wake of other disappearances. Painfully polite and carefully worded, family members risked their own safety by appealing for information about their missing loved ones in the black days of 1941-2, when the deportations of the Jews were at their height. Dora Bruder becomes special to us over the course of the book; we begin to think we know her and understand her story, and the impact is significant when we realise she was one among thousands. Yet such is Modiano’s ability to create concentric circles from the personal to the general to the universal, every fragment he reproduces sings with its own specific life and every lost soul touches us deeply.
Patrick Modiano’s books are essentially about loss and abandonment. They are about the difficulties we experience in creating and maintaining identities when the past is obscure and our personal history has been crushed under the bloodied wheels of History itself. In the majority of his books, he wrote unflinchingly about the legacy of the Occupation. He never wrote about war itself; the reality of battle lies the other side of the fracture in time, consigned to the distant and unknowable past. Instead, his work is a careful enumeration of the intolerable losses of war that persist for decades, and which we should perhaps consider closely in our contemporary times, when the desire for sabre-rattling seems as strong as ever and the idea of occupying forces is considered a harmless one. Not only do those caught up in war lose the people they love, and the right to satisfy hunger and protect the property they own; it is not just the desire to live without fear that is forcibly removed. War requires those who survive it to do so at the loss of their innocence, their dignity and sometimes even their humanity. And these are losses that have heavy consequences for the next generation, who must deal with the legacy of shame, guilt and humiliation. The violence of war is not the end of a story, but the breeding ground of many other kinds of violence—emotional, psychic, existential—that poison the lives of generations to come. It takes writers like Patrick Modiano to bring the reality of this alive.
Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).
- Nathalie Rachlin, ‘The Modiano Syndrome: 1968-1997’ in Paradigms of Memory; The Occupation and Other Hi/stories in the Novels of Patrick Modiano, ed by Guyot-Bender, Martine and VanderWolk, William (Peter Lang, 1998), pp. 121-135. Specific quote from p. 130.↵