‘I have the illusion that all I’d need to do is return to those faraway neighbourhoods to find the people I’ve lost.’ In mining memory and history, the work of the French Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano takes us on journeys Paris, both the Paris of now and the Parises that have existed before. This is the city as palimpsest: a Paris of long shut cafes, raised neighbourhoods and abandoned railways. We are given enigmatic figures and futile searches around which stories swirl but never converge. Reading Modiano is like trying to discern figures that may not be there through the haze of a Polaroid snap or watching an old black and white film in which the most important things happen half out of shot. As the author has said, ‘The more obscure and mysterious things remained, the more interested I became in them. I even looked for mystery where there was none.’
The tone of the writing is a wistful melancholy one, and in a prose that is simple and unadorned, if sometimes boring, the same preoccupations crop up again and again: enigmatic people who appear to hold the key to a mystery but who always remain vague; reminders of how Paris once was; a frenetic desire to list things; coincidental happenings; the arrest under the Occupation and subsequent escape of a father, an incident lifted straight from Modiano’s own life. Indeed, the weaving of life and fiction is an intricate one, characterised by the author as ‘a kind of autobiography, but one that is dreamed up or imaginary.’
All of this is on show in Suspended Sentences (2014), a collection of three novellas translated into English by Mark Polizzotti. In Afterimages (originally published as Chien de printemps, 1993), the narrator gives us the story of how he came to know and work for Francis Jansen, a taciturn photographer. We learn that he was once a protégé of Robert Capa who turned down America for Paris and was interred as a Jew in the 1940s but released at the intervention of the Italian consulate. He and the narrator have an acquaintance in common, one Collette Laurent, but photographs jog no memories at the time and it takes the narrator twenty years to remember her from his childhood: ‘Certain coincidences risk passing unnoticed; certain people have appeared in our lives on several occasions without our realising it.’
As the story goes on, our narrator becomes Jansen’s archivist, almost via force and sets about obsessively cataloguing all of Jansen’s pictures, photographs that he was happy to leave pell mell in suitcases. We are given lists of photographs and the desire on the narrator’s part to preserve all this output is a way of holding onto memories, an unwillingness to let things fade to past: ‘I refused to accept that people and things could disappear without a trace. How could anyone resign himself to that?
The title story (originally Remise de peine, 1988) is an unspectacular story of two young brothers who are left in the care of a group of eccentrics while their mother, a travelling actress like Modiano’s own, is on the road for a play. The enigmatic figure here is Annie, a kind girl who goes to Paris in the evenings, has shady male friends and is said to ‘cry all night long at Carroll’s.’ The narrator and his brother also live with Annie’s mother and a wild character called Little Helene. Modiano did have a brother, who would later disappear and there was a real life Annie called Suzanne Bouquerau (I am taking all biographical detail here from Mark Polizzotti’s introduction). During the war, the boys’ father, a shady black market dealer, was arrested in round ups of Jews but his release was engineered by the ‘Rue Lauriston Gang’, possibly the elusive Eddy Pagnon. We are treated to an interminable list of almost certainly vanished Parisian garages that may unlock the key to this mystery but nothing comes except ‘a long and vain search for a lost garage’.
The heady, dreamlike existence of the boys is brought to an abrupt end when it transpires that their guardians have some dealings with criminals. It is no surprise when we reach Flowers of Ruin (Fleurs de ruine, 1991) to find a narrator searching for Pagnon’s garage, believing him to have had some hand in his father’s release from the Nazis. Unlike the previous story, with its unconvincing evocation of childhood, we are on much firmer, but simultaneously watery ground here. In becoming attached to the enigmatic Pacheco, possibly a stolen identity, Modiano is again let loose to wander his Paris, existing both in the present and in the past. Walking along the left bank he muses that with rebuilding ‘the area has become indifferent’, as if it had ‘lost its soul’, but is suddenly in a flash reliving his childhood
The Search Warrant (2000), originally published as Dora Bruder (1997) and translated into English by Joana Kilmartin sees Modiano become fascinated by a notice he sees in a copy of Paris Soir from the end of 1941. ‘Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15,…’ This will send him on a quest to find out the fate of the missing girl, and also into his own family’s past. Doing some amateur investigation in records departments and finding a surviving niece he discovers that Dora’s parents were Jewish émigrés to Paris. Her father, Ernest, was born in Vienna, an unskilled labourer who ends up in Paris via the French Foreign Legion. Her mother, Cécile, arrives with her family from Budapest only for three of her sisters to die. They marry, have Dora, live in hotels for the entirety of their Paris life and send their daughter to a Convent school. Throughout the novel there is Modiano’s compulsive listing, here of documents: police reports, letters, census files, but no search warrants. The change of title seems odd; the Nazis certainly needed no warrants to hunt the streets for Jewish girls like Dora, nor does Modiano have any warrant for his own search.
