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Posts from the ‘Patrick Modiano’ Category

Modiano Twice on Youth

Modiano Youth

In Young Once, we meet Louis and Odile, married with children, living comfortably in Switzerland but feeling vaguely lost. They are only thirty-five years old, yet it feels like they have nothing more to expect from life. “Could anything new happen to them at thirty-five?” One day, while downtown, Louis hears the voice of a singer on a television program drifting out from open café windows. He can’t understand the words. A warm wind starts blowing. The first drops of rain appear. And just like that we are taken back to Louis at the age of nineteen, just demobilized from the French army. Louis immediately falls in with a man who promises to get him a job in Paris. The job turns out to be sitting at a desk at nights in a garage where men deliver cars, leaving them for someone else to drive them away later. Louis never does get an explanation of what is going on, but we suspect something illicit. Louis first meets Odile in a train station and before long they begin to live together, although they fail to display much that can be considered tender or loving. They are two aimless souls who seem to prefer letting other people make decisions for them. At nineteen, the can’t envision the future. “Lying down, looking at the ceiling, [Louis] would think about the future, or in other words about nothing.”

Young Once is a case study in withholding information from the reader, a carefully modulated story in which almost everything we learn about it characters comes through innuendo, vague hints, and brief glimpses. In one of the central sections of the story, Louis and Odile are prodded into smuggling a large amount of cash out of France and into England by pretending to join a youth group. We see them being prepped on how to look innocent as they go through customs, but then Modiano jumps ahead and we next see them on the bus with the youth group, having already landed in England. We have been set up for the nervous interchange between Louis, Odile, and the customs officer, but Modiano refuses to spend time on that. Instead, he focuses on the sudden flare of jealousy that erupts when one of the students discerns that the youth leader (who is somehow involved in the smuggling and will apparently receive the money) is now more interested in Louis and Odile than in himself.

Unlike most of Modiano’s books, which flicker back and forth between several points in time, Young Once has only an after (when they are thirty-five) and a before (when they are nineteen). The book ends when Louis and Odile are once again asked to smuggle a very large sum of money out of France. Instead, they take the money and head to Switzerland.

Something – he wondered later if it was simply his youth – something that had weighed upon him until that moment broke off him, the way a piece of rock slides slowly into the sea and disappears in a spray of foam.

Originally written in 1981 under the title Une Jeunesse, Young Once has just been translated into English by Damion Searls for the New York Review Books. It’s a brilliant and devastating piece of writing.


Written twenty-six years later, in 2007, In the Cafe of Lost Youth centers around Louki and Roland, a pair of lost twenty year-olds who hang out with a group of people in the Paris of the 1950s, a group that is partly based on the circle that surrounded the French writer and thinker Guy Debord.  The book is sequentially written from the perspective of four narrators: an unnamed student who hangs out at the edges of the group, the detective hired by Louki’s husband when she walks out on him, Louki herself, and finally Roland. With each narrator we seem to learn more about the mysterious Louki, but when we are presented with a surprise twist at the end of the novel, it becomes clear that we have learned nothing at all but a few dry facts about her life. Roland, a would-be writer, is working on a paper about “Neutral Zones.” “There was a series of transitional zones in Paris, no-man’s-lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended.” Within these areas live the “absentees” ( so named after the French legal term for someone who has disappeared and been declared “dead”). Everyone in this book seems to belong to the absentees.

A reader with some knowledgeable or interest in Guy Debord’s Situationist International might be more welcoming to In the Cafe of Lost Youth (New York Review Books, 2016) than I was. I found it to be one of Modiano’s less successful novels, covering territory that is more richly presented in some of his other books. Translated by Chris Clarke.


