In awarding the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature to Patrick Modiano, a French novelist whose father was Jewish, did the Swedish Academy intend some kind of comment on the ongoing eruption of violent anti-Semitism on the streets of Paris and other European cities this year? It’s tempting to think so. But if there was a political gesture here, it was an ambivalent one, and one that only reinforces a longstanding European prejudice: esteem for the safely dead Jews of the Holocaust—Modiano writes about the wartime occupation of France by the Nazis—coupled with disregard for if not hostility toward contemporary Jewish life, about which he doesn’t write at all.
Critics in France and elsewhere have groused that Modiano is not an author of Nobel stature. But with such recent winners as Tomas Tranströmer, Elfriede Jellinek, and Harold Pinter, how high has the bar been set? Certainly, the best of Modiano’s work is well worth reading, and any assessment of that work should reckon with his idiosyncratic relationship to the twin themes of Jewish identity and the legacy of the French past.
The novel that launched Modiano’s career at the age of twenty-three was La Place de l’Étoile (1968). Set during the German occupation of Paris, this dark, carnivalesque satire offers an intentionally grotesque compendium of anti-Semitic motifs in French literature from Drumont to Céline. All pertain to the novel’s antihero, one Raphael Schlemilovitch, whose outsized vices would make a mockery of Jew-hatred were anti-Semites capable of being embarrassed by their own absurdities. The book was inspired in part by the experience of Modiano’s father, who survived as a black marketeer during the war, staying one step ahead of French police raids and dealing at times with the Gestapo. (Modiano’s parents—his mother was Flemish—met in 1942, and Modiano was born three years later.)
After two more novels that also focus directly on the period of the Nazi occupation, though in a gradually less surreal and violent register, Modiano settled into the kind of writing he is known for today: laconic, melancholy, mysterious. English readers are fortunate in the recent appearance of Suspended Sentences, a solidly translated, one-volume collection of three novels from the late 1980s and early 90s. Regrettably, however, these are three of Modiano’s weaker efforts. His best book, and the one I’d recommend most highly, is Dora Bruder (1997; English translation 1999).
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Aside from its others virtues, Dora Bruder is unusual in its directness. In other Modiano novels, the connection to specific events in the author’s life and the French past is abstracted and occluded, creating a pervasive yet indeterminate sense of sadness and mourning. Here, by contrast, the narrator, in trying to reconstruct the life of a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl who was listed as missing in a 1941 newspaper, learns that she was deported with her father to Auschwitz. In the course of his researches, conducted partly by combing through documents, partly by wandering the Paris streets on which she walked, the girl’s life becomes intertwined with that of the narrator/author and his father.
Modiano admits to writing essentially one book, in various iterations. All two dozen or so of his novels move among three periods of time: the present; memories of young adulthood in the 1960s, frequently in the company of drifters and petty criminals; and still earlier events, usually from the time of the war prior to Modiano’s birth in 1945. In the Paris through which the main character moves, each building, street address, and subway station seems to conjure an elusive memory of his own or another’s past. There is a post-apocalyptic feel to this Paris, depopulated yet haunted, its apartments sheltering squatters while the lawful owners are nowhere to be found.
Another fixture of the novels is the repeated use of lists—names, addresses, dates—and of the notebooks and dossiers that contain them: data that paradoxically fail to reconstruct anyone’s concrete experience. The obsession is with traces, past lives indicated only through their absence or loss. As the narrator of Du plus loin de l’oubli (1996, translated in 1998 as Out of the Dark) remarks: “If I liked, I could walk away from this table and it would all come undone; everything would disappear into emptiness. There would be nothing left but a tinplate suitcase and a few scraps of paper on which someone had scrawled names and places that no longer meant anything to anyone.”
What are we to make of all this? Is it really driven, as is frequently alleged, by the legacy of the Holocaust in France, the occupation, and the deportation of a quarter of France’s Jews to the death camps? In fact, the Jewish tragedy is not at the heart of Modiano’s work. While his father’s Jewishness figures explicitly, Modiano has never asked it to carry more significance than it can bear. Indeed, in his 2005 memoir Un Pedigree (2005), after noting his father’s Jewishness, Modiano comments: “I write ‘Jew’ without knowing what the word really meant to my father and because it was mentioned on the identity cards of the time.” According to the same book, Modiano himself was baptized in 1950 at the age of five, attended Catholic school, and was a choirboy.
Alluding to his disconnection from both of his parents, Modiano writes: “I have never felt myself a legitimate son and even less an heir.” No wonder. Neither parent seems to have taken more than an occasional interest in his existence. For months at a time, he and his younger brother were fobbed off on friends while their parents pursued their own affairs, his father in shady business dealings, his mother in an unsuccessful career as an actress. The brother, his only constant companion, died when he was eleven. Banishment followed to a series of mediocre boarding schools—glorified reformatories, in his description—from which he eventually ran away. By his late teens, his father was trying to get him drafted into the army. At twenty-one, he began work on his first novel and never saw either of his parents again.
In sum, the driving force behind Modiano’s melancholic novels is the acute sense of abandonment he felt as a child—that, and the desire for love. This is the darkness that sends him back to the war and the occupation, seeking some proximity to his evasive parents. In one episode, which he has recounted multiple times, the teenage boy is forced by his now-estranged mother to ask for money from his father, who responds by calling the police. The police take both father and son to the station so that the former can press charges against the latter.
In his retellings of this humiliation, Modiano also summons, perversely, the momentary sense of closeness, there in the police van, to his father and his father’s mysterious past. He cannot help reminding himself that this same father had seen the inside of a police van in 1942, when he was caught in a roundup as a Jew without papers. And it is just here, in the seemingly arbitrary interplay between a detail of personal autobiography and wartime French history, where the peculiar force of Modiano’s work resides. It is not that he uses either the Nazi occupation or the Shoah as a metaphor for his personal sorrow; rather, his unresolved personal sorrow becomes, subtly but compellingly, a metonymy, or partial stand-in, for France’s ambivalent relation to its sordid past.
To be sure, as the French critic Anka Muhlstein complained in the New York Review of Books (“Did Patrick Modiano Deserve It?”), Modiano is no Philip Roth. Nor is the trajectory of his writing at all adequate to the situation in Europe today. Still, one wonders: 70 years from now, will the Nobel committee see fit to bestow a prize on the writer who, with similar obliqueness, will have gestured at the disappearance of the European Jews of our own time?