J. xx Drancy. 13/8/42

Michael Wood

Patrick Modiano’s fiction is intricately caught up in time, as he himself says. ‘The great, the inevitable subject of the novel, is always . . . time.’ And more interestingly, less portentously: ‘I had the mania of looking back, always that feeling of something lost, not like paradise, but certainly lost.’ In fact, time is less his subject than his medium, an indispensable structure. ‘I was 18’; ‘Eight years ago’; ‘The evening when we first met’; ‘It isn’t as it was 18 years ago’; ‘I met Francis Jansen when I was 19.’ These phrases are taken almost at random from the opening pages of five different, recent novels, and they are entirely characteristic. Modiano’s narrator registers lapses of time, situates himself at meticulously specified distances from a series of past moments: eighteen years ago, ten years after that, six years earlier than that. He is remembering whole patches of the past, but what he really can’t forget is the barren present, the year on the current calendar. Time is not regained, it is segmented and catalogued, remembered as lost, the very precision of the memory a form of alienation.

Modiano published his first novel, La Place de l’Etoile, in 1968. He won the Prix Goncourt in 1978 for Rue des boutiques obscures, and in 1996 was awarded the Grand Prix National des Lettres for his work as a whole. He has become the object of a modestly growing academic industry. I take the quotations from Modiano with which I began (and a couple of later ones) from Alan Morris’s sensible book Patrick Modiano, published in 1996, and there have been several full-length works on him in French since, and plenty of articles. With Louis Malle, Modiano wrote the screenplay for Lacombe, Lucien (1974), and he wrote a book in collaboration with Catherine Deneuve, called Elle s’appelait Françoise . . . I haven’t been able to get hold of this or discover its date, but I assume it’s about Deneuve’s dead sister, the actress Françoise Dorléac. Consistent with Modiano’s interests if so, since his great subject is not passing time but missing persons. He has published 22 novels by my count – the blurb on recent reprints rather offhandedly says ‘une vingtaine’ – the last being Inconnues, which came out last year. The titles of the five novels from which I quoted above are: Un cirque passe (1992), Dora Bruder (1997, and now translated as The Search Warrant), Du plus loin de l’oubli (1996), Voyage de noces (1990) and Chien de printemps (1993).

Modiano says that like every other novelist he is always writing the same book, ‘on fait toujours le même roman.’ Modiano more than most, perhaps. The mania for looking back is always there. His characters collect shreds of old evidence, handwriting, photographs, police files, newspaper cuttings. They follow the footsteps of vanished people, snooping on the world of others like unemployed private detectives who can’t find anything else to do. They have what I take to be Modiano’s own interest in Paris streets, particularly those of the outskirts, and they ceaselessly list addresses, consult old directories, make calls to telephone numbers no longer in service. His narrators are often given pieces of Modiano’s own identity, his age, his parents, his incomplete schooling, and sometimes his career – the narrator of Dora Bruder, for instance, has written Modiano’s books. But then presumably much of Modiano’s actual identity is also left out. These are versions of the author, reminders that we and he are historical beings, not attempts at confession or exorcism. The narrator of Voyage de noces appears to have several of Modiano’s own memories, but he is a traveller and documentary film-maker – or he is until he decides to drop out of that career, and out of everything else. The narrator of Chien de printemps is a writer, but we hear only of his first novel, accepted for publication in 1967. He doesn’t tell us the title, or what else he has done, but he does say he is writing the current pages in 1992. We know the narrator of Du plus loin de l’oubli was once a would-be writer, but we never know whether he made it, unless the novel itself is the proof.

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