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.
Much recurs in Modiano’s work, then, and the range is not vast. But the novels I’ve read – the recent ones – are subtly, even insidiously different from each other. You think you know where you are, because the places are similar and the natives look alike. This is an error, because they are all about loss, and scrupulously, painfully remind us that no two losses are the same. Chien de printemps reports a fragment of the story of Francis Jansen, a Belgian photographer, friend and protégé of Robert Capa, who works for the Magnum agency, and has disappeared. A young man, our narrator, meets Jansen (‘when I was 19’) and offers to sort and catalogue his work. Jansen is friendly, but aloof, distracted, avoiding all his old friends, not answering the telephone, hiding from visitors. He is plainly living in the aftermath of some calamity but we never find out what it is. We learn that he loves the silence of photographs, and dislikes the talkiness of words. Of all the characters of print, he says he likes best the three dots that mark an ellipsis, but perhaps he is making a joke the narrator doesn’t get. Just before he disappears, Jansen tries to get a copy of his birth certificate in order to prepare his travel documents and discovers that another Francis Jansen, also born in Belgium but in another town, was arrested in Rome, detained in the Fossoli camp, and deported in 1944 towards his death in an unknown time and place. Jansen tells the narrator the ‘truth that we intuit but hide from ourselves because we don’t care or because we are afraid: a brother, a double is dead instead of us in an unknown time and place, and we finally become indistinguishable from his shadow.’ Did Jansen somehow know this before he learned about his namesake? Or does he interpret this eerie resonance in this way because of what has happened to him?
Both Voyage de noces and Du plus loin de l’oubli concern the memory of a woman. She has committed suicide in the first novel, and is living in Mallorca in the second. In the first she has escaped the round-ups of Jews in Occupied France, and kills herself in Milan much later. In the second she is not Jewish, and what she has survived is a raffish 1960s youth which involved, among other things, a little larceny and a little prostitution, and hanging out with Peter Rachman in London. The narrator also knows Rachman, and indeed visits a number of his properties with him. We see a memorable series of snapshots of broken-down flats and houses, the battered London equivalent of the shabby Paris immeubles Modiano so loves, the hotels and apartment buildings near the Porte de Clignancourt or the Porte des Lilas, or in the streets close to the zoo at Vincennes. In Du plus loin de l’oubli, the narrator has slept with the woman, and what he wants from her when they meet again is a reminder of who he was, what he was. ‘I caressed her hair,’ he writes when they finally get together, before she vanishes yet again. ‘It was not as long as it was before but nothing had really changed. Time had stopped. Or rather it had returned to the hour marked by the hands of the clock in the Café Dante, the evening when we met there, just before the place closed.’ Time does turn back, but only briefly. In Voyage de noces, the narrator merely admires the woman, and has found in her an idea of protection he had not known through his mother or anyone else. ‘She would be the first person who could help me. A sensation of lightness invaded me . . . I didn’t know that such things could happen in life.’ But who will protect her, above all from her memories, since the thought of her survival is inseparable from that of the death of her father, arrested in Paris and deported in 1942, when she left home and didn’t return? At one point she tells the narrator about her past, because, he thinks, ‘it happens that one evening . . . one feels the need to transmit, not one’s experience, but simply some of those disparate details connected by an invisible thread which is threatening to break, and which we call the course of a life.’
‘Like everyone who has neither ground nor roots,’ Modiano has said, ‘I am obsessed by my prehistory. And my prehistory is the troubled and shameful period of the Occupation.’ Modiano was born in 1945, so the prehistory is very immediate here. We could have guessed this obsession from Lacombe, Lucien, and from a number of Modiano’s books, but we couldn’t, I think, have guessed what its accumulation would feel like in a late book like this one. It is simply called Dora Bruder in the American edition of this translation, and you can see why the British publisher would want something more catchy, particularly in the light of Modiano’s usually fraught and oblique titles. But maybe he was trying to avoid catchiness here, and while The Search Warrant suggests something of the sense of legal invasion which is important to the novel, as far as I can see there is no search warrant in it at all. There are police documents, and reports on missing persons, and a Foreign Legion record, and various accounts of deportations of Jews.
19.6.42. Nachmanowitz Marthe. 23.3.25. Paris. French. 258 rue Marcadet. J. xx Drancy. 13/8/42.
19.6.42 Pitoun Yvonne. 27.1.25. Algiers. French. 3 rue Marcel-Semblat. J. xx Drancy 13/8/42.
These are quotations (real or imagined, copied or adapted?) from the register of the internment centre Les Tourelles, a former colonial infantry barracks. ‘J’ means Jewish. Drancy is the name of the camp where these 17-year-old girls were sent, and from where most of them proceeded to Auschwitz. In the face of all this, the very idea of a search warrant begins to seem too orderly, and too sane, a memory of another history, or prehistory.