A Pair of Threesomes from Patrick Modiano

Modiano Threesomes

After a gap of nine months or so, I returned to Patrick Modiano’s novels again. By sheer chance, I selected two books written six years apart that each involve a young man who is taken in and sheltered briefly by a couple: Honeymoon and Out of the Dark. In Honeymoon, first published in 1990, Jean B. is a Parisian documentary filmmaker who decides to disappear from the lives of his wife and his daughter and his wife’s lover. He fakes a trip to Brazil, hides out in Milan for a while, and then returns to Paris determined to live the remainder of his life in cheap hotels. In typical Modiano fashion, the narrator’s decision turns on an event that happened long ago. Eighteen years earlier, while in Milan, Jean had accidentally learned of the recent suicide of a Frenchwoman. Honeymoon is the story of the connection between Jean and the woman who committed suicide, whose name was Ingrid.

As a much younger man, Jean was hitchhiking in the south of France, heading to St. Tropez, when a couple pick him up in their car  – Ingrid and Rigaud, who is apparently her husband. It is early 1942 and France is under German occupation. The couple turn out to be kind and generous to Jean, but they are clearly hiding something. They invite him to stay with them at the beach-side house they seem to have borrowed, but they mysteriously turn off the lights and hide whenever neighbors come near. Gradually, we learn more about the two, especially Irene, who is Austrian and Jewish. She had been living in Paris with her father before moving in with Rigaud. As the deportation of Jews intensifies, Rigaud offers to take her south, where it is somewhat safer. They drive to the Côte d’Azur, pretending to be on honeymoon, when they encounter Jean.

Jean stays with Ingrid and Rigaud for what seems to be a period of months before he finally continues on his own way. But he can never shake Irene from his mind. In the post-war years and even during his own marriage, he tries to discover everything he can about the paths that Irene and Rigaud took after the war ended. Something about Irene and her story has touched him deeply, even though it appears that Jean and Irene had never been lovers themselves. “All those waves of tenderness that she communicated to me through the simple contact of her arm and the pale blue look she gave me from time to time. I didn’t know that such things could happen in life.”

At the end of the book, through a series of events too complicated to outline quickly, Jean manages to take up residence in an old Paris apartment where Irene and Riguad once lived briefly, content to recall his brief encounter with Irene and to live his life in the shadow of Irene’s past. He acquires a bicycle and starts to visit the places that were once part of her daily life. “One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs and disappears. But in the end it returns in force…”

In so many of Modiano’s novels, it is the brief glimpse, the chance encounter, or an old newspaper clipping that grasps the heart and soul of his main characters in a manner that is out of proportion to the rest of their lives, as if these ephemeral events have an uncanny way of tapping into the very core of whatever makes them human and vulnerable. In Honeymoon, the real honeymoon seems to occur when Jean finally gives in and decides to live alone, with only his memories of Irene.

In Out of the Dark the nameless narrator tells us about a series of events that occurred thirty years earlier, when he met an oddly unhappy couple Gérard and Jacqueline, who appear to live on Gérard’s occasional winnings in French casinos. Jacqueline and the narrator begin an affair and she convinces him to run away from Gérard with her. They head to London where they hope to gather up enough money to disappear together in Majorca. In London, they fall in with another quarrelsome, unpleasant couple. After a couple of months, the affair between the narrator and Jacqueline is over and the narrator doesn’t see Jacqueline again – until one day thirty years later in Paris he spots her by accident. She is married and has inexplicably changed her name to Thérèse. They have a couple of brief conversations and then she disappears again.

Honeymoon is a deeply affecting and mysterious book.  Out of the Dark, on the other hand, is the weakest of Modiano’s books that I have read to date. The characters are aimless and mostly unpleasant, the narrator’s motivations are insignificant, and nothing about the narrator’s youth convincingly resonates in the person he becomes thirty years later. Modiano’s prose seems listless and uninspired.

