In 1966, a young writer named Patrick Modiano published his first short story, a satire set in a summer concentration camp called ‘Saint-Tropez-Ravensbrück’. Surrounded by ‘charming Kapos’, the inmates – ‘children of Himmler and Coca-Cola’ – are lulled into submission by LSD and hedonism. Paris’s leading artists and intellectuals praise the camp; Jean-Luc Godard offers to shoot a collaborationist film. The title of the story, ‘I Am a Young Man Alone’, expressed its author’s predicament. Two decades after the end of the war, at the height of its trente glorieuses, France had moved on, but Modiano, the son of a Jewish businessman who had made his living on the black market during the Occupation and a Flemish actress who worked in the Nazi film industry, could not. He was so consumed by the history of Occupied Paris, the city where his parents had met, that he felt as if he had memories of it, although he was born in 1945, just after the war ended. As one of his characters would put it: ‘I was only 20 years old, but my memory preceded my birth.’
Since the late 1960s, Modiano has explored the struggles of a ‘young man alone’, orphaned by history, rejected or abandoned by his parents; a man who feels obscurely that he can never know himself, or even establish a fixed identity, without an understanding of a past that doesn’t quite belong to him. He has published more than two dozen novels on these themes; nearly half of them are now available in excellent English translations. They are slender books: few run to more than 150 pages, most are considerably shorter. In France they used to be known as ‘Modianos’, as if they were supermarket novels, but they are now celebrated as one of the most cohesive bodies of work in contemporary fiction, and in 2014 they earned him a Nobel Prize.
His most recent novel, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, tells the story of an elderly writer and recluse, much like Modiano, who loses an address book. A stranger returns it, but wants to know more about one of the names in the book, which was also the name of a character in the writer’s first novel. The stranger introduces the writer to an alluring young woman who triggers a rich but troubling set of associations with his past. She shows him a police file about a murder – it’s not unusual for a Modiano character to be handed a police file, or a briefcase filled with cash – in which he stumbles on the name of a woman who, he vaguely recalls, helped smuggle him across the border into Italy when he was a little boy. Much later, while he was trying to uncover the complicated story of his childhood, he’d had an affair with her. He remembers that she described herself as a friend of the murder victim. But although the people and places in this frustrating puzzle – rue de l’Arcade, rue de Charonne, square du Graisivaudan – promise to throw light on his own life, they don’t seem to add up to anything. Driving through the neighbourhood where he wrote his first novel, he feels ‘as though he had been struck with amnesia and was merely a stranger in his own city’.
So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood will be familiar to anyone who has read a Modiano: intrigue and exasperation, the incantatory repetition of street names and addresses, the implication that all of this has happened before in another life that the passage of time has rendered nearly invisible. Written in classical French, Modiano’s novels are easy to read, but not so easy to follow, because of their sudden, unannounced slippages in tense. He is fascinated by Nietzsche’s notion of ‘eternal recurrence’, and portrays Paris as a place where time constantly circles back on itself, a palimpsest where different moments of history have overlapped into phantasmagorical, often confounding shapes. His characters tend to interpret events in the present through the scrim of some half-remembered event in their past. Neither present nor past but some shifting and vertiginous blend of the two, this ‘inner landscape’ gives Modiano’s novels their hallucinatory power: the term ‘psychogeography’ might have been invented with him in mind. His characters are ‘nothing but bubbles, iridescent with the city’s colours’, as he remarks of the couple in his 1981 novel Young Once. Functionally, they are ‘actants’ rather than ‘actors’, to use the language of narratology, leading us through a world of seedy nightclubs, desolate warehouses and dark garages, a city cloaked in criminality and moral corruption. The topography of this underworld is described with a fanatical attention to detail.
Modiano, a collector of old Paris maps and telephone directories, revealed in a 2007 interview that for decades he has kept an immense stack of notebooks filled with ‘precise things, dates, names, places, about people who really existed’. His books, he added, ‘are only a contraction of this mass of information that I’ve piled up’. This sort of aide-mémoire features in another recent Modiano, The Black Notebook (2012), in which an old man dimly recalls an affair with a woman who may have been a conspirator in the 1965 kidnapping and murder in Paris of the left-wing Moroccan leader Mehdi Ben Barka. Modiano has increasingly returned in his work to the early 1960s, a ‘bizarre and chaotic period’. But the long moment that underlies all his novels, the primary layer of sedimentation, is the Occupation, to which, he said in his 2014 Nobel lecture, ‘I owe my life.’ Occupied Paris was ‘a kind of primordial darkness’, and ‘my books are sometimes bathed in its veiled light.’
