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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 pèrefils 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.

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