Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
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Patrick Modiano. credit: Nicola Lo Calzo for The New York Times. Nov 2015
…I dress, grab my notebook and a copy of Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne, and cross over to the neighborhood café. Workers are jackhammering the street, the deafening vibrations pervade the walls of the café. Unable to write, I read, traipsing the Nocturne network -- uncertain streets, fragments of addresses, routes no longer relevant, and events that add up to a circle of nothing. I lament not writing but figure losing oneself in the energized torpor of the Modiano universe is almost like writing. You enter the skin of the narrator with his pale sense of paranoia and preoccupation with minutiae and the space around you shifts. (p 7 - Devotion)
Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel prize for literature, is a writer poorly known to English-speaking readers. Highly regarded in France -- his books always make the best seller list -- Modiano has written over 30 novels, the majority of which seek to uncover a largely forgotten world intricately bound up with the German occupation of Paris during WWII. According to the Nobel Committee, the award was made in recognition of “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.”
The Nobel committee describes Modiano’s works as follows:
“Good stories are often characterized by their exploration of universal but difficult questions, at the same time as they are grounded in everyday settings and historical events. Patrick Modiano's works center around subjects like memory, oblivion, identity, and guilt. The city of Paris plays a central role in his writing, and his stories are often based on events that occurred during the German occupation of France during World War II. At times, Patrick Modiano's stories are based on his own experience or on interviews, newspaper articles, or his own notes.”
Patrick-with-Rudy-and-Mother-Tuileries garden, Paris 1948
Copyright: Personal archives of Patrick Modiano
Copyright: Personal archives of Patrick Modiano
Modiano is the son of a Belgian actress who had little time for children. In his words, “a pretty woman with a dry heart.” He spent his early years in Belgium with his grandmother, and then moved from place to place, living with an assorted range of his mother’s friends, until he was old enough to attend boarding school. A younger brother died of leukemia. His father was of Italian-Jewish descent, and spent the war years in occupied Paris, living life on the edging, hiding his Jewish identity, even associating with members of the French Gestapo who did the bidding of the German Gestapo. He made his money selling stolen merchandise. He was arrested a number of times and came very close to being deported. Modiano and his father were not close, and on one occasion, a verbal dispute between the two ended with Modiano arrested by the police. At no time did his father explain those years during the Occupation, and this central mystery has occupied Modiano’s creative imagination ever since.
I mentioned that we would be meeting up with the writer Raymond Queneau again. Modiano was introduced to Queneau during his high school years. The novelist was a friend of his mother’s, and she asked him to help Patrick who were suffering through geometry. Queneau obliged and quickly noted the state of Modiano’s life and stayed involved. Modiano received his baccalauréat 1964. When his father summarily enrolled him classes required for those planning to attend the most prominent universities, the boy walked out. Not interested.
He started writing around this time, even had some success with songs, including one performed by the French pop singer Françoise Hardy. Queneau continued to mentor him, taking him along to writers’ gatherings at Galliard Publishing where Queneau was director of l'Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, although Modiano states that he was too terrified at the time to tell Queneau he wanted to be a writer. When Modiano was 19, he presented Queneau with a draft of a novel - La Place de l'Étoile. Queneau took him through several more drafts until the story was published in 1968 to resounding success. Queneau was Modiano’s witness at his marriage in 1970. The bride’s witness was the novelist André Malraux. The pair are still married. Queneau died in 1976 at seventy-three, four years after the death of his wife, Janine Kahn.
La Place de l'Étoile was an explosive book and won several awards. A sardonic satire of France during the Nazi occupation featuring a young and extremely wealthy French Jew who is alternately fascinated by himself and utterly contemptuous. Two small reviews:
"It was the work of an angry young man who wanted to torpedo the Gaullist myth of France as a country full of resistance fighters. It was also a son’s revenge." - Tobias Grey, Financial Times
"A young writer's provocative jeu d'esprit, it rounds up every sacred cow in French literature and politics, and mercilessly slaughters them. (...) Translator Frank Wynne captures this scattergun savagery with formidable bite. Yet this literary Molotov cocktail or chucked cobblestone belongs to its moment: 1968, not 1944." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
The reviewer is indeed correct that the novel was directed, at least in part, at Modiano’s father, containing as it did all the fantastical imaginations his son had about those Occupation years. Perhaps it was meant as a back-handed attempt to start a conversation. It backfired. The two never spoke again.
