The prose of Patrick Modiano, this year’s Nobel prizewinner, has a distinctive French style whose directness and grammatical limpidity by no means exclude semantic depth and complexity.
Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas, by Patrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti, Yale University Press, 215 pp., $16.
Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier, by Patrick Modiano, Gallimard, 148 pp., 16.90 €.
By John Taylor
In his introduction to Suspended Sentences, his welcome translation of three short novels by Patrick Modiano (b. 1945), Mark Polizzotti observes that “despite the ambiguities in his narrative strategy, Modiano’s prose style is straightforward and clear—by which I do not mean simple.”
This is right on target. This year’s Nobel prizewinner has a distinctive French style whose directness and grammatical limpidity by no means exclude semantic depth and complexity. His stories include suspenseful passages and are invariably absorbing; that is, absorbing in that they can be savored like fine complex wines appreciable from the first sip (the opening paragraphs are always engaging) and offer much to ponder as one proceeds. I hasten to add: wines that one wishes to savor again—as I am doing now in English long after having admired the French originals of Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin when they appeared respectively as Chien de printemps (1993), Remise de peine (1988), and Fleurs de ruine (1991).
Modiano’s is a highly subtle stylistic art, as opposed to a high style. His novels have a characteristic tone—what French critics call his “petite musique.” This discreet continuous melody is at once precise, melancholy, and anxiety-ridden, with a haunting resonance that emanates from nearly every sentence as the novels unfold. This resonance is not unlike the atmospheres that build up in mystery novels, the attributes of which Modiano appropriates in original ways, most notably by constructing non-linear fragmentary plots that connect up disturbingly enigmatic events. Let me insist from the onset upon these stylistic and formal qualities of his oeuvre, in light of the American articles that appeared when the Nobel Prize was announced; they were mainly concerned with how many copies of Modiano’s novels had been sold by David Godine (the publisher of three other titles by the French author, Catherine Certitude, Missing Person, and Honeymoon).
As another, indirect, means of elucidating the depth, complexity, and resonance of Modiano’s stylistic art, here are two personal encounters that I have already written about in the Michigan Quarterly Review (Summer 2009):
. . . when I paid a visit to Nathalie Sarraute at her apartment one afternoon in the spring of 1997, she spontaneously asked if I had ever read Modiano, adding that he was one of the young writers—she was ninety-seven years old at the time—whom she most admired. And on another afternoon, in 2004, this same question was raised by a ninety-four-year-old Julien Gracq.
Could it be true that Modiano’s oeuvre intrigued Sarraute, famous for her anti-autobiographical stance (at least until her memoir Childhood)? Or that Modiano’s writing was admired by the post-Surrealist Gracq who, arguably, composed the most intricate French sentences since those wrought by Marcel Proust?
Such affinities might surprise, but, upon reflection, they should not. Sarraute’s notion of “sous-conversation,” whereby what matters lies “beneath” the conversation, certainly parallels Modiano’s tendency to hint at something that stands behind an object or a scene momentarily brought into focus. It is not what is in focus that counts, but the insinuations in the blurred background. Moreover, the author of The Age of Suspicion (1956), her pioneering book that questions subjectivity and characterization, could not help but be drawn to Modiano’s intentionally sketchy characters. His characters are sketchy because the lacunary processes of recollection that he faithfully mirrors through his first-person narration prevent him, for that very reason, from presenting characters as “fully-rounded.” The gaps in his characters’ personalities or biographies are left as such, for this is how memory finds them. Verisimilitude does not dictate flesh and blood, but haziness, elusiveness, and oblivion.
And the “petite musique” of Modiano’s prose recalls Gracq’s insight, expressed in his critical work Reading Writing (1980), that certain kinds of writers sense, before they write, the totality of the work that they intend to compose. For Gracq, this totality is like a melody (“as charged with energy as it is impossible to decompose”) which the writer intimates and for which he must seek the “instrument”—the book. Gracq rarely wrote about contemporary writers, but he did pen a passage about Modiano. It can be found on another page of Reading Writing, where he praises the descriptions and atmosphere of Villa Triste (1975). I have no idea whether Modiano first conceives his novels as totalities, or builds his narratives in fragmentary fashion as his manuscript progresses, but this impression of a melodious whole ultimately predominates.
