Book Review: The Sad Tenderness of Patrick Modiano’s “Dora Bruder”

Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano understands that time periods can mesh, interpenetrate, layer up, blend, and blur naturally in the mind.

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Joana Kilmartin. University of California Press, 119 pp., $19.95.


By John Taylor

Dora Bruder (1997) is an important and nearly unique entry in Patrick Modiano’s oeuvre. Except for it and another volume, Pedigree (announced for August from Yale University Press in Mark Polizzotti’s translation), the Nobel laureate’s books are fiction, however deeply they draw on the author’s postwar childhood (he was born in 1945) and his knowledge of his parents’ restless, mysterious lives during the German Occupation of France.

The opening sentence, in Joana Kilmartin’s translation, is pure Modiano: “Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris-Soir dated 31 December 1941, a heading on page 3 caught my eye.” The author reads that one Dora Bruder, age 15, has been reported missing. Intrigued by what might be implied by this appeal for information made by her parents—note the date and the girl’s Jewish name—he resolves to piece together her story. Note also that the German and Yiddish name “Bruder” means “brother.” One of the leitmotivs in Modiano’s oeuvre is his own missing brother, Rudy, who died from leukemia at the age of ten.

As often happens at the beginning of Modiano’s books, specific dates and at times entire years crisscross enigmatically in the narrator’s mind, forming unsettling coincidences that he decides to elucidate as best he can. The drafting of Dora Bruder was triggered by the Paris-Soir announcement that he had, however, read eight years beforehand; and the announcement itself goes back to the last day of the year 1941 and presages dangers lurking during the first treacherous months of 1942.

The Boulevard Ornano, likewise mentioned in the appeal, sparks additional memories. Some of them go back to Modiano’s childhood, when he would accompany his mother to the nearby Saint-Ouen flea market in the north of Paris, while others are associated with the year 1965, when he had a girlfriend in the same neighborhood. “From day to day, with the passage of time,” he admits, “perspectives become blurred, one winter merging into another. That of 1965 and that of 1942.” One of the central components of twentieth-century literary modernism has been its interest in breaking up chronological linearity; Modiano’s special insight is that time periods can mesh, interpenetrate, layer up, blend, and blur naturally in the mind. One senses no attempt to explore avant-garde experimentation in his books; his literary vision is inherently complex, his style eminently fluid, suggestive, and tantalizing.

Moreover, although Modiano’s focus on obscure strands of the past might bring Marcel Proust to mind, his methodology actually differs from that of the author of La recherche du temps perdu. He is less intent on recovering a past sensation—eating the madeleine cookie, smelling the lime leaves used for tea, admiring the hawthorn hedges, sensing the cobblestone underfoot—in all its sensual fullness, indeed in retrieving or re-experiencing “lost” or “wasted” time. Modiano evokes events that can never be recovered fully, or even partly. In his writing, details are luminous, but so—especially so—is the haze surrounding them. In addition, as in Dora Bruder, Modiano often seeks to come back into contact with facts, occurrences, or people who existed before he was born. He has a particular slant on autobiography: he gives an indication of what might have happened before he came into being and connects that speculation to his present—and to our present. Dora’s story pertains to the writer’s life, and, in turn, it pertains to our own lives.

Modiano knew nothing of Dora in 1965, when he was twenty and she had been dead for over twenty years, but the announcement in Paris-Soir provokes recollections of that year: “those long waits in the cafés at the Ornano crossroads, those unvarying itineraries [. . .] and the fleeting impressions I have retained.” Snatches of conversation come back to mind, “heard on a spring evening, beneath the trees in the Square Clignancourt, and again, in winter, on the way down to Simplon and the Boulevard Ornano.” He realizes that all these disturbingly incomplete memories from 1965 are “not simply due to chance.” “Perhaps,” he speculates, “though not yet fully aware of it, [he] was following the traces of Dora Bruder and her parents. Already, below the surface, they were there.”

The author’s investigation leads him into administrative offices, libraries, and research centers as he attempts to hunt down photos, documents, and other hints of the girl’s existence. He studies files for information about the foreign Jewish citizens of Paris—the Bruders were impoverished Austrian immigrants—who were deported, via the Drancy detention camp and train station, to the extermination camps. In his attempt to find equivalents for the atmosphere of fear and dread during the Occupation, he even rereads passages in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), notably the scene where Cosette and Jean Valjean escape a police patrol by slipping behind a wall. Yet, once again, a troubling coincidence occurs: Cosette and Jean Valjean, reports Modiano, quoting Hugo, “find themselves in ‘a sort of garden, very large and of singular appearance; one of those gloomy gardens which seem to be made to be seen in the winter and at night.’ This garden where the pair hide is that of a convent, which Victor Hugo situates precisely at number 62 Rue du Petit-Picpus, the same address as that of the Saint-Coeur-de-Marie school where Dora was a boarder.”

Modiano thus unearths bits and pieces of the doomed girl’s life in multifarious ways, ranging from documented details to intuitions, thoughtful conjectures, and literary analogies. Her adolescence likewise seems to mirror the author’s own turbulent teenage years—or, rather, vice versa. As a teen, Modiano ran away from home and sometimes led a somewhat shady existence. His relationship with his father, Albert Modiano, an Italian Jew who had trafficked in the Black Market during the Occupation, was especially upsetting and chaotic. “I remember the intensity of my feelings while I was on the run in January 1960,” explains the novelist,

an intensity such as I have seldom known. It was the intoxication of cutting all ties at a stroke: the clean break, deliberately made, from enforced rules, boarding school, teachers, classmates; you have nothing to do with these people from now on; the break from your parents, who have never understood you, and from whom, you tell yourself, it’s useless to expect any help; feelings of rebellion and solitude carried to flash point, taking your breath away and leaving you in a state of weightlessness. It was probably one of the few times in my life when I was truly myself and following my own bent. This ecstasy cannot last. It has no future. You are swiftly brought down to earth.