In his investigation of Modiano’s sources, Dans la peau de Patrick Modiano (2011), the journalist Denis Cosnard has shown that many of the names that recur in the novels refer to Occupation-era personalities: diplomats, gangsters, nightclub performers, collaborators and Gestapo thugs. To read Modiano’s novels is to experience the bewildering disparity between the precision of their settings and the disorientation that afflicts his characters. ‘Topographical details have a strange effect on me,’ the narrator of After the Circus (1992) confesses. ‘Instead of clarifying and sharpening images from the past, they give me a harrowing sensation of emptiness and severed relationships.’
The Nobel committee described Modiano as a ‘Marcel Proust for our time’, and praised him for his exploration of ‘the art of memory’. But forgetting, not memory, is the real engine of his novels. His novels are usually told in the form of investigations, with touches of noir that led his early critics to mistake him for a detective novelist, but for all the tantalising clues left by telephone directories and faits divers, the doors to the past remain closed to his characters, leaving them susceptible to paralysing anguish.
Modiano, then, is not a psychological writer: amnesia does not lend itself to intimate portraiture. Yet his work is rooted in shame, which in turn is inextricably tied to his origins. His father, Alberto Modiano, a Jew of Italian origin whose parents had come to France from Salonica, grew up in Paris but didn’t have French nationality. (The Modianos were distantly related to Modigliani.) During the Occupation he led a clandestine life, selling textiles, metal and alcohol to German officers and dodging the Jewish Affairs police. His contacts included Hermann Brandl, an SS spy known as Otto, and people involved with the ‘Rue Lauriston Gang’, the French Gestapo, whose headquarters were in the 16th arrondissement – a ubiquitous lieu de mémoire in his son’s fiction. According to Cosnard, Alberto moved among collaborators, war profiteers and Jews like himself who were in a ‘delicate situation’ vis-à-vis the police. A man of great cunning and apparent charm, he seems to have lived well at a time when things couldn’t have been worse for Jews without French nationality. He met the actress Louisa Colpeyn, Patrick’s mother, in 1942, only a few months after she arrived in Paris from Belgium, in the company of a German officer; he did not tell her he was a Jew. Two months after the war ended, she gave birth to Patrick; two years later, the Modianos had another son, Rudolph.
Modiano grew up in a peculiar atmosphere of material comfort and emotional neglect. The family lived in a large house in Boulogne-Billancourt, before moving to a hôtel particulier in the sixth, at 15 quai de Conti. They were well connected in cultural circles: his mother’s acquaintances included the actress Anna Karina and Raymond Queneau, who became Patrick’s maths tutor and later introduced him to Gaston Gallimard, his publisher. Neither Alberto nor Louisa appears to have had any interest in parenting, a task they farmed out to an eccentric group of women in the countryside, something Modiano has revisited in several of his novels. The only person in the family he truly loved was his brother, who died of an illness at the age of nine. Modiano dedicated his first seven novels to ‘Rudy’, and claimed for many years to have been born in 1947, the year of his brother’s birth.
Patrick sensed early on that his parents were hiding something. The owner of the house at 15 quai de Conti was listed as ‘Henri Lagroua’, a friend whose identity Alberto had assumed during the war. Alberto himself was frequently mistaken for a South American, and had an air of mystery, even danger, about him. He ran an outfit called the Société africaine de l’entreprise, held meetings at the Hôtel Claridge, and travelled in the Congo and Latin America. His son had no idea what he did to make money, much less ‘what he had felt, deep inside’ during the war. Modiano, who was baptised at five, didn’t know he was Jewish until he reached adolescence.
By then his parents’ marriage had ended. His mother took up with a gangster who was later linked to Ben Barka’s murder, and frittered her time away on her theatrical career, which didn’t go anywhere. ‘I can’t recall a single act of genuine warmth or protectiveness from her,’ Modiano writes in his memoir, Pedigree (2005). He has expressed increasing bitterness towards her over the years, but as a young man the target of his wrath was his father. Although they lived on separate floors in the same building, Alberto was furious that Patrick insisted on staying with his mother. When Patrick refused his orders – and dared to knock on the door of the apartment Alberto shared with his new wife – his father had him arrested as a ‘hooligan’ and even joined him in the police van to punish him further. Modiano, who has often retold this episode, was horrified that he could be subjected to such humiliation by a man who had ridden in a police van driven by the inspectors of the Jewish Affairs police, and broke off all contact with his father.