I’ve mentioned this Sarraute-Gracq-Modiano constellation to suggest why it is insufficient, as I have read here and there in English-language reports, to see Modiano as merely representing a “turn,” beginning in the 1970s, toward simpler, more realistic storytelling forms in French literature.
It is true that, with respect to the American tradition of literary realism, Modiano’s evocations can also seem purely factual; but they are—essentially—evocations, as opposed to objective descriptions. Facts from the real world shine forth in his sentences, yet these facts have been filtered through dreaming, musing, especially recollection, or even hallucination. The particular resonance or aura given off by facts in Modiano’s writing originates in and remains linked to this filtering process. The facts are not “out there” in the real world, in all their matter-of-factness; they are instead intimately attached to, and constantly point to, the very processes of spontaneous or intentional remembering. Consider details such as the “high wall,” the name “Institut des Sourds-Muets” (the Institute of the Deaf and Dumb), the “dead leaves” or the “burned pages” of the ancient Greek-French “Gaffiot dictionary” in the opening passage, set in Paris, of Flowers of Ruin:
That Sunday evening in November, I was on Rue de l’Abbé-de-L’Épée. I was skirting the high wall around the Institut des Sourds-Muets. To the left rises the bell tower of the church of Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas. I could still recall a café at the corner of Rue Saint-Jacques, where I used to go after taking in a film at the Studio des Ursulines.
On the sidewalk, dead leaves. Or burned pages from an old Gaffiot dictionary. . .
From the outset, the remembering is double. The narrator recalls a Sunday evening set in the past and remembers that, on that specific Sunday evening, he was thinking back on a café that he used to frequent at a still earlier point in the past.
As this novel develops, memories are superposed upon memories. All of Modiano’s novels proceed like this. Sometimes the chronological layers remain distinct for a while, but only for a while. In his novels, the seemingly autobiographical narrators—who are sometimes even called Patrick or the diminutive Patoche—typically depart in quest of something troubling about the past, especially about their parents’ past. The narrators hope to recover this past, to establish the step-by-step progression of events.
Yet this Proustian aspiration to recover vanished time must fail. Rumors, coincidences, chance discoveries, and random clues stimulate and increasingly perturb the narrator during his investigation, but they remain too vague to solve the mystery; or they blend with other finds, intuitions, and traces until all distinctions blur. He cannot find the thread leading out of the labyrinth of fragmentary memories. Sometimes, however, he glimpses the thread. In Flowers of Ruin, the narrator wonders:
Behind me, the jukebox was playing an Italian song. The stench of burned tires floated in the air. A girl was walking under the leaves of the trees along Boulevard Jourdan. Her blond bangs, cheekbones, and green dress were the only note of freshness on that early August afternoon. Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun?
Such perceptions, when the narrator spots what “simplicity” might consist of, inevitably create poignant moments in the storytelling.
It can be said that the narrator speaks or writes in the present about the past, about these crumbling (superposed or intersecting) layers of the past. It is therefore the presence of things past in his mind (and body) that it is painfully at stake for him. In Flowers of Ruin (but in Suspended Sentences as well, not to mention his most recent French book, Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier), Modiano alludes to how deeply troubling riddles from the past, and his attempts to solve them, incited him to write in the first place:
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 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.
In Modiano’s oeuvre, such enigmas nearly always relate to the German Occupation and the deportation of Jews to the extermination camps. Sometimes the connections to the gruesome events of this period are embodied in a character who is not from the narrator’s own family. This is true of the photographer Francis Jansen, the main character of Afterimage. The present of this novel is 1964. Jansen has lost two dear friends, Colette Laurent and the (real life) photographer Robert Capa. With this “void in his life,” he is now searching for “silence.”
