Modiano, Patrick (Jean)

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MODIANO, Patrick (Jean)

Nationality: French. Born: Boulogne-Billancourt, 30 July 1945. Family: Married Dominique Zehrfuss in 1970; two daughters. Career: Since 1968 novelist. Awards: Prix Roger Nimier, 1968, and Prix Felix Feneon, 1969, both for La Place de l'étoile; Grand Prix Roman, L'Academie Francaise, 1972, for Les Boulevards de ceinture; Prix Goncourt, 1978, for Rue des boutiques obscures; Prix de Monaco, 1984. Agent: Beaume, 3 quai Malaquias, 75006 Paris, France.



Occupation Trilogy:

La Place de l'étoile. 1968.

La Ronde de nuit. 1969; as Night Rounds, 1971.

Les Boulevards de ceinture. 1972; as Ring Roads, 1974.

Villa Triste. 1975; as Villa Triste, 1977.

Livret de famille [Family Book]. 1977.

Rue des boutiques obscures. 1978; as Missing Person, 1980.

Une Jeunesse [A Youth]. 1981.

Memory Lane. 1981.

De si braves garçons [Such Good Boys]. 1982.

Poupée blonde [Blonde Doll]. 1983.

Quartier perdu. 1985.

Dimanches d'août. 1986.

Une Aventure de Choura, illustrated by Dominique Zehrfuss (for children). 1986.

Une Fiancée pour Choura, illustrated by Zehrfuss (for children). 1987.

Remise de peine. 1988.

Catherine Certitude. 1988.

Vestiaire de l'enfance. 1989.

Voyage de noces: Roman. 1990; as Honeymoon, 1995.

Fleurs de ruine. 1991.

Un Cirque passé: Roman. 1992.

Chien de printemps: Roman. 1993.

Du plus loin de l'oubli: Roman. 1996.

Des Inconnues. 1999.


La Polka (produced Paris, 1974).

Lacombe Lucien, with Louis Malle (screenplay). 1974; translated as Lacombe Lucien, 1975.


Lacombe Lucien, with Louis Malle, 1974; Une Jeunesse, 1981; Le Fils de Gascogne, 1995.


Interrogatoire par Patrick Modiano suivi de il fait beau, allons au cimetiere, with Emmanuel Berl. 1976.

Dora Bruder. 1997.

Out of the Dark. 1998.


Film Adaptations:

Une Jeunesse, 1981; Le Parfum d'Yvonne, from the novel Villa Triste, 1994.

Critical Studies:

"Modiano, Agent Double" by Jacques Bersani, in Nouvelle Revue Française, 298, November 1977, pp. 78-84; "Re-Membering Modiano, or Something Happened" by Gerlad Prince, in Sub-Stance, 49, 1986, pp. 35-43; The Anguish of the Marginal Hero in the Novels of Patrick Modiano (dissertation) by Katheryn Lee Wright, Indiana University, 1987; I Call Myself the Other: The Quest for Identity in the First Nine Novels of Patrick Modiano (dissertation) by Deborah Scott Alden, University of Connecticut, 1989; "Pat-rick Modiano: A French Jew?" by Ora Avni, in Yale French Studies, 85, 1994; Shaping the Novel: Textual Interplay in the Fiction of Malraux, Hebert, and Modiano by Constantina Mitchell and Paul Raymond Cote, 1996; Patrick Modiano, 1996, and Patrick Modiano, 2000, both by Alan Morris; Rewriting the Past: Memory, History and Narration in the Novels of Patrick Modiano by William VanderWolk, 1997; Paradigms of Memory: The Occupation and Other Historiesin the Novels of Patrick Modiano by Martine Guyot-Bender and William VanderWolk, 1998.