Alberto, who died in 1977, took his secrets to the grave. The mystery of his life in wartime Paris would become the point around which his estranged son’s fiction turns. This fascination with the sordid world of Occupied Paris, rather than the fate of its Jewish deportees, is what sets Modiano apart from his near contemporary Georges Perec, whose work was also haunted by the war. Born in 1936 into a family of Polish Jews living in Paris, Perec survived the Occupation in hiding, lost both his parents and built his work around the ‘unsayable’ fact of their disappearance. In his memoir W, or the Memory of Childhood, he describes writing as ‘the memory of their death and the assertion of my life’. The letter ‘e’ never appears in his novel La Disparition: ‘sans e’, in French, sounds like ‘sans eux’, ‘without them’.
Modiano is no less preoccupied with the traces of his parents, no less playful in his exploration of their memory, but what troubled his conscience as a young man was not their death, but their life; what inspired his fiction and accounts for its obsessional energy is not destruction but survival. In the winter of 1943, Alberto was rescued from Gestapo custody, and almost inevitable deportation, when someone intervened on his behalf. Alberto never identified his benefactor. Somehow, Patrick convinced himself that it was Eddy Pagnon, a car salesman and racketeer who rose up through the ranks of the Rue Lauriston Gang to become a sublieutenant in the Gestapo. Modiano would later imagine them forming a ‘pact’ in a Paris garage in 1939. References to Pagnon and the Rue Lauriston Gang are sprinkled throughout Modiano’s novels, whose plots often revolve around untrustworthy older men and the naive young men they desert, or somehow betray. In fact, as Cosnard writes, Alberto’s links to Pagnon are entirely ‘hypothetical’, the idea that they could have forged a pact a ‘fragile hypothesis’. Yet it is exactly the kind of hypothesis that Modiano’s narrators devise in their childlike hunger to know their parents’ past.
During the war the Modianos’ house had been the residence of a notorious Jewish anti-Semite: Maurice Ettinghausen, better known as the gay Jewish writer and thief Maurice Sachs, an associate of Cocteau, Max Jacob and Gide who was rumoured to have been an informer for the Gestapo. Sachs was killed at the end of the war, probably executed by the SS. In his father’s library, Modiano discovered Sachs’s work, along with the books of other collaborationist writers such as Brasillach, Lucien Rebatet, Drieu la Rochelle and Céline. These were books in which he found the figure of ‘the Jew’ is depicted as a ‘monster with claw-like hands and hooked nose’, a ‘creature corrupted by every vice, responsible for every evil and guilty of every crime’.
Modiano’s first novel, La place de l’étoile, published in 1968 and full of rebellious energy, grew out of his horrified fascination with this literature. The title was an allusion both to the square that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe and to the yellow star Jews were forced to wear. Modiano would later claim that he had written it as a ‘riposte to all those who, by insulting my father, had wounded me’. Yet the novel doesn’t read like an act of filial piety. Instead, it is a calculated obscenity, a literary grenade hurled at several targets at once: French collaborationism, Jewish self-hatred, Israeli loathing of diaspora Jews and, above all, the polite, repressive aura around the word ‘Jew’, daubed into the prose like graffiti. Published the year before Portnoy’s Complaint, Modiano’s novel has something of Roth’s exuberant outrageousness, his joy in blasphemy. ‘Goys are like bulls in a china shop when it comes to understanding Jews,’ the narrator, Raphael Schlemilovich, says. ‘Even their anti-Semitism is cack-handed.’
A writer who expresses himself in a wild burlesque of Céline, Schlemilovich is an anti-Semitic Jewish everyman: collaborationist writer, faux aristocrat, harem owner, drug dealer, gold trafficker, Gestapo informant, seducer of Aryan girls, lover of Eva Braun. He dies three times in the novel, and bounces back and forth from the 1940s to the 1960s – sometimes in a single scene. In the book’s most delirious section, he is imprisoned in Israel, after being found in possession of books by Kafka and Proust, and harangued by a sabra (Israeli-born) general:
No one is interested in hearing about the angst, the malaise, the tears, the hard luck story of the Jews. No one! We don’t want to hear another word about the Jewish critical thinking, Jewish intelligence, Jewish scepticism, Jewish contortions and humiliations, Jewish tragedy… We are forceful people, square-jawed pioneers, not a bunch of Yiddish chanteuses like Proust and Kafka and Chaplin.