Further on in the book, the reader learns that Jansen had been detained in the Drancy transit camp during the Occupation. He would have been deported to an extermination camp, but he was eventually freed by the Italian consulate because he was an Italian citizen. While the narrator is leafing through an album of Jansen’s photographs, called Sun and Snow, he reflects:
As I turned the pages, I felt more and more what Jansen had been trying to communicate, and what he’d gently challenged me to suggest with the word silence. The first two images in the book bore the same caption: At number 140. They depicted one of those clusters of buildings on the outskirts of Paris on a summer day. [. . .] Jansen had told me that a friend his age had lived there, someone he’d known in the Drancy transit camp. When the Italian consulate had Jansen released, the friend had asked him to go to that address to let his relatives and girlfriend know how he was doing. Jansen had gone to number 140, but he’d found none of the people his friend had mentioned. He’d gone back after the Liberation, in the spring of 1945. In vain.
Such a passage is typical of Modiano who, moreover, shows time and again how the Shoah continues to haunt people who, like him, were born after the war. In the most directly autobiographical of his narratives, Livret de famille (1977), the title of which refers to the official family record book that French citizens receive from the town hall, Modiano claims that his “memory preceded [his] birth.” Recalling his thoughts at the age of twenty, he adds (at the age of thirty-two): “I was sure [. . .] I had lived in Paris during the Occupation because I could recall certain people . . . and certain infinitesimal, troubling details that no history book had ever mentioned.” He alludes to his impression of being “the last survivor of a vanished world, a ghost among ghosts.”
But even apparently fictional characters such as Jansen, who seem separate from Modiano’s real life, are intimately related to it. Born in 1945, the novelist barely knew his parents. His mother was the Flemish-Belgian actress Louisa Colpeyn, who was often on tour, and his father, Albert Modiano, was an Italian Jew who became involved in shady dealings in Paris during the Occupation and who, subsequently, was always away on business trips. Allusions in Modiano’s novels reveal that his father, as a Jew, was also once arrested by the French police and held in Drancy, from which he would have been deported to the extermination camps had not a member of the “gang from the Rue Lauriston” (Frenchmen who collaborated with the Gestapo and trafficked in the black market) managed to get him liberated. At least in this respect, Jansen is a fictional stand-in character for Modiano’s father. But not in all respects.
Not surprisingly in the writing of such an author, who was also the scriptwriter for Louis Malle’s film Lacombe Lucien (1974), no clear and distinct father figure can be discerned in his oeuvre as a whole. Nor does the same clear and distinct “autobiographical” narrator appear in each new book. Polizzotti rightly points out that Modiano’s novels are fictions, “however closely their strands might be woven from Modiano’s own past.” Modiano has himself characterized his novels as “a kind of autobiography, but one that is dreamed-up or imaginary. Even the photographs of my parents have become portraits of imaginary characters. Only my brother [who died from leukemia at the age of ten], my wife, and my daughters are real.” In regard to other characters in his novels, he adds: “I used their shadows and especially their names because of the sound; for me, they were nothing more than musical notes.” Once again, that “petite musique.”
Unsettling homonyms also enter into the tales, creating ghost-like Doppelgängers. In Afterimage, the narrator comes across a note in Italian, written by Jansen, about (apparently) another “Jansen Francis, nato a Herenthals in Belgio il 25 aprile 1917. Arrestato a Roma. Detenuto a Roma, Fossoli campo. Deportato da Fossoli il 26 giugno 1944. Deceduto in luogo e data ignoti.” Could it be that the photographer Francis Jansen is not Francis Jansen?
Typified by the fate of this Italian man with a French first name and a Flemish last name who was deported and then died—was presumably exterminated—in an unknown place, sordid events from the Second World War often make up Modiano’s subject matter. He returns to them in nearly every novel, but they are characteristically alluded to only in passing, never graphically described. They are ominously lurking in the margins. His writing originates in the necessity of coming to terms with such events and with the possible roles that in particular his father, despite his Jewish origins, might have played during the Occupation. But so many traces have vanished, not to mention people, especially the author’s father (who also died and was buried in a place unknown to the author). In Flowers of Ruin, the narrator admits:
Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed.