It’s always tempting to summarize the plots of Modiano’s novels, because he buries the emotional impact of his books in the discovery of small details, in the close juxtaposition of different time frames, and in the carefully placed rhythms of loss and memory. But in reality, many key aspects of Modiano’s plots are often so artificial and so tenuous that an accurate plot summary would make his books seem implausible. In Honeymoon, for example, the likelihood of Jean locating and renting the same apartment in which Ingrid and Rigaud lived many years earlier – not to mention the fact that some of their possessions are still in the closet – is far-fetched, to say the least. And in Out of the Dark, after the narrator spots (and somehow immediately recognizes) Jacqueline after a separation of thirty years, he follows her to an apartment building, gains access to a party happening there (on the weak theory that she is likely going to that party), and manages to confront her. For whatever reason, I realize I have come to accept these improbabilities which seem to occur in practically every novel by Modiano. It has something to do with the fact that Modiano’s predictably brief books are little masterpieces of suggestion. Decades pass in a sentence, scenes are sketched with the merest of details. What matters are are the vague, mostly inarticulate emotions that shape people’s lives.

Patrick Modiano. Honeymoon. Boston: David Godine, 1995. Translated from Voyage de Noces (1990) by Barbara Wright.

Patrick Modian. Out of the Dark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Translated from Du plus loin de l’oubli (1995) by Jordan Stump.


Detective, Find Thyself


I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop…

Published in French as Rue des Boutiques Obscures in 1978, Missing Person is a relatively early novel by Patrick Modiano, whose first book dates to 1968. Its narrator is a detective working for the Hutte Agency and we quickly learn that he himself is, in fact, the “missing person” of the title. “Hutte, as usual, sat at his massive desk, but with his coat on, so that there was really an air of departure about it. I sat opposite him, in the leather armchair we kept for clients.”

Some ten years earlier, the narrator “was struck by amnesia” and emerged as “Guy Roland,” a man with no past. But Hutte is now retiring and closing the Agency. The time has come, the narrator decides, to research his own identity, to try to flesh out his meager silhouette. Following vague memories and the slimmest of clues, the narrator starts to work backward into what he hopes is his own past. At the very heart of the book is the question – unanswered, I think – why does the narrator so desperately want to know his own history? Missing Person never lingers over this question, yet the absence of a history nags at him on nearly every page. “If I closed my eyes, I thought, if I concentrated, placing my fingers against my forehead, perhaps I could manage to hear, far off, the slap of sandals on the stairs.” He can’t even decide if the images that float through his mind are memories or illusions that he has conjured up to serve as memories.

Modiano has been quoted as saying “I always have the impression that I write the same book, which means it’s already 45 years that I’ve been writing the same book.” Like most of Modiano’s novels, Missing Person is brief – a mere 165 pages – and is focused on “the kind [of people] that leave the merest blur behind them.”

…traceless beings…who spring up out of nothing one fine day and return there, having sparked a little. Beauty queens. Gigolos. Butterflies. Most of them, even when alive, had no more substance than steam which will never condense.

In this case, however, the blur that the narrator pursues is his own. In the end, the narrator’s missing identity is simply an itch that he cannot help but scratch at. On several occasions, he is so anxious to adopt the new identity he thinks he has found for himself that he leaps into it as if it were a new suit of clothes, only to be forced to abandon it when he learns that his detective work has, in fact, led him astray. “I no longer remember if, that evening, my name was Jimmy or Pedro, Stern or McEvoy.”

Perhaps because it is one of Modiano’s early books, it doesn’t seem quite as stripped to the bone as the later books. Secondary characters are more fully fleshed out and scenes are a bit more thoroughly described. Furthermore – Mon dieu! – the narrator even leaves France to visit the French Polynesian Islands in search of his past, if only for six sketchy pages.

I believe that the entrance-halls of buildings still retain the echo of footsteps of those who used to cross them and who have since vanished.

One day, he hopes, the footsteps he hears may be his own.


Modiano’s Dora Bruder- With & Without Images


It takes time for what has been erased to resurface. Traces survive in registers, and nobody knows where these registers are hidden, and who has custody of them, and whether or not these custodians are willing to let you see them. Or perhaps they have quite simply forgotten that these registers exist.

All it takes is a little patience.