The work of those ‘chanteuses’ will be burned in public by ‘our young people, fine boys and girls who would have been the envy of the Hitler Jugend … While you were off cultivating your neuroses, they were building their muscles. While you were kvetching, they were working in kibbutzim.’ Facing execution by a Zionist firing squad, Schlemilovich plots his escape to Europe, where he and his girlfriend, Rebecca, will be free to ‘read Kafka to our children’. Freud makes a cameo appearance in the final pages, urging him to read Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew. ‘We are living in a world at peace,’ he reminds him. ‘Himmler is dead, how can you remember all these things? You were not even born, come now, be reasonable.’
In Anti-Semite and Jew, published just after the war, Sartre had argued that the Jew was the creation of an anti-Semitic gaze. That gaze had been so powerful, Modiano suggests, that there was no way ‘simply to be a Jew’ – even, perhaps especially, in the state of Israel, the alleged ‘solution’ to the Jewish question. To be a Jew was to wear a disfiguring, minstrel-like mask; anti-Semitism was a pathology that afflicted perpetrator and victim alike. In La place de l’étoile, Schlemilovich’s best friend is Maurice Sachs, and his father – a wandering Sephardic Jew who bears more than a passing resemblance to Alberto Modiano – is pictured reading Céline’s Bagatelles pour un massacre in a garret room above the Gestapo headquarters.
In his next two novels, both published in 1972, Modiano would strike an even more troubled note. In them Occupied Paris is a shadowy realm of collaboration, double identities and forbidden pleasures. The narrator of The Night Watch is an agent in the French Gestapo, a ‘malleable’ young man who offers his services to the Resistance not so much out of conviction as out of his ‘fondness for action’. In Ring Roads, a young man tries to reconstruct the collaborationist past of his father, a Jew from Alexandria called Henri who disappeared many years before, on the basis of a dusty photograph. In a back-to-the-future sequence, the young man finds himself in Occupied Paris, exposes his father as a Jew, and then saves him from being murdered – if only to save himself.
Modiano’s first three novels, recently collected in English translation as The Occupation Trilogy, have often been likened to Marcel Ophüls’s 1969 documentary on Occupied France, The Sorrow and the Pity. But where Ophüls advanced a counter-myth to the Gaullist myth of Resistance, one that underscored the depths of collaboration and anti-Semitism, Modiano portrayed the Occupation as, in Henry Rousso’s words, a ‘puzzle that must never be solved, for it is only through the gaps in the picture that the truth can emerge’. The brash, prosecutorial clarity of Ophüls was anathema to Modiano. Inevitably he attracted a number of admirers among former collaborationists. When he won the Roger-Nimier Prize in May 1968, it was bestowed on him by Paul Morand, a former adviser to Pierre Laval. Modiano defended his borrowings from anti-Semitic literature as a ‘kind of weapon’ against anti-Semitism, but this critique, it turned out, could also be read as a homage.
Modiano’s best-known Occupation work is the film Lacombe Lucien, which he co-wrote with its director, Louis Malle. Released amid great controversy in 1974, it tells the story of an 18-year-old peasant in a south-western town who joins the German milice after being turned down by the local Resistance leader. Lucien, whose father is in a German prison, is portrayed as a coarse, blank-faced young man, inarticulate but eager for action, with a streak of cruelty. Yet he is also capable of surprising acts of tenderness – not least towards a beautiful young Jewish woman, France Horn, the daughter of Albert Horn, a proud, humiliated tailor desperate to cross the border to Spain.
According to Cosnard, Modiano revised Malle’s screenplay to make Lucien more ambiguous, and added an important element to the setting: the Hôtel des Grottes, a regional Gestapo headquarters. The milice members who hang around the hotel – a local version of the Rue Lauriston Gang – are murderous thugs, but they take Lucien under their wing, introducing him to some seedy nightlife, and become his surrogate family. But the Occupation is the undoing of the Horn family. France rebels against her father – ‘I’m so tired of being a Jew,’ she says – and her father is forced to accept Lucien’s presence in her bedroom. In Malle’s script, Albert was an unremarkable Jewish tailor, but Modiano turned him into a doomed man who defiantly refuses to be a passive victim. In a heroic, suicidal gesture, he seals his fate by showing up unannounced at the Hôtel des Grottes.
