by Mitchell Abidor
I WAS ONCE ASKED an interesting question by a new acquaintance: If I could have written any book in the world, what would it be? Without any hesitation I answered, Rue des Boutiques Obscures (translated as Missing Person) by Patrick Modiano. Since discovering him thirty-five years ago, I have evangelized for his novels, to little avail, since only eight of the twenty-eight have been translated into English. Now that he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, with his work cited by the Nobel committee for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life world of the Occupation,” the few books translated will (perhaps) be more widely read, and (perhaps) more of his work will become available.
The works of Modiano, whatever the theme of the individual novel, all have floating over them an atmospheric fog, an air of corruption, a feeling of the characters being adrift, which reflect the author’s background. In fact, Missing Person could very well be the title of every one of his books.
Modiano is the son of a Sephardic father, himself the descendant of a family of Tuscan origin that had passed through Alexandria, Salonika, and Caracas before settling in Paris. And Paris itself is an important character in almost all of his novels, its street names playing an almost incantatory role in his fiction.
Patrick’s father, Albert, didn’t register as a Jew during the Occupation. Thanks to rather fishy connections, he lived through the period trafficking on the black market, thanks to his dealings with the purchasing division of the Gestapo in Paris, dealings that led to his accumulating a fortune during the war. It’s not insignificant that much of what we know (or “know”) of his father and his family comes from Modiano’s most autobiographical novel, Un Pedigree.
HIS FATHER’S COLLABORATION, the utter ambiguities, strangeness and degradation of such a life, would color Patrick’s oeuvre. It’s no accident that his first novel has as one of its main characters the writer Maurice Sachs, a Jewish collaborator who was shot by the Gestapo when he was too exhausted to keep up with the evacuation of the camp in which he’d finally been interned. It’s unsurprising, too, that Modiano’s best-known work in English would be his screenplay for Louis Malle’s film Lacombe Lucien, about a young man who joins the murderous collaborationist group La Milice.
Modiano’s father married a Belgian actress during the war, and Patrick was born as it was drawing to a close. Abandoned by his parents — his father carrying on his shady lifestyle and his actress mother often on tour — he lived a life of wretched boarding schools, entirely left to his own devices (though he would ultimately attend France’s most prestigious high school and then the Sorbonne). In his novels his main characters are almost always young people alone in the world, taken under the wing of elders with mysterious pasts and sources of income, the main character often in search of lost people from his own past.
Modiano was indeed taken under the wing of an older man, in his case one of France’s greatest writers, Raymond Queneau, who supported Modiano as a teenager and gave him math lessons. Queneau, along with André Malraux, would stand witness at Modiano’s wedding in 1970.
LITERATURE WAS MODIANO’S SALVATION, and thanks to Queneau, a member the editorial board of the most prestigious of French publishing houses, Gallimard, he was introduced to that world and had his first novel, La Place de L’Étoile, published in 1967. The novel, written in an hallucinatory style that he would soon abandon for a more direct one, tells the story of a Jewish Gestapo sympathizer. (The title refers to a nearly untranslatable joke: A passerby asks a Jew where the Place de l’Étoile is, and the Jew points to his chest, taking Place de L’Etoile not for the large intersection in Paris but as the place for the star Jews were forced to wear.)
The Occupation, abandonment, loss, solitude, lack of roots, Paris, absent parents: Modiano has put his life into his books. His novels are about life with no fixed points, where the characters often have to resort to old phone books to confirm the existence and addresses of people they’d known. Missing persons, all.
As is the case with all great writers, he has written only one book under many titles. Once he found his true voice, leaving behind the wilder style of his first three novels — all of which were about people involved in one way or another with the Gestapo — his books began to create a mood of unease unequaled in literature, a mood that carries from one book to another. If any Americans are scratching their heads over the attributing of the Novel Prize to Patrick Modiano, they’d do better to stop scratching and find his books.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.