Patrick Modiano: a personal portrait of a Nobel prize winner
An Irish academic who has met and written extensively about Modiano offers her insight into his fiction and personality
French author Patrick Modiano holds a press conference after being announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2014, at the headquarters of his publishing house, Gallimard, in Paris, yesterday. Described by the Swedish Academy as “a Marcel Proust of our time,” it said said the award was “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”. Photograph: Charles Platiau / Reuters
Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel prize for literature, writes about uncertain identities, pasts that have in some way gone missing, and the urge to tell stories.
He was born just after the second World War in July 1945 on the outskirts of Paris, to a French Jewish father and a Belgian actress mother. A largely solitary and unconventional childhood ensued, as his parents handed him over to the care of friends (some of whom seem to have been petty criminals) while they pursued their business or career engagements.
His greatest friend and companion was his younger brother Rudy, whose death when Patrick was 12 years old was the greatest trauma of his life.
At the age of only 23, in 1968, he published his first novel, La Place de l’Étoile, about identity and Jewishness, although Modiano is not technically Jewish. This was followed a year later by La Ronde de Nuit, translated as Night Rounds, and in 1972 by Les Boulevards de Ceinture, translated as Ring Roads. These three books, along with the wryly humorous Rue des Boutiques Obscures of 1978 (Missing Person) can be seen as forming an “Occupation quartet”.
The screenplay for the stunningly powerful Lacombe Lucien, which Modiano co-wrote with director Louis Malle in 1974, also forms part of this “Occupation period”. There, a young bumpkin thug ends up collaborating with the French Gestapo, not out of any ideological commitment but because of a desire for adventure and power, and mainly – and ironically – because the local Resistance leader turned him down.
While the importance of the Occupation never entirely disappears in Modiano’s work, from the 1980s onward a greater emphasis is laid on questions of lost loved ones and a distant period of happiness in youth. Many of his novels play with the genres of the mystery or detective novel.
Questions around memory and identity constantly surface – memories that one cannot access and memories that one seeks to repress. His novels make us ask ourselves how memory impacts upon identity, and whether narration of the past can ever be faithful. His style is often slightly melancholic, and sometimes wryly humorous. It is usually classically spare and very linguistically accessible (his very clever but more difficult first two novels are wordier, however, and somehow frantic).
The atmosphere of a Modiano novel is instantly recognisable: enigmatic, and somehow pent-up. His main characters are usually first-person narrators who often bear a remarkable similarity to Modiano himself, and who play interpretative games with the reader. Despite the clarity of the prose, a general blur is created around time levels, imagination and fact, and around the narrator’s identities and those of the other characters.
Although Modiano is not a public intellectual of the French type, he has a passionate following in France. Since the late 1960s he has published a novel every two or three years, bringing the current total to almost 30. Most are short, sometimes less than 200 well-spaced pages.
In television interviews, he comes across as extremely shy, often to the point of inarticulacy, in sharp contrast to his syntactically crisp and clean writing style. I met Modiano several times in 2006 in order to discuss the book I had written on his work, a rare privilege. Over the course of several conversations, I gained a sense of a kind, humble and highly cultivated man, who was wary of giving much away about his life but who sparkled with ideas about French literary and cinematic culture and who also possessed an impressive knowledge of French photography. He was particularly knowledgeable about humanist street photographers, which seemed appropriate, as the Parisian streets are almost characters in their own right in his writing (he is a very urban writer).
I was also introduced to a dog Modiano was minding for one of his daughters. This is more significant that it sounds, as dogs often figure in cameo roles in his work, as companions, guides and lost souls.
As with John McGahern, the towering, haunting figure of a problematic father runs through Modiano’s work, and autobiographical events are obsessively rewritten in fictionalised form (in Modiano’s case often very obliquely). While McGahern evokes the repressive aspects of Irish Catholic society, repression of memory is present on other levels in Modiano.
At the end of Dora Bruder, a biographical fragment about a real-life young Jewish girl who was deported with thousands of others in 1942 with the aid of the Parisian police, Modiano foregrounds France’s long refusal to acknowledge the dark facts of its collaboration with the Germans and the deportation of the Jews. The amnesiac detective narrator in Missing Person is on the search for his past, against the symbolic backdrop of the Occupation.
This idea of a “missing past” also surrounds Modiano’s father Albert, who maintained an almost complete silence about his experience during the war, despite his son’s fervent wish to know all about it. The ambiguous Albert worked in the black market and was nearly deported, but appears to have escaped from a Parisian prison centre with the help of a contact of the French Gestapistes.
Albert’s shadowy presence is hard to escape in the work. A denial of memory can perhaps be said to occur on a personal level for Modiano also, since while strong emotions around death and loss figure strongly in his autobiographical fictions, the beloved lost brother remains in the background of most of the texts. However, in Un Pedigree, a “straight” (non-fictionalised) autobiographical account published in 2005, Modiano states that the loss of Rudy was the defining element in his life.
In the more recent work, mother figures and female figures in general have risen more strongly to the fore.
Oft the almost 30 novels published to date, approximately 10 will have been published in English by next month. Some of the most accessible and atmospheric of these texts will figure in a three-part translation by Mark Polizzotti, entitled Suspended Sentences. The highly poignant Dora Bruder was translated into English in 1999. Due to its subject matter, this work of commemoration lacks the slightly playful element usual in a Modiano text, yet it is nonetheless typically Modianesque. Like all of Modiano’s writing, it takes a collection of fragmentary facts and builds a haunting sense of character around them, refusing to let memory die.
Dervila Cooke is a lecturer in French at Saint Patrick’s College, Dublin City University and has written a book in English on Modiano, Present Pasts: Patrick Modiano’s Autobiographical Fictions (2005), and edited a volume of articles on Modiano et l’image (2012).