Modiano helped cast Lacombe Lucien, and joined Malle on set. His identification with its themes was so thorough that he named three of its characters – Albert, Rudy and Patrick – after his father, his late brother and himself. When the film was released, however, few were aware of the family dramas at its centre. Serge Daney spoke for many when, in Cahiers du cinéma, he accused Malle and Modiano of ignoring the social and ideological roots of collaboration by refusing to illuminate Lucien’s motives. Yet the film’s silence was an epistemological decision as much as a political one. As a child of 1945 – Year Zero of the postwar period, as Ian Buruma has called it – Modiano was insisting on the unbridgeable distance between himself and his protagonist. The apparent naturalism of the film’s style, too, was quietly defamiliarising, particularly in the last scenes, in which Lucien and France escape to an abandoned farm and live out a pastoral idyll as the Allied troops advance. The war was an irremediably foreign country, accessible only by way of fantasy and conjecture: what struck Daney as ideological reaction was, more accurately, a severe case of humility.
After Lacombe Lucien, Modiano turned away from the historical settings of his early work, and began to write his ‘Modianos’, with their noir-like plots about amnesiacs trying to solve the mystery of their identity. His prose took on a more lyrical, often elegiac air, not unlike the final scenes in Malle’s film. The narrator of Livret de famille (1977) – the son, like Modiano, of a Jewish man and a woman who dubbed films for a German production company during the war – is so perplexed by the discoveries he makes about his parents’ marriage that he undertakes an investigation. It leads him to a garden in the Bois de Boulogne, not far from Modiano’s first home, where he smells ‘the venomous odour of the Occupation, the soil from which I arose’. In La Rue des boutiques obscures (1978), the same smell is so strong that the narrator Guy Roland, an amnesiac detective, is afraid that he will be stopped and asked for his papers, as if the war had never ended. Far from depicting Roland as a lunatic, however, Modiano seems to share his belief that ‘the entrance halls of buildings still retain the echo of footsteps of those who used to cross them and who have long since vanished.’
Rue des boutiques obscures won the Goncourt, over Perec’s dazzlingly experimental La Vie mode d’emploi. Modiano’s victory caused a minor scandal: the conventional wisdom at the time cast Modiano as a naif, even a reactionary, who wrote books for le grand public. That he borrowed the devices of detective fiction was another strike against him. Modiano contributed to the misconception that he was a simple storyteller by praising ‘classical clarity’ and pouring scorn on ‘literature for literature’s sake, research on writing, all this byzantinism for chairs and conferences’. But his use of historical ‘traces’ – old phone numbers, addresses and proper names – to infiltrate the lives of others isn’t so straightforward. The raw material for his 2001 novel La Petite Bijou – the addresses, phone numbers, even the name of a Chinese chef – is lifted directly from his research notebooks. A woman in Paris recognised the central character, Thérèse, or ‘Little Jewel’, as her 65-year-old mother, and read it to her. They were astonished and flattered, but asked Modiano to change a number of details in the second edition, including the names of several characters.
The most famous case of ‘infiltration’ is the book many critics regard as his masterpiece, an unclassifiable work of non-fiction called Dora Bruder (1997). Its origins go back to 1978, a year after his father’s death, when he read the first volume of the Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld’s Memorial of the Deportation of the Jews of France. Klarsfeld’s book, a list of the names and addresses of the nearly 80,000 victims of the genocide in France, resembled a telephone directory – Modiano’s favourite genre, the foundation of his imaginings. Modiano was overwhelmed by this act of historical recovery: the Memorial, he said, caused him to ‘doubt literature’.
Ten years later, he stumbled on a missing persons advertisement in a 1941 edition of Paris-Soir, about a 15-year-old girl named Dora Bruder who had run away from her Catholic boarding school, where she had been in hiding. Her Viennese-Jewish father and Russian-Jewish mother, who posted the ad, had lived next to a cinema Modiano knew well. He found the names of the Bruder family in Klarsfeld’s Memorial, and spent the next eight years researching their history. He made no great discoveries. Dora ran away a second time, was interned at Drancy, and died in the camps, as did her parents. The Bruders were ‘the sort of people who leave few traces. Virtually anonymous. Inseparable from those Paris streets, those suburban landscapes where, by chance, I discovered that they had lived … And such topographical precision contrasts with what we shall never know about their life – this blank, this mute block of the unknown.’
