New books — From the October 2015 issue

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In the year since Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature, translations of his works have glutted the shelves. Part of this influx has to do with the general unwillingness of American presses to publish an international writer before he’s been awarded an international prize; part of it has to do with the number of books that Modiano has written. More than thirty have appeared in French; a dozen are now available in English, with more forthcoming and Modiano continuing to produce at age seventy. Faced with this surfeit, the reader will ask a version of the question that the novelist is always asking himself: Where to begin? The answer, in Modiano’s case, might be: anywhere. All his books are the same, he’s said, though in French the statement seems less apologetic than resigned: “On fait toujours le même roman.

Modiano’s narrators are usually writers (if not of novels then of diaries and letters), men who live alone, with disconnected phones. His setting is usually Paris: cobbled alleys, unrenovated cafés without TVs. The time frame is between the Occupation and 1968, when Modiano started writing, as if the most important events of the twentieth century were the Nazi invasion and the author’s debut. (The events of ’68 go unmentioned.) In his pages, the Haussmannian flâneur finds work as a detective, tracking down old apartments hiding under new street-numbering systems, old flames hiding under hair dye and new names. Call it Vichy noir. After all, Marshal Pétain and Sturmbannführer Bömelburg were responsible for hundreds of thousands of missing persons.

Rue Pigalle, Paris, 1950s © Paul Almasy/akg-images

Rue Pigalle, Paris, 1950s © Paul Almasy/akg-images

Now, as the Swedish Academy prepares to crown its next laureate, two substantial releases that bookend Modiano’s career are finally appearing in English. His earliest novels — La place de l’étoile (1968), The Night Watch (1969), and Ring Roads (1972) — have been collected as The Occupation Trilogy (Bloomsbury, $18), which is being published a month after Pedigree (Margellos World Republic of Letters, $25), from 2005, the only book that Modiano has explicitly identified as a memoir. La place de l’étoile is a madcap masterpiece whose narrator has written, in his opinion, the best book of the French–Jewish canon after those by Céline, arguably the greatest novelist of prewar France, inarguably its greatest anti-Semitic pamphleteer. Modiano’s title refers both to the location of the Arc de Triomphe and to the pocket over the heart — the location of the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear under the Nazi regime.

The narrator is Raphäel Schlemilovitch, a self- and goy-hating Parisian Jew who shades in and out of contradictory biographies: he’s both a destitute student and a dashing heir to South American millions. After signing over part of his fortune to his moocher father — a failed kaleidoscope salesman who immigrated to New York — Raphäel takes a job as a pimp’s procurer, helping to kidnap aristocratic Albertines for Arab brothels. He becomes the lover of Eva Braun, and is captured by a Judaic Gestapo that deports him to a kibbutz turned labor camp in Israel, where, to purge him of his European-cosmopolite taint, they take away his Kafka and send him out to the quarries to build Zionism and biceps. Like Portnoy’s Complaint, which Philip Roth published the following year, La place de l’étoile turns out to be the transcript of a psychoanalytic session, only in Modiano’s version the shrink is Freud.

La place de l’étoile is a pitch-black farce, whereas The Night Watch traffics in realism, putting it out on the market to gauge what can be gotten in exchange. The young narrator, another waifish littérateur, is tugged between collaboration with the French Gestapo and collusion with the Resistance. In the middle is the black market, which doesn’t discriminate about whom it supplies; the boy grows up into a middleman. Modiano scorns black-and-white dichotomies. For him, all of Paris is muddy ground, the Seine muddied water; art comes from neither the good nor the evil, but from the compromised, the dubious.

Ring Roads circles the same wartime demimonde and demieconomies into which the protagonist’s father vanished a decade earlier. Their relationship alternates between a père-fils bond and a business partnership, with each party trying to honor the other’s debts and credit the other’s rage. Amid the ruins the two launch a bibliophilic venture, which involves the son picking over volumes on the quays and falsifying their dedications. He sells a book by Charles Maurras, after forging a note on its frontispiece (“For Léon Blum, as a token of my admiration. Why don’t we have lunch?”) and a copy of Maurice Barrès’s Déracinés, after inscribing it to Captain Dreyfus (“Be brave, Alfred”).

Modiano’s memoir, Pedigree, comes clean: it tells us that nearly all of the fictions would be true had the author not peopled them with his surrogates. Modiano was born in 1945, in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb of Paris. His father was a French-born Jew of Greek–Italian lineage; though he never wore the étoile jaune, he was apprehended in a black-market roundup, remanded to Drancy, and avoided Auschwitz only through his connections with the Rue Lauriston gang, a smuggling outfit that occasionally did contract hits for the Germans. Modiano’s mother was a nominal Catholic from Antwerp; she struggled as a stage actress, and with more intimate dramas. Modiano was raised by her Belgian parents; his first language was Flemish. Later, he was fostered by a motley cast of maudits, manqués, con men, and thieves. His brother Rudy, to whom all the novels of The Occupation Trilogy are dedicated, died at age nine; his parents split shortly thereafter but continued to live in adjoining apartments. Modiano was pawned off on boarding schools, then on the army. He ran away from both:

I felt unburdened for the first time in my life. The threat that had weighed on me for so many years, kept me on edge, had dissolved in the Paris air. I had set sail before the worm-eaten wharf could collapse. It was time.

To survive a father is to survive a war: this has been the persistent theme of Kenzaburo Oe, born 1935, Japan’s foremost novelist. Which is to say, it has been the persistent theme of Kogito Choko, born 1935, Japan’s foremost novelist and Oe’s perennial alter ego, who shares his creator’s books, politics, and 1994 Nobel Prize. Death by Water (Grove, $28), Oe’s latest novel, concerns Choko’s inability to produce a latest novel. He retires to his birthplace, which is also Oe’s birthplace, the island of Shikoku, to find that the monument commemorating his Nobel will have to be relocated to make way for a new road. The text on the monument, which was written by Choko and his mother, is an arch subversion of folk haiku and tanka:

You didn’t get Kogii ready to go up into the forest

And like the river current, you won’t return home

In Tokyo during the dry season

I’m remembering everything backward,

From old age to earliest childhood.