When the urge to write arose in Modiano, around the age of twenty, he has only bits and pieces of this obscure family past at his disposal. Sometimes the remnants of the Occupation or of his childhood that tantalize and torment him are mere objects. They become telltale leitmotifs in his novels. One example is the cigarette case given to the narrator (in Suspended Sentences) by Annie F., when he was a boy. Annie F.—who becomes Annie Astrand in the new French novel, which covers the same autobiographical territory as Suspended Sentences, but from different angles—is a young woman who takes care of him and his brother while their parents are away (always for a long time and without having left word about when they might return). Annie is also involved in the underworld, although it is unclear exactly how. Prostitution? Drugs? Burglaries and trafficking in stolen goods? In any event, she must eventually try to escape over the border into Italy. In Afterimage, the troubling object is a ticket from an automatic scales that reminds the narrator of how his father would take him to the Café de la Paix in the years following the war:
I stared fixedly at the pink ticket as if it were the last object capable of attesting to and reassuring me of my identity, but the ticket only increased my malaise. It called to mind a part of my life so distant that I could barely relate it to the present. I ended up wondering if I was really the child who used to come here with his father.
Such “minuscule details,” as Modiano puts it in his latest book, Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier, provoke in him “a feeling of loss and anguish until he is able to link them up to the whole story.” They are like “the lost pieces of a puzzle.”
The title of this new book refers to an address and its accompanying note that Annie Astrand gives to the narrator, when he is a boy, “so that [he] won’t get lost in the quarter” of Paris (the ninth arrondissement) to which they have moved from the suburbs. All the while emphasizing the attachment that Annie feels for the boy, in the midst of her unspecified illicit activities, Modiano proves himself once again to be the great evoker of the non-touristic districts and outlying suburbs of the French capital. As always in his books, specific addresses and telephone numbers enter into the narrator’s quest, this time for truths about Annie’s past and, once again, about his parents’ past. Implicit to the story is Annie’s probable arrest and imprisonment at the end of the narrator’s childhood; she disappears for a considerable time from his life. He becomes a novelist. But amid the narrator’s recollections, which run over several decades, we learn that she unexpectedly resurfaced when his first book was published.
With Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier, I also must go on a quest. I have just experienced a Modiano-like coincidence. His first novel is titled La Place de l’Étoile (1968), which refers to the vast square at the Arc de Triomphe but which also recalls the yellow star that Jews, during the Occupation, were forced to wear. In Dora Bruder (1997), his non-fictional account of his search to find out how a Jewish girl named Dora Bruder had vanished during the Occupation, Modiano explains how he simultaneously learned that the poet Robert Desnos, who died in Dachau the year that he was born, had written a little-known play called La Place de l’Étoile (1929). While Modiano was writing his first novel, he was unaware of this. In this new novel, his narrator, whose name is Jean Daragane, has written a first novel titled Le Noir de l’été, “The Black of Summer.” By the way, Modiano’s given name is Jean Patrick Modiano.
Before reading Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier and beginning to work on this article, I had to finish the translation manuscript for a forthcoming “Selected Poetry and Poetic Prose” by the Swiss poet Pierre Chappuis (b. 1930). Alongside me right now, as I am typing the last sentences of this review, is one of the small volumes that I translated for that project. Elegantly printed and published by the Éditions La Dogana in 2002, this volume is called Le Noir de l’été. “Present and past merge,” writes Modiano, “which is natural since they [are] separated by a mere cellophane wall.”
John Taylor’s early articles about Patrick Modiano were reprinted as a single essay in the first volume (2004) of his three-volume collection, Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction); and an essay devoted to both Modiano and the other recent French Nobel prizewinner, J.M.G. Le Clézio, appeared in the third volume (2011). Transaction has just published Taylor’s A Little Tour through European Poetry. His most recent book of short prose is If Night is Falling (Bitter Oleander Press).