In his memoir, Perec depicted this ‘mute block of the unknown’, the disappearance of the traces of those destroyed in the camps, as perhaps the cruellest legacy of the Holocaust: ‘I know that what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation.’ Modiano, too, writes in Dora Bruder of the ‘sense of emptiness that comes from the knowledge of what has been destroyed, razed to the ground’. By dramatising his thwarted efforts to excavate Dora’s traces, he finds a way to redeem their disappearance, almost to make them stand for freedom itself.
Dora Bruder is an eerie book, mournful yet weirdly affirmative, a tribute to an unknown victim of the genocide that conceals an even more emotional requiem for the survivor who haunts much of Modiano’s fiction: his father. Modiano says that when he first heard of Dora, he remembered a story Alberto had told him about riding in a police van in 1942 with a Jewish girl her age. It couldn’t have been Dora, but Dora Bruder is very much a story of parallel lives – Dora’s, Alberto’s and Patrick’s. He imagines her taking the métro, going to the movies, and relates her experience to his own adolescence. Modiano, who ran away from home in the early 1960s, is intrigued that Dora would have taken the risk of leaving the school that protected her. ‘I tell myself her flight was not as simple as mine twenty years later … That city of December 1941, the curfew, the soldiers, the police, everything was against her.’
Modiano is unable to find out how Dora hid, much less what possessed her to flee from her sanctuary, but his failure, he comes to see, is her triumph – and her gift to him. By defying his attempts to retrace her steps, she becomes a ghostly medium for his reconciliation with his father, whose sinister talent for covering his tracks haunts the pages of Modiano’s fiction. ‘Since they had made him an outlaw, he had no choice but to follow that same course, to live on his wits in Paris and vanish into the swamps of the black market,’ he writes. For Alberto and his associates, being called an outlaw was ‘a point of honour. I applaud them for it.’ As Cosnard remarks, Modiano’s father is elevated ‘to the rank of war victim, object of honour and love. Almost a hero.’
This could hardly be further from the soixante-huitard insouciance of La place de l’étoile. ‘I am not a son of France,’ Schlemilovich says. ‘I never knew a life of grandmothers who made jam, of family portraits and catechism. And yet, I constantly dream of provincial childhoods.’ It is hard to imagine Modiano – or a young French Jew – writing these lines today. The situation of Jews in France is still fraught and complex: the emigration of thousands to Israel is an indication of their growing fears about security as much as any enthusiasm for the Jewish state. But they have never received stronger recognition of their Frenchness, or a more honest acknowledgment of their persecution under Vichy. The commemoration of the Holocaust is so firmly embedded in France’s civic culture that it is a crime to deny it. One of its physical expressions – thanks to Modiano – is the Promenade Dora-Bruder in the 18th arrondissement, between rue Leibniz and rue Belliard.
Some French critics were surprised that the Nobel could have been awarded to a writer as franco-français – as parochially French in his concerns – as Modiano. They were paying him an unintended compliment. As Modiano wrote in Pedigree, he never felt that he had proper French origins, as the son of immigrant parents with disreputable histories. Today, he is very much an establishment figure, loved for his shyness, his stutter, his disarming anxiety in interviews. His fiction has assumed an increasingly wistful air, often re-creating the Paris of the early 1960s, when he was writing yé-yé songs for Françoise Hardy and working in the cinema. There are faint echoes of the ‘war without a name’ – the Algerian war of independence – in Modiano’s depiction of those years. The narrator of Villa Triste (1975), for example, recalls having fled Paris for the Franco-Swiss border in the early 1960s because there were ‘far too many roundups for my taste. Exploding bombs … Which war was going on then?’ But the traces of decolonisation, to say nothing of multiracial Paris, are largely absent from Modiano’s palimpsest of the city’s history, even though the story of the banlieues has all the makings of a Modiano: traumatic memories of police violence and roundups; children rebelling against their immigrant parents, who no longer recognise their offspring; a long and twisted search for a stable identity against the force of oblivion. The closest he gets to France’s entanglement with the Muslim world is The Black Notebook, set partly in the Hôtel Unique, where the assassins of the Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka gather, much as the fascists did at the Hôtel des Grottes in Lacombe Lucien. But the Hôtel Unique is little more than a noirish backdrop for the narrator’s memories of another captivating girl who got away. The neglected margins of Paris continue to await their Modiano.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.