…But I am a patient man. I can wait for hours in the rain…

That last little touch – “I can wait for hours in the rain” – is so typically Modiano. Here, in Dora Bruder, Modiano’s narrator is trying to assure us that he is persistent in the face of obstacles, that he is patient. And the proof he offers? “I can wait hours in the rain…” Quirky and understated.

The interrelationship between memory, time, and place is central to the books of Patrick Modiano. In the opening sentence of Dora Bruder, he quickly alludes to three separate time periods.

Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris-Soir dated 31 December 1941, a heading on page 3 caught my eye: “From Day to Day.”

The first two time periods are not specified. Implicitly we have the “now,” the day on which the narrator begins writing this story, followed by his reference to a time eight years earlier when he happened to read a old newspaper. The third date is concrete: 31 December 1941, the actual date of the newspaper in which he read an announcement about a missing 15-year old girl named Dora Bruder. For the remaining pages of this opening chapter, the narrator spins out a series of highly personal memories from different years and different seasons, all of which are related only because they represent his very personal associations with the street where Dora Bruder lived when she went missing. None of these memories are particularly important; rather, they are exactly the kind of irrelevant moments that most memories consist of: stepping off a bus, passing a street photographer, witnessing protestors during the Algerian War, visiting a girlfriend. The narrator recalls two cafes, a jukebox, a Jaguar automobile, and a cinema. Only at the very end of the chapter does the narrator subtly return to the subject of the missing girl. The utter ordinariness of the narrator’s memories underscores the deliberately quiet tragedy of a young girl gone missing at the height of the German occupation of Paris in the midst of World War II. Terrible things happen and we remember trivial details. And yet, these mundane personal memories serve as the bridges that allow the narrator’s imagination to cross over the chasm that separates him from other people, especially someone like Dora Bruder, a woman he never met.

Dora Bruder was originally published in French in 1997.When it was first translated into English it came out under the somewhat misleading title of Search Warrant, but it has now been reissued in the same translation (by Joanna Kilmartin) under its original title. Dora Bruder was born to a pair of Jewish refugees who had independently fled their homelands for Paris in the 1920s – the father came from Vienna, the mother from Budapest. On the final day of 1941, Dora Bruder failed to return to her boarding school after a brief visit to the shabby hotel room where her parents lived nearby. Something in the old newspaper article about her disappearance spikes the interest of the narrator and he sets out to discover everything he can about the girl and her parents. The narrator goes so far as to suggest that, even long before he had ever heard of Doris Bruder, “perhaps, though not fully aware of it, I was following the traces of Doris Bruder and her parents.  Already, below the surface, they were there.” Eventually, the narrator discovers Dora’s name in the register of the Drancy internment camp eight months after her disappearance. He eventually learns that Dora Bruder most likely perished in Auschwitz, as did both of her parents.

Modiano Search Warrant

One day, the narrator of Dora Bruder goes to the movies and watches a “harmless” film called Premier rendez-vous, which was produced under the Occupation. “Suddenly,” he says:

I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation – people from all walks of life, most of whom would not have survived the war. They had been taken out of themselves after having seen this film one Saturday night, their night out. While it lasted, you forgot the war and the menacing world outside. Huddled together in the dark of the cinema, you were caught up in the flow of images on the screen, and nothing more could happen to you. And, by some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film, the lighting, the voices of the actors. That is what I had sensed, thinking of Dora Bruder and faced with the ostensibly trivial images of “Premier rendez-vous.”

Modiano is drawn to “the sort of people who leave few traces.” In part it’s a way of honoring and eulogizing ordinary lives (which often turn out to be not so ordinary upon closer inspection). His narrators love the detective work involved in tracing lives from the past by studying old directories or ferreting through bureaucracies for forgotten pieces of paper, birth certificates, internment camp registers. These “people who leave few traces” are also the kind of people who are constantly labelled by others:

He was used to being put into this or that category by the authorities and accepted it without question. Unskilled laborer. Ex-Austrian. French Legionnaire. Non-suspect. Ex-serviceman. 100% disabled. Foreign statue laborer. Jew.