In January 1960, Modiano was fifteen years old, just like Dora in 1941. Following up on the coincidence, he thus ponders the possibility — supporting his speculation with a handful of suggestive facts, some of them extrapolated from a photo — that Dora was herself a rebellious teenager who initially ran away from school and her parents, in 1941, in quest of personal freedom—before, inevitably, being caught, recognized as a Jew, detained, imprisoned, deported, and sent to the gas chamber.

In the novels of two German writers who were not Nazis, Friedo Lampe’s Am Rande der Nacht (On the Edge of Night, 1933) and Felix Hartlaub’s book Von Unten Gesehen (Seen from Below, 1945), Modiano similarly finds parallels to what Dora might have experienced during the period after she had run away from the convent school on the Rue du Petit-Picpus. It would have been a shadowy existence in the twilight, indeed in a sort of twilight zone, where she probably survived on the margins of society.

Certain facts about the life of the French writer Roger Gilbert-Lecomte also come to bear, indirectly but pertinently, on her story. In 1965, Modiano went to see a doctor named Jean Puyaubert, thinking that he had pleurisy and that the physician could give him a certificate enabling him to avoid military service. He learns several years later that when Gilbert-Lecomte was exactly his age, Puyaubert had given him the same certificate. “[Gilbert-Lecomte] had dragged out his last years in Paris, under the Occupation,” writes Modiano. “In July 1942, his friend, Ruth Kronenberg, was arrested in the Free Zone, on her return from the seaside at Collioure. She was then deported in the transport of 11 September, a week before Dora Bruder.” By writing about these and a few other people (about whom just a little more is known than about Dora), Modiano helps us imagine what she might have been like. He concludes: “So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born.”

While juxtaposing these diverse narrative strands in an attempt to conjure up the true Dora, Modiano ends up paying tribute to Jean Genet, who in his book Miracle of the Rose (1946) talks about his incarceration in the Tourelles Prison. Modiano discovers that Dora was also detained there at about the same time. “Shortly after Dora Bruder’s departure from Tourelles,” he reflects, “[Genet] too had been imprisoned there, as a common criminal, and their paths may have crossed.”

Author Patrick Modiano --

Author Patrick Modiano has a particular slant on autobiography — he explores what might have happened before he came into being.

Furthermore, one of the sentences from Genet’s autobiographical novel has long haunted Modiano. He knew it by heart well before embarking on his investigation: “What that child taught me is that the true roots of Parisian slang lie in its sad tenderness.”

“This phrase evokes Dora Bruder for me so well that I feel I know her,” explains Modiano. “The children with Polish or Russian or Rumanian names who were forced to wear the yellow star, were so Parisian that they merged effortlessly into the facades, the apartment blocks, the sidewalks, the infinite shades of gray that belong to Paris alone. Like Dora Bruder, they all spoke with the Parisian accent, using a slang whose sad tenderness Jean Genet had recognized.”

It is this same “sad tenderness” that makes Dora Bruder so memorable. With a sort of benevolent persistence, Modiano sketches a portrait that is as true-to-life as possible, but that must necessarily remain fragmentary.

The general movement of the book is towards nonfiction, a quest for reality driven by the author’s deep personal involvement with the girl’s story. And if her story is ultimately universal—so many Parisian Jews were captured, deported, and murdered in the death camps in more or less the same relentless way—it becomes compellingly specific because of Modiano’s obsessive search for telltale particulars that can give his protagonist a face, indeed an entire body. At the onset, this girl is only a name in a newspaper. But by the end of Dora Bruder one senses her probable sensibility, although so much of her life must remain “secret,” as the author puts it. “I shall never know how she spent her days,” he avows,

where she hid, in whose company she passed he winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Dépôt, the barracks, the camps, History, time—everything that defiles and destroys you—have been able to take away from her.

Let me conclude by relating a personal coincidence obliquely linked to the girl’s ongoing story. I had finished the first draft of this article when I needed to go to town—I live in the French provinces—to run some errands and then meet a writer-friend in a café. Being a half-hour ahead of time when I arrived in front of the café, I ducked into a nearby used-book shop that was going out of business. They were offering half-off on books that were already cheaply priced. Not looking for any title in particular, I headed to the back of the shop, where the novels and poetry volumes are stocked. When I entered the dimly lit backroom, with its stacks of dusty books, I spotted right there in front of me, on a table, a rare and long out-of-print copy of Au bord de la nuit, the French translation of Friedo Lampe’s book about the phantomlike characters who roam, at dusk, around the harbor of Bremen.

John Taylor has often written about Patrick Modiano, notably in his three-volume Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction, 2004, 2007, 2011) and, more recently, on The Arts Fuse). He has just published two translations at Seagull Books, Philippe Jaccottet’s The Pilgrim’s Bowl (Giorgio Morandi) and Georges Perros’s Paper Collage. His latest personal book is If Night is Falling (Bitter Oleander Press, 2012).

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