“Asymmetrical Kaleidoscope 1, 7/7/2006,” by Nigel Grima © The artist/Bridgeman Images

“Asymmetrical Kaleidoscope 1, 7/7/2006,” by Nigel Grima © The artist/Bridgeman Images

No one can agree just what those lines mean. As a child, Choko had an imaginary friend, a kind of second self, named Kogii; later, Choko would write books about a character named Kogii, a self-fictionalizing author who betrays his family in his novels and his village roots by moving to Tokyo. Choko’s recently deceased mother always cited this lore as proof that the author of this monument-text was addressing himself, but Choko’s more perceptive critics — his sister among them — point to another interpretation. According to them, the “you” being apostrophized is the author’s father, who disappeared after loading a red leather trunk into a rowboat and setting off into the worst summer storm of 1945.

Death by Water is the account of Choko’s discovery of that trunk, his exploration of the pages it contains, and his attempt to understand what his father was doing out on that river at the moment the tide was turning in the war. Was he on a secret mission to assassinate the emperor and prevent Japan’s surrender? Or was he committing a perverted form of junshi — ritual suicide — to save his family’s honor after his secret mission was uncovered?

Choko isn’t alone in seeking a patrimony. In the midst of his memory quest, he’s ambushed by the avant-garde in the guise of an ambitious theater troupe soliciting his approval of their stage adaptation of a novella called The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, a title that Oe used in 1972. That book concerned Oe’s father’s involvement with an anti-Tojo coup, a thanatopsical initiative to install a generalship that would refuse to make peace with the Americans. Oe’s oeuvre has conventionally been read as a response to the legacy of Japanese imperialism. But seventy years after V-J Day, his sad, sardonic metafiction seems more like the fallout from our own empire, which firebombs its enemies and then writes them new constitutions that illegalize war.

Modiano has made himself a naïf: he wanders the boulevards seeking love, or reparenting. Oe portrays himself as an embodiment of guilt: ashamed of his parents’ shame, still doing penance for his progenitors. Gabrielle Wittkop is a subtler case: not apolitical but antipolitical, she didn’t write around her trauma but through it. Her transgressive texts — which derive from Sade, Huysmans, and the surrealists Lautréamont and Mandiargues — weren’t the type that wins awards, though she wasn’t the type to care. Not even translation into English can compromise her mystery. She was born Gabrielle Ménardeau in Nantes in 1920. During the Occupation she married Justus Wittkop, a Nazi who deserted because he was gay. She concealed him, and in 1946 accompanied him back to Germany, where she wrote journalism for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and pharmaceutical copy for Hoffmann–La Roche: German for the hackwork, French pour l’art. She was quadrilingual, bisexual, and apologized not once.

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“Yunohama,” by Asako Narahashi, from the series Half Awake and Half Asleep in the Water (C) The artist. Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York City

The Necrophiliac, Wittkop’s first novel, didn’t appear until 1972, when she was fifty-two — as she writes about a man violating a dead nun atop an altar, “It’s never too late to start.” In this book about forbidden pleasures, the operative analogy seems to be between books (or any artistic corpora) and corpses: what ecstasies they have exist for others. This morbidity develops into an austere philosophy in Hemlock (1988), which chronicles the euthanasia of Wittkop’s Parkinson’s-afflicted husband. In 2002, she followed suit, sparing herself the ravages of lung cancer: “I intend to die as I lived, a free man.”

Another strain of Wittkop’s work involved travel, including travel through the past. La mort de C. (1975) describes her lover’s murder in a brothel in Bombay; Les rajahs blancs (1986) deals with colonialist decadence under the White Rajah of Sarawak. Two later books extend these adventures, in virtuosic translations by Annette David and Louise Rogers Lalaurie. Exemplary Departures (Wakefield Press, $16.95), from 1995, presents six deaths: those of Jim Thompson, not the crime writer but the American spy and silk merchant who went astray in the Malaysian jungle in 1967; Idilia Dubb, the Scottish tourist who visited Lahneck Castle in the 1850s and allegedly became stuck in its tower and expired of thirst; a raving drunk, or maybe rabid, Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore; Seymour M. Kenneth, a homeless man encamped under Grand Central Terminal whose body was gnawed apart by rats; and Claude and Hippolyte, the hermaphrodite twins of prerevolutionary France, who were displayed as freaks in salons, robbed at knifepoint, and stabbed to death.

Murder Most Serene (Wakefield Press, $12.95), published posthumously in 2005, takes place in Venice in the late eighteenth century, during the languorous decline of the Serene Republic: “All the while, beside secret gardens drowsy with white-bellied fleas, at the corners of palaces flanked by mangy lions, the inky water slops and oozes.” The book confronts, and confounds, traditionally female forms — the epistolary novel, the pillow book — not to mention the female body itself: cosseted, cozened, engirdled. Women in the novel keep being inadvertently poisoned during abortion attempts, but then their husbands are poisoned as well, and the coincidence is officialized as an epidemic. Even the clergy and nobility fall prey to this “lethal incandescence” in the gut. That deadly Enlightenment might be hemlock for one, or arsenic for another, but for Venetian society as a whole it was Napoleon, the toxic democrat, the active agent of superficial humanism, who was about to conquer the city. To all who suffer under imposed political systems, Wittkop offers a prescription that’s difficult to swallow: the more violent your liberation, the more obscene and criminal you’ll have to become to feel free.

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