But just as important, I think, is the fact that these incompletely mappable lives leave plenty of room for Modiano the novelist to fill in blank spaces. When his narrators run out of facts they speculate or they turn to history. For example, in trying to discover more about the life of Dora’s father Ernest Bruder, the narrator fails to discover what happened in the five-year gap between the day he signed up for Foreign Legion duty and his eventual discharge from service in Morocco due to disability. Modiano pours into this gap a telegraphic history of France’s military activities during the Berber uprising in its colony of Morocco in the early 1920s.

The new 2015 edition of Dora Bruder from the University of California Press contains three photographs that apparently show Dora and members of her family, along with two maps of Paris neighborhoods. These images do not appear in the earlier English-language edition, nor are they in the original French publication. (Apparently the photographs also appear in Japanese translations.) What led Modiano to add the photographs and maps, which he seems to have had in his possession at the time when the book was written? There are a handful of scholarly essays online that address the question of photographs in Dora Bruder; unfortunately, most are behind paywalls. But in a 2006 lecture on Modiano given by  Harvard’s Susan Rubin Suleiman that once was (but no longer is) available online, Suleiman tells us that during the writing of Dora Bruder, Modiano was in correspondence with the scholar Serge Klarsfield, whose 1995 book Le Mémorial des enfants juifs déportés de France documented the transportation of children to internment camps. “Klarsfeld,” she says,  “provided [Modiano] with photographs of Dora and her parents as well as other information.”

In the book, Modiano’s narrator describes at some length a number of photographs of Dora and her family, several of which are not reproduced. He sticks to the visual facts – or the questions raised by the visual evidence – and never interprets or analyzes the individuals depicted. Modiano seems to repeatedly draw a clear line between facts and speculation.

A photograph of Dora, surely taken after a special school assembly. She is aged twelve or thereabouts and wears a white dress and ankle socks. She holds a book in her right hand. Her hair is crowned by a circlet of what appear to be white flowers. Her left hand rests on the edge of an enormous white cube patterned with rows of black geometric motifs, clearly a studio prop. Another photograph, taken in the same place at the same period, perhaps on the same day: the floor tiles are recognizable, as is the big white cube with black geometric motifs on which Cécile Bruder is perched. Dora stands on her left, in a high-necked dress, her left arm bent across her body so as to place her hand on her mother’s shoulder.

Dora Bruder photojpg-001

Suspended Sentences

Suspended Sentences

I sat at a sidewalk table of one of the cafés facing the Charléty stadium. I constructed all the hypotheses concerning Philippe de Pacheco, whose face I didn’t even know. I took notes. Without fully realizing it, I began writing my first book. It was neither a vocation nor a particular gift that pushed me to write, but quite simply the enigma posed by a man I had no chance of finding again, and by all those questions that would never have an answer.

So writes the narrator of Flowers of Ruin (Fleurs de Ruine), the third and final novella in Patrick Modiano’s book Suspended Sentences. After all of the hoopla over his winning the Nobel Prize for literature, I was impatient to check him out for myself. So I headed over to the great Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City to see what was in stock. At the moment, Suspended Sentences was my only option, but it turned out to be a good introduction to Patrick Modiano. I read the book compulsively for the next few hours, sucked in by Modiano’s voice and pacing.

Each of these novellas involves two or three layers of time. The narrator of Suspended Sentences (Remise de Peine), for example, tells us he is writing in 1990, but the focus of his attention is split between events that occurred in the early 1930s and the mid-1960s. In all three novellas, the narrator tries and fails to stitch together the pieces of an elusive story. Modiano’s narrators are usually bit players with obstructed views. They have strong journalistic/detective instincts, but only seem to unearth more puzzles than answers. People lie and tell contradictory stories or simply remain silent. People disappear. The evidence is inconclusive. The city of Paris is muffled in rain and fog. The only things that remain are hypotheses.