Subsequent novels are far quieter in tone, one could almost call them subdued. Most take place in Paris and remain devoted to the task of making sense of the savagery that defined the city during the years 1940 - 1944. Modiano has written novels, novellas, at least one book of short stories. Some of his work might be characterized as hybrids -- fact, fiction and experience together. Most take place in Paris, although Algeria and the French Riviera form the background for at least two.
In addition to his work in literature, Modiano wrote the screenplay of Lacombe, Lucien in 1974 with French director Louis Malle. American audiences may recall his 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. It was a controversial film because of the choices its central character, the teenager Lucien made. The review by Roger Ebert is just stunning. He gave it 4/4. Below is a link to the original trailer as well as a link to Ebert’s review.
Lacombe, Lucien Trailer
Roger Ebert Review:
So we now know why he wrote -- to uncover and I would also say to raise up, to take things that were suppressed or ignored, and reclaim their importance.
Our next question then is how he wrote. By this I mean his choice of words and the geography of his sentences and paragraphs. Are the words short or looping? The sentences punchy, or languorous, or so chock full of abstractions you need to take rest breaks? Even funny little things like punctuation produce an effect on the reader. By design. Every element is a choice, and often something labored after by a writer until he or she finds that exact tangle of language that conveys the exact thought.
Over the years of writing for ONBC I have come to the conclusion that I write best when I really know a subject. With less hesitation, and more ability to trust that I know what I am talking about, my writing is set free. So, if I can, I try to read an author before writing about an author. It’s also kind of immersive. This has been particularly true with Patti’s books -- she has introduced me to some incredible writers simply because I was obliged to follow her lead.
Cover art Paris Nocturne
In Devotion, Patti is reading Modiano’s Paris Nocturne(2003), which follows in the steps of an unidentified narrator who, as a teenager, received a minor injury while stepping in front of a car on a Paris street. It is thirty years later, and the narrator has become obsessed with finding the woman he saw in that car. Yes, because he wants to see her again, but also because something about her reminds him of a woman he knew as a boy.
From a New York Journal of Books review: “The loner narrator wanders the streets and visits the cafes of Paris trying to connect his memories and experiences. Under the influence of ether and being disoriented from the accident, the unreliable narrator attempts to link the car accident and people involved to previous events in his life such as his unreliable, corrupt father, his dog being run over, getting arrested, and feeling lost and abandoned. The narrator’s wanderings coupled with his free associations, paranoia, and belief that everything in his life is related and significant give the story a dream-like, surreal feeling.” (Balter)
In researching Paris Nocturne, I ran across another book by Modiano -- Dora Bruder -- and instantly knew that it, and not Paris Nocturne, was the book that would give me the most insight into Modiano as a writer. In part this is because Dora Bruder (1997) has been described as “the book” that got Modiano the Nobel prize.
Dora Bruder cover art
It’s a slim book -- 119 pages. The back cover provides a little introduction, “In 1988 Patrick Modiano stumbles across an ad in the personal columns of the New Year’s Eve 1941 edition of Paris-Soir: “Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, height 1 m 55, oval-shaped face, gray-brown eyes, gray sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy blue skirt, and hat, brown gym shoes.”
Like many Modiano books it is considered a hybrid -- a construction that is part biography, part autobiography, part detective novel. There are the bare threads of Dora’s life -- a Jewish girl who disappears on the streets of Paris during the Occupation. There is Modiano’s patient and obsessive tracking down of official records and time-worn photos -- it takes him four years to locate Dora’s birth certificate. There is Modiano’s own past, the faint smattering of facts he has dug out, or imagined, concerning his father’s own close escape from a fate identical to Dora’s. And finally, there is the fine net of narration that Modiano constructs to fuse a bare assemblage of facts, memories and intuition into story.
Modiano’s love of the past informs how he goes about telling his stories. He loves poring through old public records, old photos, and maps, frequenting the booths that line certain streets in Paris, heaped with old and mostly forgotten things, sort of like our second-hand and antique stores. His knowledge of an older Paris helps the reader “see” into the past.