‘They are the sort of people who leave few traces.; Besides some photographs and scraps of information he can pick up, we are given Modiano’s merging of fact and novelistic licence to imagine the lives of the Bruders. He speculates that ‘as a child, she would have played in the Square Clignancourt,’ or ‘perhaps – in fact, I’m sure of it – she would wander the streets of this zone.’ That, and the coincidences and potential near misses that Modiano sets so much store by, as if the ghosts of the 1940s were acting out their lives as he and his fellow living Parisiennes walk the boulevards. He had once frequented a cinema on the Rue Ornano next door to the Bruder’s hotel; his doctor once treated a patient who also publishes a novel called La Place de L’Étoile, the title of Modiano’s debut.
The traversing of Paris and a great love of the city, inspiring laments for what has passed are reminiscent of Baudelaire: ‘the city scape / Is quick to change, less so the human heart.’ There is a trace of this identification with the bitter title of Flowers of Ruin. With the saturation of memory, Modiano is often talked of as a modern day Proust. Yet it as if the Paris of today and the Paris of yesterday exist simultaneously for him, the latter often more real. We are forever reminded of old bus routes and the train lines one would have taken ‘in those days’. The French novel that kept coming back to my head was Alain Fornier’s Le Grand Moulnes. It too is pervaded by an intangible loss that will never be fully grasped. We are told of Jansen in Afterimages that, ‘He was seeking a lost innocence and settings made for enjoyment and ease.’ A sense that some other realm, in Modiano’s case a non-existent Paris, is a refuge where everything will be alright if one could only find it again. Here is the narrator of Afterimages as a child, playing amidst the ruins and weeds of the Pavillon de Flore:
We spent entire afternoon playing amid the broken birdbaths and statues, the stones and dead leaves. The hands of the clock never moved. They forever struck five-thirty. Those immobile hands enveloped us in a deep, soothing silence. We only had to stay in the alley and nothing would change.
Modiano’s delving into the past and personal history however comes with a more concrete motive. He is unwilling to forget, or allow to be forgotten, the victims of French history. Underneath the long obliterated buildings and repaved streets there is a deeper human cost. In Dora Bruder a modern apartment blocks stand on the site of an old convent and its buildings, which we are told in turn served as a mass grave for ‘over one thousand victims of the guillotine’. The riot police on patrol because of the ‘Algerian situation’ and ‘the events of May ’68…left only black and white news images, which…seem as distant as the ones filmed during the liberation of Paris.’
Modiano refers to his technique as Clairvoyance, “part of the profession: the essential leaps of imagination, the need to fix one’s mind on detail – to the point of obsession in fact – so as not to lose the thread and give in to one’s natural laziness’. It may lead to ‘flashes of intuition concerning past and future’. Reading a passage in Les Miserables where Cosette and Jean hide in a convent that would later be Dora’s school.
Given his personal history, it is no surprise that the victims Modiano keeps coming back to are those of the Occupation. He is haunted by the crimes of the Nazis, what happened to his own father and the traces dotted around the city. He is unhappy at any idea of willed collective forgetting which makes him hyper aware of small echoes of the painful past. Here he is, at the Tourelles barracks, which has housed prisoners during the war, and is now abandoned with a sign designating a military zone not to be photographed:
And yet, from time to time, beneath this thick layer of amnesia, once can certainly sense something, an echo, distant, muted, but of what, precisely, it is impossible to say. Like finding oneself on the edge of a magnetic field and having no pendulum with which to pick up its radiations. The sign had been put up out of suspicion and a guilty conscious.
This effort to never led history slip away, a shame at what happened in one’s country and a melancholy air reminded me of W. G. Sebald. Modiano’s prose is not as ornate, and there is much more effort to tell a personal story, often superficial and unexciting. There is also a certain undercurrent anger missing; Sebald has his disgust at what his countrymen did and the long silence afterwards while Modiano being born in an occupied country puts him at further remove. Sebald can write about all sorts of things while always keeping the horror of the Twentieth Century as a spectre in the background. Modiano has Paris, but not a lot else. Yet we should be glad for Modiano, for someone of such obsession to go looking for ‘proofs and clues to convince yourself that these people had really existed.’