* * *

In May 1968, when his peers were busy shaking the foundations of Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic, 23-year-old Patrick Modiano published La Place de l'étoile. This novel was the writer's first journey into the period of the Nazi occupation of France and its corollary: collaboration. The early 1940s had not yet been probed by historians: the myth of France united behind de Gaulle still reigned. The people who had enforced laws eliminating Jews from civil life, those who had turned them in, and the French police, which arrested and helped deport a quarter of France's 300,000 Jews, were still around. The period was still taboo, too recent and too shameful to be exhumed.

Thus, far from the preoccupations of his generation, Modiano was the first to venture into that history. Among French writers born just after the war, he was the only one for whom the occupation played such a major role. At the source of his creative vision was his personal history. In a 1981 interview with J.L. Ezine in Les Ecrivains sur la sellette, he stated: "Like all people without roots or country, I'm obsessed with my prehistory. And my prehistory is the shameful, murky period of the Occupation: I've always felt, for obscure family reasons, that I was born of that nightmare… This is where I come from."

Modiano's prehistory is his father, Albert, an Egyptian Jew who lived in occupied Paris illegally, and a gentile Belgian actress who had low-level jobs with a German film company. Albert never registered as a Jew, never wore the star. He seemed to have been a go-between for people who supplied goods to the Nazis and some black market thugs controlled by the Gestapo. Arrested twice, he avoided deportation through the intervention of one of his sleazy business connections. His son hardly knew him; their relationship was troubled. The man disappeared from his life at the end of his adolescence without having explained how he saved himself from the fate of his fellow Jews. The arrest of the father haunts Modiano—an episode in six novels, a primal scene, poignant and shameful, for it exposes the identity of the father both as Jew and as traitor. It also poses the painful problem of the writer's origins.

Most of Modiano's weary, solitary narrator-protagonists, often writers themselves, suffer from a lack of certainty about who they are and from an obscure feeling of anxiety and guilt. (Almost all the novels are written in the first person, a narrative device that allows Modiano to blend autobiography and fiction.) They must elucidate the mystery of their origins so they can go on with their lives. They embark on a difficult, hazardous voyage into their own uncertain memory and the memories of other shadowy characters in the hope of shedding some light on unresolved events of their past and the remote, obscure past of their fathers. The search usually takes the form of an investigation: the narrator turns detective in order to track down the past. Old photographs, magazines, obsolete phone books, municipal records, police files, or maps might yield clues about some long disappeared character who holds the key to the narrator's past. (In Rue des boutiques obscures the amnesiac protagonist has even lost his name.) He wanders through the nocturnal, empty streets of Paris. From cafés to hotel bars, Paris triggers childhood memory fragments. It is also the scene of the crimes that occurred in his "prehistory." Even in novels not directly set in the occupation as the first and second trilogies are, this melancholic, ambulatory quest invariably leads to some shady character associated with the criminal collaborators of that era. But it is too late: many never paid for their crimes, the past remains blurry, the quest leads nowhere.

In an interview from 2001, Modiano said, "I feel like I've been writing the same book for over thirty years… The twenty books I published separately seem to form … one single book." Indeed, the repetitive, obsessive nature of his work is striking. Similar plots, same places, protagonists with the same names and floating identities, recurrent characters with odd, cosmopolitan names, recurring episodes and themes: remembrance, amnesia, the destructive past, guilt—all themes linked to Modiano's heritage. Narrative discontinuity, fragmentation, lack of closure, constant shift between past and present, the narrator's uncertainties, suppositions, and interrogations that may never be answered are ways of rendering the difficulties of retrieving the past, of accessing knowledge.

Only in Dora Bruder, the last book of the second trilogy, is the Holocaust the whole focus of the work. There the fictional story of the young heroine acquires a haunting reality. Little by little her fate becomes the fate of the Jews of France. By recalling with historical precision their elimination from society, the roundups, the names and crimes of the perpetrators, the places in occupied Paris that led to Drancy, from where they would be deported to Auschwitz, her story becomes history. Modiano bears witness and becomes the guardian of memory.

—Nicole Ball

See the essay on the Occupation Trilogy.