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Nobel Prize Winner Patrick Modiano Summons the Shadow-World of Postwar French Jewry

Born by his own account of ‘the mud of the Occupation,’ the French author remains haunted, like his compatriots, by memory

Clémence Boulouque
October 20, 2014
Patrick Modiano gives a press conference in Paris, on Oct. 9, 2014, following the announcement earlier in the day of his Nobel Literature Prize.(Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)
Patrick Modiano gives a press conference in Paris, on Oct. 9, 2014, following the announcement earlier in the day of his Nobel Literature Prize.(Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (“So that you don’t get lost in the neighborhood”), Patrick Modiano’s latest novel, which came out one week before he received the Nobel Prize, opens on a quote by Stendhal: “I cannot give the reality of facts, I can only present its shadow.” Celebrated in France where the adjective “Modianesque” conveys an atmosphere of elusive presence, Modiano’s work over the course of 45 years and 29 books displays the author’s very distinct art of shadow-mapping. Yet Modiano’s entrance onto the French literary scene in 1968, at the age of 23, was hardly so quiet. His first book, La Place de l’Etoile, is a dizzying kaleidoscope made up of clamorous pastiche and fake quotes from the most vicious anti-Semitic writers such as Lucien Rebatet or Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose claims are used by the provocative narrator, Rafael Schlemilovitch.

The young deranged protagonist of La Place de l’Etoile goes back and forth between the war years and the sixties in a carnival of vociferous voices—mythomaniac and self-hating Jew, collaborator, anti-Semitic writer. Through this grandiloquent and miserable character, who comes complete with megalomaniac views on the role of Israel in the Middle East, Modiano mocks the fantasy of the powerful Jew. Incidentally, the book came out a few months after the Six Day War, when Gen. de Gaulle had referred to Israel as “an elite people, sure of themselves and domineering” during a press conference that stirred outrage.

With his hallucinatory debut and the two books that followed, also centered on the Occupation and first-person accounts of traitors or sons of collaborators, Modiano signaled a shift in the Zeitgeist and subsequent self-perception of France. La Place de l’Etoile came out a few months before Marcel Ophuls’ movie The Sorrow and the Pity, which dealt with the complex question of passivity and collaboration in the small-town of Clermont-Ferrand—a microcosm of France. Robert O. Paxton’s Vichy France was published in 1972. France had embarked on a soul-searching journey about the country’s wartime past, and Modiano’s work was a key part of the ousting of the postwar myth of a “nation of resisters” and the ushering in of an era of gray zones and elusive moral clarity.

The novelist has since then distanced himself from his youthful iconoclasm and effaced some of the most provocative statements made by his first work. In his 1998 memoir, Dora Bruder, the novelist reflected: “I wanted, in my first book, to respond to all these people whose insults had hurt me because of my father. And, on the very ground of French prose, to give them a run for their money once and for all.” Ironically, Modiano was supported by very conservative writers, such as Paul Morand, closely aligned with the authors targeted in La Place de l’Etoile. The book was awarded the Roger Nimier Prize—named after one of the members of the Hussards literary movement, which loathed Sartre and Existentialism. Modiano certainly uses and distorts Sartre’s “imaginary Jew” to the point of absurdity. He pursued his path—albeit less stridently than in his debut novel—blurring genres (fiction and autobiography) in what retrospectively appeared to be his Occupation Trilogy—La Place de l’Etoile (1968), Ronde de nuit (1970), Les boulevards de ceinture (1972). Years later, Dora Bruder, Un pedigree (his 2005 memoirs). His brilliant preface to Hélène Berr’s Journal, the diary of a young Jewish woman in occupied Paris (2008), made him revisit his motives through a more moderate and appeasing lens.

The Fitzgerald quote opening Ronde de nuit—“I had become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion”—is illuminating. To find these objects, Modiano did not have to look very far. His father, Albert, a Salonikan Jew, worked for the Otto bureau—the epicenter of the black market—alongside Jewish collaborators such as Joseph Joinovici. This entity managed by the SS was in relation with the Bonny-Laffont gang, a squad of looters and racketeers, notorious for the most inhumane torture on behalf of the Nazis. Albert owed his life in 1943 to the help of a member of the Bonny-Laffont gang. His silence and disappearance after the war led his son to write, in his memoirs: “I believe that this is a man who would have discouraged ten investigating magistrates”—a feeling he had already expressed in his second book—“And there we are condemned, orphans as we are, to sue a ghost to establish paternity.”

