“Writing is a strange and solitary activity. There are dispiriting times when you start working on the first few pages of a novel. Every day, you have the feeling you are on the wrong track. This creates a strong urge to go back and follow a different path. It is important not to give in to this urge, but to keep going. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.” So spoke Patrick Modiano − for whom the fog has most certainly lifted − at the Swedish Academy, Stockholm, on 7 December 2014. He is the eleventh French writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
A refreshing antithesis to the self-promoting writer blasting forth at every opportunity, Modiano is a private man and remains aloof from the Parisian literati. There is a big difference between writing − intensely personal − and doing a turn in front of a live audience. Writers who feel that the words on the page are the point and everything else − including the web − is a distraction, could well be heartened by Modiano’s words, “A writer – well, a novelist at least – often has an uneasy relationship with speech. Calling to mind the way school lessons distinguish between the written and the oral, a novelist has more talent for written than oral assignments. He is accustomed to keeping quiet, and if he wants to imbibe an atmosphere, he must blend in with the crowd. He listens to conversations without appearing to, and if he steps in it is always in order to ask some discreet questions so as to improve his understanding of the women and men around him. His speech is hesitant because he is used to crossing out his words. It is true that after several redrafts, his style may be crystal clear. But when he takes the floor, he no longer has any means at his disposal to correct his stumbling speech.”
For a performance-and-social-media-shy writer published in translation, to win a major prize means everything changes. A prize is the ultimate measure of cultural success and value − and the Nobel is about as good as it gets. It is also the oldest, as it dates from 1901. (The Prix Goncourt and Prix Femina were set up in 1903; the Pulitzers in 1917; the Booker Prize in 1968.)
Last week, the Institut Français in London hosted a celebration of Modiano’s work, co-curated with editor Bill Swainson who is responsible for publishing many outstanding writers in translation during his time at Bloomsbury. Books by the Nobel laureate in both French and English were snapped up by admirers, courtesy of Librairie La Page and Daunt Books.
Modiano was born in 1945. His father was a Jew – discovered much later on in his life – who refused to wear the obligatory yellow star, and lived off shady Black Market earnings during World War Two. “Am I responsible for my father and all those shadowy figures who spoke to him in muffled tones in hotel lobbies or back-rooms, carrying suitcases – contents unknown.” His Flemish mother was an actress. His brother died of an unspecified illness when he was a child. He had a terrible, broken childhood. When his translator, Euan Cameron, asked him about his parents, Modiano answered that he would have loved to have known his parents before he was born.
The high fallutin’ high society Paris of Modiano’s early novels is that of the Occupation during World War Two. A carnival of characters live under Nazi domination in a murky world. It is hard to pass on guilt: everything is opaque, and everyone is implicated, somehow. An atmosphere of ambiguousness, compromise and complicité is pervasive in his work. There is a fine line between resistance and collaboration both in the heart, and in reality. The author of historical fiction relies on imprecise episodic memories underpinned by a vivid imagination. Modiano addresses memory and “truth” in history through his writing, and tries to put some kind of order into the muddle of life. He is suspicious of memory, of what is remembered and forgotten, since facts and events can be embellished, or completely left out, thereby giving a bias to the narrative. But he trusts written records – official and unofficial – which prompt those memories, and give them credibility. To what extent an objective narrative of that period can be recreated remains a moot point – it is, perhaps, more a question of puncturing the silence; le non-dit. To this day, mentioning the Nazi Occupation can create an atmosphere of shuffling unease in certain French families especially when the question is asked: “What did your father/grandfather do during the war . . . and your mother/grandmother?”
Modiano’s first novel Place de l’étoile – an ambiguous reference to the yellow star worn by Jews, and the Place de L’Étoile with the Arc de Triomphe at its centre – exploded on to the Parisian literary scene in 1968 like a V-2 rocket. He rages on the page and no one is spared . . . from the élites of la vieille France, to polo players and playboys, les juifs collabos and antisemitic writers supporting the Vichy government (Drieu la Rochelle, Robert Brasillach, Louis-Ferdinand Céline) . . . “Part two of my study is called: Robert Brasillach or Nuremberg’s bridesmaid. ‘Some of us did sleep with Germany’ he admitted, ‘it is a memory imbued with tenderness’.” Whether they are selling socks to the Wehrmacht, bootleg Cognac to the Gestapo, well-bred young beauties to white slave traders, or working for the French Gestapo out of its rue Lauriston HQ, everyone is on the make and on the take, one way or another.
Yet Modiano writes, “By what right do I break into anyone’s life and call them to account?” His language is uncomplicated, but nuanced. He plays with time and tenses which can be disconcerting. His brilliantly splenetic first novel was followed by La ronde de nuit and Les boulevards de ceinture; all three are published by Bloomsbury in one volume – The Occupation Trilogy – translated by Frank Wynne.
The Paris of his later work is that of his youth in the 1950s-60s, and of more modern times. References to the war years are woven into its psycho-geography – “There were intermediate zones like a no man’s land, which offered a certain immunity, or neutrality.” Modiano invariably writes about identity, lost people and fugitive time. Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue is like a Robert Doisneau photograph wreathed in the atmosphere of a Simenon mystery. It is narrated by a student; a detective; the young woman at the centre of the novel who goes missing; and her lover, Roland. “In this life which is, at times, like a wasteland without any signposts, we want to find a point of reference somewhere in the middle of all the escape routes and lost horizons, and draw a map, to create the illusion that we are not just navigating randomly. And so, we form bonds.”
More Spleen de Paris than À la recherche du temps perdu, comparisons to Proust are misleading, (many authors are preoccupied with time and place). His most famous works are Dora Bruder and Rue des boutiques obscures, which won him the Prix Goncourt in 1978. Pedigree, an autobiographical portrait both of Post-War Paris peopled by extraordinary characters and a tumultuous angst-ridden childhood is published by Maclehose Press; as is So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood translated by Euan Cameron.
The film Lacombe, Lucien co-scripted by Modiano with director Louis Malle, was screened after the discussion at the Institut Français. It provoked an outcry when it was released in 1974. The film critic for the Nouvel Observateur said it was “the first real film – the first true film – about the Occupation” while both the Communists and Gaullists, official guardians of the “all the French were Resistance Fighters” myth denounced the film as being ambiguous, if not outright fascist.
Modiano’s collaboration with the artist Gérard Garouste, (his father was a furniture dealer who collected and sold the property of deported Jews), resulted in a special Collector’s edition of Dieu prend-il soin des boeufs? 160 copies were printed and now retail for thousands of euros through rare book dealers.
Over nearly half a century, Modiano has gone where others feared to tread and shone a spotlight on a world which needs to be illuminated. Not very well known outside France, now he will be, thanks to the Nobel Prize in Literature.
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[Extracts in the first two paragraphs from Modiano’s Nobel Speech are translated by James Hardiker, Semantix. Text extracts are my translation as I only have the books in French. Ed.]
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