Occupation Trilogy: La Place De L'étoile, La Ronde De Nuit, Les Boulevards De Ceinture

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Novels by Patrick Modiano, 1968, 1969, and 1972

La Place de l'étoile is the first novel in Patrick Modiano's so-called Occupation Trilogy, which also includes La Ronde de nuit (1969; as Night Rounds, 1971) and Les Boulevards de ceinture (1972; as Ring Roads, 1974).

La Place de l'etoile, a play on the word étoile ("star"), which means both the place of the yellow star and the famous Parisian square, inscribes the Holocaust at the center of the Jewish experience, and the narrator's name, Raphael Schlemilovitch, defines him as the archetypal Jew. His absurd, farcical, autobiographical saga takes us through time and space into all the clichés of anti-Semitism. In his comical efforts to find roots or assimilate, the narrator tries to adopt France's values: religion, army, land. In his many transformations, incursions into different times and milieus, he must either hide or claim his foreign origins. But assimilation is impossible: when Schlemilovitch is in danger of taking roots (in the arms of a Proustian duchess, for example), he is sent to Vienna after a hallucinatory scene where a character acts out some of the worst representations of "the Jew" anti-Semites have constructed.

Under the parody, death permeates the book. There are numerous evocations of the Holocaust. In a ghostly Vienna the narrator's "I" turns into "we" and becomes six million Jews, a figure yelled at him by a grotesque incarnation of Adolf Hitler. Vienna's Prater becomes Theresienstadt; the narrator is briefly the lover of an Auschwitz survivor who, haunted by her memories, commits suicide with his help. After Vienna Schlemilovitch hops to Trieste, Budapest, Salonika, now all Jewless, and back to occupied Paris where he joins a sinister gang of the French Gestapo; he leaves them for the victim's side. But Auschwitz is not for him: he was born too late. He goes to Israel instead, to a Nazi-like, "disciplinary kibbutz" camp, to be cured of the memory of the Jewish tragedy and become a modern, positive Jew. Then he is back to wartime Paris, where Israeli Jews join the same Gestapo gang of criminal revelers. They finally shoot him. But the nightmare is not over. Back to Vienna, where Dr. Sigmund Freud also wants to cure him, of his Yiddish paranoia this time: "We now live in a pacified world. Himmler is dead. How can you remember all this? You weren't born yet."

That is exactly Modiano's point. In this nervous, dislocated narrative, devoid of coherence or logic (the narrator dies three times), where discontinuity rules and tenses and times collide, there is a sense of rage: how is it possible to be French, Jewish, and a writer after the Holocaust? Modiano said in Dora Bruder : "What I wanted to do in my first book was to reply to all these people whose insults had wounded me through my father, and silence them once and for all on their own turf, French prose."

Modiano's second novel, La Ronde de nuit, is set during the occupation. The same gang of criminals working for the Nazis are now foregrounded: these sleazy racketeers, swindlers, blackmailers, pimps, and prostitutes hold parties at their headquarters while torturing on the floor below. Swing Troubadour, the narrator, works as their informer—and as an informer for a resistance group too. First in a long line of Modiano characters, he suffers from a lack of identity. Unlike Schlemilovitch, clearly defined as the Jew, Swing's double agent status is symbolic of his ambiguity. Never sure of who he is (innocent? corrupt? traitor? hero?), dizzy, guilt-ridden, inhabited by fear and a sense of doom, he roams Paris in search of himself. Only death seems certain in this murky era. Abrupt shifts of temporality, incoherence (the protagonist is killed at the end, yet earlier he was tried after the war), and ambiguity are embedded in the narrative. Although there is a hint that the narrator is Jewish, the Holocaust seems absent from this novel.

Les Boulevards de ceinture is about the search for the father. Baron Deckecaire is clearly a character inspired by Modiano's own father and their relationship. After a painstaking investigation, the protagonist/narrator, Serge Alexandre, finds him in the midst of another loathsome gang, operating now in the intellectual/artistic circles of the collaboration. Schlemilovitch's clownish, conspicuously Jewish father is now an enigmatic, terrified, pathetic Jewish collaborator. A tool in the hands of these criminal anti-Semites, he will be killed when they no longer need him. The narrator's efforts to approach, understand, and forgive his father lead him to proclaim his affiliation, thus reclaiming his own Jewish identity. The father is arrested. The son/writer stays with him until the end (the end of his narrative too): presumably Auschwitz.

The evocation of the occupation (and behind that, the Holocaust) is remarkable in the second and third novels. Narrative transgressions are not as extreme in Les Boulevards de ceinture, but the ghostlike characters, now blurred now clear, float between past, present, and future, as do events. The narrative, blending history with fiction, acquires a haunting, dreamy, poetic quality that will become Modiano's trademark.

—Nicole Ball

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Occupation Trilogy: La Place De L'étoile, La Ronde De Nuit, Les Boulevards De Ceinture

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Occupation Trilogy: La Place De L'étoile, La Ronde De Nuit, Les Boulevards De Ceinture