There is a specificity in what Modiano gives us - often the exact street address, or the history of how a building or even a street evolved over time -- that brings the past alive. I got in the habit of running to the internet to learn more about a location that he was describing. Because he made me see it and I needed to understand more.
An example, Modiano writing about the archives of the Prefecture of Police:
“Now that almost sixty years have passed, these archives will gradually revel their secrets. All that remains of the building occupied by the Prefecture of Police during the Occupation is a huge spectral barracks beside the Seine. Whenever we evoke the past, it reminds us a little of the House of Usher. And we can hardly believe that this building we pass every day can be unchanged since the forties….” Modiano then evokes the dead superintendents and inspectors who hunted down people, and the ‘press-gang,’ or street police “also dead or far gone in senility” who made the arrests. While the names of those arrested, and the details behind the arrests are long gone, Modiano continues, “(b)ut there remains in the archives hundreds and hundreds of letters addressed to the Prefect of Police of the day, and to which he never replied. They have been there for over half a century, like sacks of airmail lying forgotten in the recesses of a remote hanger. Now we can read them. Those to whom they were addressed having ignored them, it is we, who were not even born at the time, who are their recipients and their guardians.” (pp 69 -70)
What follows is a page and a half of actual letters which Modiano has transcribed. Short, sorrowful, pleading requests for information about a son or a husband. Stomach churning things. At most the entire section relating the story of the Prefecture is three pages long. Modiano provides no additional historical details, no breakdown of events or personalities. But readers like me take hold of Modiano’s descriptions and convert them into memories. We also end up applying what we’ve learned to other situations. In fact I would say that you cannot read Modiano and not see the lines that connect those days to our lives now.
Modiano Wins Nobel. Photo credit: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images
Modiano’s specificity works like lights along a trail through the dark. He steps in and gives you something very concrete and then he moves on. I found the following quote from Modiano, machine-translated from French, but offering tremendous insight into what he is doing with his specifics. “I try to slip gaps of silence between the sentences. To cause an echo of vibration at the end of each of them. As in acupuncture, I sting at certain specific places for the sensation to spread. As a reader, I like more virtuosic and more oratorical styles than mine. But the risk then is to stifle the reader, to stun him. I prefer to suggest things, leaving shadows. In the cinema, the eye instinctively approaches the dark areas too see better.”
Modiano is always talking to his audience, and there is a feeling of intimacy, as though the two of you were literally walking down a street in Paris, he steering you left, then right and pointing here, and there -- recounting history of his beloved city. There is a clarity to his sentences. Straightforward yet graceful. Not a lot of description, just enough to -- like an Impressionist painting - create the sense of a time.
Perhaps you can tell I have fallen in love with this guy and his story-telling, and it’s likely I that will love any Modiano book I pick up. While each Modiano book gives us a slightly different picture -- like an individual puzzle piece does --each book also fits into a wider portrait and message. A focus best described by Modiano speaking at the Nobel prize banquet in 2014:
“Today, I get the sense that memory is much less sure of itself, engaged as it is in a constant struggle against amnesia and oblivion. This layer, this mass of oblivion that obscures everything, means we can only pick up fragments of the past, disconnected traces, fleeting and almost ungraspable human destinies….Yet it has to be the vocation of the novelist, when faced with the large blank page of oblivion, to make a few faded words visible again, like lost icebergs adrift on the surface of the ocean.”
Dora Bruder is one of the most impressive books I’ve ever read, and I completely understand why Modiano got that Nobel prize.
Nobel Prize Organization. Patrick Modiano.
Cameron, Euan. Interview - Patrick Modiano: ‘I became a prisoner of my memories of Paris’ October 31, 2015
AGNI online. Charbonneau, Jean. Patrick Modiano: Remembrance of Shadowy Things Past.
Dora Bruder (1997)
Flood, Alison. “Patrick Modiano accepts Nobel prize, confident of literature’s future. The Guardian. December 9, 2014.
Riding, Alan. Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences. New York Times Book Review. December 24, 2014.
Schwartz, Alexandra. The Unforgotten - Patrick Modiano’s mysteries. The New Yorker. October 5, 2015.
Taylor, John. Fuse Book Review: The Sad Tenderness of Patrick Modiano’s “Dora Bruder”
Wikipedia -- French entry for Patrick Modiano