I was very happy that Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature. Modiano’s novels were among the first I read when I came to France seventeen years ago, and for a long time they were the only books I read in French.
I remember going into a second-hand bookshop near the Censier metro station not far from the Sorbonne-nouvelle, one summer morning. I was looking for Modiano’s book, Rue des boutiques obscures (published in English as Missing Person). The young man who ran the bookshop couldn’t find it, and after climbing up a ladder in the back of the shop and searching among the stacks piled to the ceiling, he had to come back empty-handed and admit he didn’t have a copy in stock. He was terribly apologetic and to make up for my disappointment gave me a bookmark. I was astonished that he should go to so much trouble over so little. It was a typical Modiano scene – quiet Parisian streets early in the morning, a chance encounter that seems meaningless but sticks in the memory and keeps coming back, as if it needs some explaining. Over the years I continued to read Modiano’s novels, usually bought at the station when I was looking for something to pass the time on the Paris-Rouen train. I was always happy to be transported back to the shady nightspots of occupied Paris. I was fascinated and repulsed by the ambiguous and compromised characters that dabbled in the black market and lied even to themselves about what they were doing.
Some of Modiano’s themes are explained in his autobiographical work Un Pedigree, though his early experiences are echoed in most of his novels at some level. Modiano was born in 1945. His father was an Italian of Jewish extraction and his mother was a Flemish actress. Both had stayed in Paris during the Occupation, where Modiano’s father was apparently involved in black market dealings. Neither parent appeared to have much time for Patrick. His only brother died at the age of ten. Un pedigree (A pedigree) describes his childhood and adolescence, until he breaks off relations with his father at the age of twenty-one. His writing is haunted by the attempt to reconstruct people through the fragments and traces they leave behind. Modiano’s glimpses of his father are presented as a series of names and places, like the hotels where his father met business associates, train stations where his father sent him off to boarding school, cafés where he met his father briefly.
On Sundays, with my father, we used to take the 63 bus to the Bois de Boulogne. There was the lake and the pontoon where you got on board for the mini golf and the Chalet des Iles. One evening, in the wood, we were waiting to take the bus back and my father brought us into the little rue Adolphe-Yvon. He stopped before a private mansion and said: I wonder who lives there now? – as if he had known the place well. That evening, I saw him in his office looking up streets in the telephone directory. That intrigued me. A dozen or so years later, I was to learn that it was at number 6, rue Adolphe-Yvon, in a private mansion which no longer exists, that the Otto agency, the biggest black market trader in Paris, had its offices during the Occupation (I was to go back to that street in 1967 to check exactly where we had stopped with my father and it did correspond to number 6). And suddenly a smell of something rotten became mixed with the odor of the carousels and the dead leaves of the wood.
[My translation from Un Pedigree (A Pedigre), 42-43.]
Modiano’s novels are as brief and beautiful as poems. He is in no way ambivalent about his father’s activities during the Occupation, but his work is haunted by a sense of grief that things could not have been different.
— Catherine Vigier, Zeteo contributing Writer
Patrick Modiano, Missing Person, translated by Daniel Weissbort. London, Jonathan Cape, 1980. Published in US by Verba Mundi, Boston, 2005.
Patrick Modiano, Un Pedigree. Paris, Gallimard, 2005.
Patrick Modiano, Mark Polizzotti, Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas, Yale University Press. Forthcoming (November 2014).
Photo: La Croix, Paris