The knowledge of having chosen the wrong side, and the certainty of one’s own demise, appeared in Modiano’s screenplay for director Louis Malle’s 1974 masterpiece about the Occupation, Lacombe Lucien. In 1944 a young peasant in the southwest of France gets rejected by the Resistance and enters the Milice, the fiercest collaborators. Lucien falls in love with a young Jewish woman who hides with her father and he both forces himself upon her and protects them—all the while knowing that he will be shot at the Liberation. Modiano captured the war’s underworld—petty criminals, socialites, fake aristocrats, and assorted phony foreign dignitaries. Yet he conceded: “It is not out of sheer pleasure that I give their pedigree, nor from novelistic concerns since I have no imagination whatsoever. I look at the case of these dropouts, these marginals in order to find, through them, the fleeting image of my father.”

Never has Modiano tried to kill the father figure—in fact, in a striking reversal that is the signature of his first novels, it is the father who tries to throw his son under the subway in Ronde de nuit. Indifferent parents and neglected children are a thread in his work: Modiano’s parents left Patrick and his brother Rudy (who died from leukemia at 10) to the care of dubious strangers. Modiano’s mother, Antwerp-born actress Luisa Colpeyn, had come to Paris to work for the Continental, the German film company. A mismatched, soon-separated couple, they struck the novelist as people who should never have met. In fact, Modiano often claims to have been born from the “mud of the occupation”—and silently bears an unspeakable guilt. Memory never fails to haunt and hurt him.

Except for his examination of the war, Modiano has kept away from politics: The Algerian war creeps into his books through the suffocating climate of the 1960s, with foreigners trying to maintain student status and forged identities. He also escaped the Nouveau Roman: Responding to an attack by its mastermind, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Modiano retorted that Georges Simenon’s Le coup de lune had been more revolutionary than Robbe-Grillet’s own epoch-making novel, Jealousy. His pared-down style and taste for investigation indeed bring to mind Simenon’s prose in his crime novels. Yet what interests Modiano is deepening the mystery through reverie, rather than solving it.

Through a relentless accumulation of details and lists, Modiano achieves a sort of realism that is actually de-realizing; his style aims at silence and misleading transparency. Most of his characters have lackluster lives, remain nameless, unknown (Des inconnues) floating ciphers with fake identities. It is the task of the writer, he claims, to record their existence—a personal mission that is heightened in Dora Bruder. In 1988, he came across a newspaper ad from Dec. 31, 1941, about Dora, a runaway Jewish teenage girl, and spent years trying to collect traces of her life. But ultimately a deep secret is tucked in an individual’s life that resists the novelist. And this mystery is all that’s left to those killed or made to disappear.

The French Jewish novelist Georges Perec wrote in Ellis Island that “Jewishness is not a mark of belonging (…) it would rather be silence, absence, question, questioning, floating anxiety: an unquiet certainty.” His mother was sent to Auschwitz in the same convoy as Dora Bruder. In Modiano’s world, such coincidences are just another example of the misty walls of history and of interwoven destinies: a trace inscribed, archived, that awaits to be deciphered.

In Livret de famille (1977), the narrator (a novelist named Patrick in search of his French identity) visits the countryside with a Levantine uncle who tries to lecture him: “One has to be from somewhere.” Thus the narrator decides to buy a picturesque French mill in the countryside—which turns out, in a typically ironic Modiano twist, to function as a Chinese restaurant. Unable to find or fake such roots, Patrick, the narrator, concludes: “All that was left to me was to become a French writer.” In honoring Modiano, the Nobel jury has embraced a tortuously and very specifically French-Jewish itinerary of belonging.


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Clémence Boulouque, a writer and former literary critic for Le Figaro and France culture in Paris, received her doctorate in history and Jewish studies from New York University. She is currently a postdoctoral Fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Clémence Boulouque, a writer and former literary critic for Le Figaro and France culture in Paris, received her doctorate in history and Jewish studies from New York University. She is currently a postdoctoral Fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.