Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Patrick Modiano winner of the Nobel for literature who you've never heard of

Patrick Modiano publishes his books consistently in France and yet, only two so far have been translated into English. He just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I'd never heard of him until, years ago after the publication of Murder in the Marais, the University of California Press asked me to review his forthcoming book 'Dora Bruder'. In the UK it was published as The Search Warrant. I guessed it was because Marais dealt with hidden Jewish children during the Occupation and that's what Modiano had written about. Dora Bruder comes from a single newspaper clipping Modiano/the narrator finds.
What ever happened to her -  this young Jewish girl who disappears? The whole book is the search and historical evidence he finds. The book touched me. Here's the beginning:
Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris Soir dated December 31 1941, a headline on page three caught my eye:
Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, height 1.55m, oval-shaped face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy-blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes. Address all information to M and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.
I had long been familar with the area around the Boulevard Ornano. As a child, I would accompany my mother to the Saint-Ouen flea markets. We would get off the bus either at the Porte de Clignancourt or, occasionally, outside the 18th arrondissement Town Hall. Always, it was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
I am writing these pages in November 1996. It seldom stops raining. Tomorrow we shall be in December, and 55 years will have passed since Dora ran away. It gets dark early, and it is just as well: night obliterates the greyness and monotony of these rainy days when one wonders if it really is daytime, or if we are not going through some intermediary stage, a sort of gloomy eclipse lasting til dusk. Then the street-lamps and shop windows and cafés light up, the evening air freshens, contours sharpen, there are traffic jams at the crossroads and hurrying crowds in the streets. And in the midst of all these lights, all this hubbub, I can hardly believe that this is the city where Dora lived with her parents, where my father lived when he was 20 years younger than I am now. I feel as if I am alone in making the link between Paris then and Paris now, alone in remembering all these details. There are moments when the link is stretched to breaking-point, and other evenings when the city of yesterday appears to me in fugitive gleams behind that of today. 
 After reading Dora Bruder I did retrace those steps of Dora's that Modiano/the narrator so meticulously traced.  Call me a groupie. One of the locations I only found a few years ago, where Dora had been hidden in a Catholic sisters refuge, proved the most elusive. Why? It had been torn down and was now an elementary school that I'd walked by several times.  A French person once said 'Oh Modiano, he writes the same book every time.' But no, I think Modiano is obsesssed by that era, his place in it and France's and writes on this theme in every book but with a totally different voice. He's a detective of his own past,  product of a Jewish father who collaborated with the Germans and hid from them. His father remained a shadowy figure in Modiano's childhood. Modiano wrote about his search, it's a theme in all his books, and France's dark past in the Occupation. His work explores in micro the macro of that time. 
Alexandra Schwartz writes about Modiano wonderfully in the New Yorker. Here's part of her article:
"Who is this writer, and what are the ungraspable human destinies he has uncovered? Modiano was born near Paris in July, 1945, to a Flemish mother and a father from a Jewish family with roots in Salonika. He worked his way to the Lycée Henri-IV, the top preparatory school in France, but his formal education ended at seventeen. Europeans born in 1945 share a certain liminal condition. They escaped the threat, but not the taint, of the war. They were born into freedom but conceived in turmoil; they grew up looking over their shoulders... Modiano’s first novel,  involves a ...kind of projection into the narrowly escaped past. Set in 1942 in a phantasmagoric Paris (Proust, Freud, Hitler, and Dreyfus all make appearances), it is called “La Place de l’Étoile”—a reference to the rotunda at the head of the Champs Elysées that circles the Arc de Triomphe, but also to the yellow felt star worn by Jews during the Occupation. “La Place de l’Étoile” appeared at a moment when the core tenet of French postwar identity—“the myth of France as a nation of resisters,” as the French writer Clémence Boulouque put it to me when I called her to discuss Modiano’s win—was beginning to crumble. (The book was published in May, 1968, the same month that the famous student protests in Paris began; General de Gaulle, the President of the Republic and the living symbol of French heroism during the war, fled to a military base in Germany to wait it all out.) Modiano knew the soiled truth firsthand. His father had refused to wear the star and did not turn himself in when Paris’s Jews were rounded up for deportation to concentration camps; he spent the war doing business on the black market and hanging around with the Gestapo stationed on the Rue Lauriston. Boulouque, who is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that in his three dozen or so novels Modiano has returned again and again to the same themes: the pull of the past, the threat of disappearance, the blurring of moral boundaries, “the dark side of the soul.” Modiano, she told me, believes that “the novelist has an ethical duty to record the traces of the people who have vanished, the people who were made to disappear.” It will not have escaped the attention of the Nobel committee that Modiano’s win comes at a time when anti-Semitism in France is on the rise, as is the rate of French Jews’ emigration to Israel. The fear that French Jews are not safe in their own land, that French Jewish culture may vanish, is once again palpable. (Photo overlooking rue Saint Honore with surrendering German soldiers 1944)

The French magazine Nouvel Observateur says this in their BiblioObs section. There's a map below and quotes, sorry from a badly Google translated article on Modiano. It has a map of where his books take place in Paris.

Among all, a book in Paris plays a part it is "Dora Bruder." Street names abound, from the apartment of the parents of little Dora, located at 41 Boulevard Ornano and the nearby cinema, Ornano 43 But gradually crumbles a series of names that no longer the same affect, religious boarding of 62-64 rue Picpus (Which has been torn down) echo roundups  12 Quai de Gesvres (head of social assistance of the Police, where his father was believed to be reading a passage), haunts almost all the books away Modiano, at least all those who for Paris headquarters for investigation. Dora Bruder replaced the dizziness of the reference of the abyss of accuracy. Paris has closed on the little Dora. Halfway between "New Mysteries of Paris" Leo Malet and "Attempt to exhaustion of a Parisian place" Perec's novels Modiano lead for nearly fifty years a survey of Paris, Paris instead of a crime. But these thrillers holes / white thrillers investigating oblivion  making the same trajectory flesh for his crimes.Modiano archivist, very sick, with all these addresses as a skin fever. Until regret, always, to say too much, not having been able to shut up. Private Detective writer merges with the real estate agent-writer.
Ok the long and short is they call Modiano a mystery writer who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Take heart blogmates!
Cara - Tuesday


  1. Thanks, Cara. The excerpt from Modiano's "Dora Bruder" is wonderful, the language beautifully evocative of the dark winter weather and the brooding atmosphere of the story to come!

  2. Here's an interesting column on Modiano that just showed up on the Huffington Post:

  3. A powerful post, Cara. Thank you for turning me into a Modiano fan

  4. Thanks for sharing this Everett. The man's an amazing writer and now that he's won the Nobel hopefully we'll get more of his work in English!