Miscellany — From the January 2017 issue

The Notes of Patrick Modiano

A young writer finds his voice on the radio

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 6 )

Patrick Modiano was born in a suburb of Paris in July 1945, to Louisa Colpeyn, a Belgian actress, and Alberto Modiano, a Jewish businessman of Italian heritage. After Modiano’s only sibling, a brother named Rudy, died at the age of nine, he was shipped off to live with strangers and attend mediocre prep schools, from which he tended to run away.

Modiano published his first novel in 1968, when he was twenty-three, and a decade later won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. Until the announcement in Stockholm, however, the Paris literary elite treated Modiano with condescension. Many believed that his novels, structured like detective stories and easily consumed in an afternoon, went down too easily and sold too well.

Modiano has now released nearly thirty titles, but to many readers — and indeed to the writer himself — it seems that each new book is another take on the same story. Again and again, he returns to Paris during the Second World War and its aftermath, as his characters try to find out how an old friend or lover survived the German occupation.

At the start of the war, France was home to 330,000 Jews, more than half of whom had recently emigrated from elsewhere in Europe. In 1941, after the French capitulation, German authorities ordered all Jews over the age of six to wear a yellow star, and a year later the first convoy departed for Auschwitz. With the active collaboration of the Vichy government, more than 75,000 Jews were delivered to the death camps.

Modiano, whose father refused to wear the yellow star and survived by trading with the Germans on the black market, was one of the first postwar writers to question the story of widespread French resistance that had held sway when he was a child. In 1974, he co-wrote the screenplay of Lacombe, Lucien, Louis Malle’s film about a simpleminded farmhand who joins the Gestapo — which was a landmark in the French public’s reassessment of the war’s legacy.

Over the following four decades, Modiano has probed the country’s conscience in novels that squint into the dark corners of the occupation. How did he vanish? Who raped and murdered her? Or, in the case of Guy Roland, the amnesiac detective from Missing Person, Who am I? Modiano is as adept as any crime novelist at planting questions in the reader’s mind, but they are never answered with satisfaction. His obsession with memory — with its seductive slipperiness and, most of all, with its failings — has led many to compare him to Proust, but Modiano conjures the past in a cinematic style that is short on detail and long on atmosphere. “It would soon be the time of night,” he wrote in So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, “when the makeup starts to run and you are on the brink of revealing secrets.” Like pulp, his novels evoke a noirish demimonde of hustlers, gamblers, and libertines, where identities are uncertain and allegiances are in flux.

In Honeymoon (1990), as in so many Modiano novels, one mystery leads into another. Over a drink at a hotel bar in Milan, Jean B., a documentary-film maker, learns by chance of the suicide of a middle-aged woman named Ingrid, who had been kind to him as a young man. Rather than return to his project in the Brazilian jungle, he hides out in a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Paris, ignoring his career and floundering marriage to dwell instead on Ingrid’s past. Jean B. imagines that during the war, the sixteen-year-old Ingrid evaded the authorities in Paris and fled with her boyfriend to the south of France, where they posed as newlyweds. (We assume that Ingrid is Jewish, though her religion is not made explicit.) Modiano never reveals why Ingrid killed herself so long after enduring the worst of the occupation, beyond a sense that past traumas had caught up with her, as they had with Jean B., and perhaps with the whole of France.

Honeymoon contains many of Modiano’s persistent themes, which he has described as an obsession with “disappearance, the problems of identity, amnesia, and the return to an enigmatic past.” Born two months after the war’s end, Modiano writes for the generation once removed, whose lives were tainted by events they did not experience yet could not escape. “You were right to tell me,” Guy Roland says in Missing Person, “that in life it is not the future which counts, but the past.”

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
is the author of Buried on Avenue B and Shadows Still Remain.

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content
Close

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.