The novel begins in what now looks like Modiano’s trademark style, and very close to self-parody, and it takes a while to move into another mode. The narrator tells us about a newspaper entry he read ‘eight years ago’. The entry in turn dates from 1941, and describes a missing person, Dora Bruder, 15 years old, her parents’ address 41 Boulevard Ornano. The narrator remembers this northern boulevard from his childhood, when he used to go the Saint-Ouen flea market with his mother. He also remembers the neighbourhood from 1965, when he had a girlfriend who lived there: the nearest Metro stop is Simplon, there used to be a cinema at 43 Boulevard Ornano. The narrator continues to talk rather more about himself than about the missing girl, and treats us to various aphoristic remarks and self-definitions: ‘It takes time for what has been erased to surface.’ ‘All it takes is a little patience.’ ‘But I am a patient man. I can wait for hours in the rain.’ This doesn’t sound too promising, and once again we think we know where we are.
But as the narrator pieces together the lives of Dora’s parents, Austrian and Hungarian Jews who tried to protect their daughter by putting her in a Catholic boarding school for working-class children, a place called the Holy Heart of Mary; as he meets a cousin of Dora’s and is given some family photographs; and finally as he registers Dora’s disappearance from her school in December 1941, and wonders what she can have done until she shows up again at home in April 1942, the book begins delicately to take the measure of its haunting double question: what happens when you run away from home into a history that is itself adrift? The narrator remembers his own flights from home, and fantasises about the dreams of freedom Dora may have had, ‘the illusion that the passage of time is suspended, and that you need only slip through this breach to escape the trap which is closing around you’. But of course these are his thoughts, and he knows nothing of what Dora felt. He also knows, or quickly realises, there is no comparison between his situation and hers. Dora is a runaway but can run only into the arms of a Jew-hunting government. There is no breach, only the trap. After April Dora leaves home again, perhaps more than once, and by June she is interned in Les Tourelles, before her transfer to Drancy. Was she picked up for vagrancy? For not wearing a star? In Modiano’s work the ‘Place de l’Etoile’ is both the location of the Arc de Triomphe and the site of the Star of David worn by Jews during the Occupation. The narrator doesn’t know why she was picked up, only that she finally left Drancy for Auschwitz with her father, who had also been arrested, in September 1942. Her mother, arrested and released in July because no orders had yet been given for the disposition of Hungarian Jews, was arrested again in January 1943, and sent to Auschwitz in February.
The narrator can’t map these lives onto his own, which is all he seems to want to do at the start. But he is not helpless. His conclusion, that what we don’t know about Dora is her secret, and precious for that reason, is perhaps too quick a consolation, but at least it isn’t an attempt at possession.
I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret which not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, history, time – everything that corrupts and destroys you – will have been able to take away from her.
And the narrator’s other strategies, which also become Modiano’s own, are more effective and enduring. He doesn’t directly imagine other lives, as novelists often, indeed usually do, and he doesn’t just tell us those lives are unimaginable. He works through what he calls voyance, translated here as ‘clairvoyance’, and defined by Larousse as a set of intuitions ‘concerning past or future events’.
The narrator recounts what is either an extraordinary coincidence or a brilliant piece of plotting. Reading Les Misérables, presumably for Paris atmosphere, he reaches a dizzying moment when Hugo’s historical Paris, full of actual street names, gives way to an imaginary Paris all Hugo’s own. Valjean and Cosette take refuge in an imagined convent which – the dizziness now doubles – has the same address (real or imagined) as Dora Bruder’s school, the Holy Heart of Mary. A little later the narrator tells us – and this must be a genuine coincidence or it has no resonance – that he has just discovered that the title of his own first novel is also the title of a work by Robert Desnos, who died in Terezin in 1945. The point, I’m assuming, is that history doesn’t run parallel to fiction, it runs through it. And vice versa.
There is a character in Middlemarch who fails to understand another person’s action because ‘he did not live in the scenery of such an event.’ Modiano gives us the imaginable scenery of unimaginable events.
All that remains of the building occupied by the Prefecture of Police during the Occupation is the huge spectral barracks beside the Seine. It reminds us a little, whenever we evoke the past, of the House of Usher. And we can hardly believe that this building we pass every day is unchanged since the 1940s. We persuade ourselves that these cannot be the same stones, the same corridors.
The rest of the chapter, after this description, is taken up with quotations from unanswered letters to the Prefecture, queries and supplications written during the Occupation regarding internments of parents, children, siblings, spouses. The effect here is similar, in a muted way, to that of Alain Resnais’s film Night and Fog, where we can’t put together the bland colour images of the present with the grisly black and white pictures of the past. What on earth can it mean to say this is the same place?
At another moment the narrator recalls a film made during the first year of the Occupation, a light comedy called Premier Rendez-vous. The physical film seems strange to him when he sees it long after its first appearance, veiled, oddly luminous.
Suddenly I realised that this film was impregnated with the gaze of cinema-goers from the time of the Occupation – people from all walks of life, most of whom would not have survived the war . . . And, by some chemical process, this combined gaze had altered the very substance of the film, the lighting, the voices of the actors.
The chemical process is a fantasy or a metaphor, but the mixing of memory and imagination is not. It’s just voyance.