In Afterimage (Chien de Printemps), the narrator relates his brief acquaintance with Francis Jansen, a Magnum-type photographer who used to hang out with the photojournalist Robert Capa during the Second World War. Jansen reveals very little and the narrator tries to fill in the gaps with research and bits of observation. At the end of the novella, the narrator tells us what happens when Jansen tries to obtain his birth certificate.

From what I could understand, he had gone to the Belgian and Italian consulates to get a copy of his birth certificate and other documents he needed in anticipation of his departure. There had been some confusion. From Antwerp, his birthplace, they had sent the Italian consulate the records for a different Francis Jensen, and that one was dead…He no longer knew which man he was. He told me that after a certain number of years, we accept a truth that we’ve intuited but kept hidden from ourselves, out of carelessness or cowardice: a brother, a double who died in our stead on an unknown date and in an unknown place, and his shadow ends up merging with us.

In Suspended Sentences, the narrator recounts a lengthy period when his father mysteriously traveled to Brazzaville frequently and his mother was touring Algeria with a troupe of actors, causing them to deposit him and his small brother in the care of three women in a Parisian suburb – Hélène, an ex circus performer, Annie, who might be her lover, and Annie’s mother. He slowly realizes that some sort of criminal activity is taking place at the fringes of his awareness. And in Flowers of Ruin the narrator becomes obsessed with a double suicide that occurred in 1933 and with a mysterious man he met in the 1960s. The two episodes are tenuously linked to each other and, perhaps, to the narrator’s father, a man he has apparently lost track of.

Judging from the three novellas here, Modiano is more interested in the enigma of personal histories than with History with a capital H. Nevertheless, throughout each of these stories there are occasional traces of the War, internment camps, Nazi collaborators, May ’68. They lay in the path of the book like slightly raised cobblestones that one momentarily trips over before continuing on. It is not yet clear to me exactly what Modiano might be saying about the relationship between his characters and History when, for example, he places without explanation or elaboration an innocuous reference to the “Port of Austerlitz warehouses” in the midst of the paragraph quoted below. These warehouses, as we know from Sebald’s Austerlitz and other sources, were the site where the Nazis transported deportees to concentration camps and stored confiscated Jewish property.

Of all the neighborhoods on the Left Bank, the area that stretches from the Pont de Bercy to the fences around the Jardin des Plantes remains the most crepuscular for me. One arrives by night at the Gare d’Austerlitz. And night, around here, smells like wine and coal. I leave behind the train station and those dark masses along the Seine that were referred to as “Port of Austerlitz warehouses.” The automobile headlights or the flashlight illuminate a few feet of the Quai Saint-Bernard, just in front. The smells of wine and coal now mix with the scent of leaves form the botanical gardens, and I hear the cry of a peacock and the roar of a jaguar and a tiger from the zoo. The plane trees and the silence of the Halle aux Vins. I am enveloped by a cellar-like chill. Somewhere someone is rolling a barrel, and that doleful sound slowly fades into the distance. It seems that in place of the old wine market they’ve now erected tall concrete buildings, but wide as I might open my eyes in the dark, I can’t see them.

Suspended Sentences seems, at times, like the literary version of French New Wave cinema, something Modiano writes about with admiration. The emphasis in the writing here is on mood, not story line, and his charismatic, shadowy characters are usually hiding something – a criminal background, a betrayal, a false past. A pale stain of guilt pervades these pages. The title Suspended Sentences, with its double reference in English to both writing and criminal penalties, is, in fact, an inspired choice, richer than the French Remise de Peine, which is a judicial reduction in a penalty. This is from the final paragraph of Flowers of Ruin:

Later on, I’ll be called to account. I feel a certain guilt, the reason for which remains vague: a crime to which I was accomplice or witness, I couldn’t really say. And I hope this ambiguity will spare me from punishment….But sooner or later, everyone is called to account.

Patrick Modiano. Suspended Sentences. Yale University Press, 2014. Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti.