Last year, when Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in literature, I had never heard of him. It’s not surprising. None of my friends, many of whom who are far more well-read than I, had heard of him either. As it turns out, not many of his works had been translated into English. But being a Francophile, I like to be up on the happenings in France. So, I looked up Modiano online, read his Wikipedia entry, NYT and Le Monde articles, watched a couple of interviews with the man, and ordered a book from Gallimard, containing no less than 10 of Modiano’s works (his stories are fairly short).
The first thing I wanted to read was Modiano’s autobiography, Un Pedigree. The interviews that I’d seen on Youtube were puzzling. Here was a Nobel-prize winner in literature that seemed hard pressed to finish a sentence, let alone follow a linear train of thought. I wondered if, on paper, his prose would be laden with a rich vocabulary and profound complexity—perhaps demonstrating a level of communication that is difficult for any speaker to reproduce. What I found in Un Pedigree, however, again surprised me. It wasn’t at all what I’d call well-written. The sentences were complete but the book was like a core dump of someone’s stream of consciousness as he attempts to piece together his past.
In reading Un Pedigree, I felt as if I were reading notes that one might take before sitting down to write a book. I only read 30-40 pages before deciding I was getting very little from it and put it aside. Here is my translation of a passage in which Modiano describes his father’s life during the German occupation of Paris:
The people I’ve identified that he hung out with at the time are Henri Lagroua, Sacha Gordine, Freddie McEvoy, an Australian bobsled champion and race car driver with whom he would share, immediately after the war, an office on the Champs-Elysées the business name of which I wasn’t able to discover; a certain Jean Koporindé (189 Rue de la Pompe), Geza Pellmont, Toddie Werner (who went by “Mme Sahuque”) and her friend Hessien (Liselotte), Kissa Kouprine, a Russian, daughter of the writer Kouprine. She had appeared in a few films and played in a Roger Vitrac play, Les Demoiselles du large. Flory Francken, known as Nardus, who my father called “Flo” was the daughter of a Dutch painter and had spent her childhood and adolescence in Tunisia. Then she had come to Paris and frequented Montparnasse. In 1938, she had been implicated in a minor news item that was worth her appearing before a criminal court and, in 1940, she had married the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa. During the Occupation, she was linked to the woman who had been the heroine of L’Atlante, Dita Parlo, and her lover, Doctor Fuchs, one of the directors of the “Otto” service, the most important purchasing office on the black market, 6 Rue Adolphe-Yvon (XVIe).
Such was more or less the world in which my father circulated. Underworld? Mob? Before she is lost in the cold night of oblivion, I’ll cite another Russian who was his friend at that time, Galina, known as “Gay” Orloff. She had, at a young age, emigrated to the United States…
And so the book goes, presenting somewhat random pieces of information that are often forgotten immediately, or are momentarily compelling before disappearing from the reader’s memory, lost amidst subsequent ramblings. Ever busy with classes, my family, and other projects, I decided I didn’t have time to stick it out until the end in the hopes of gleaning a deeper understanding of Modiano’s life—that is, beyond what I had already gleaned after reading a few online articles.
Happily, a French literature class recently compelled me to return to Modiano’s work. The professor chose most of the books for the class but I was allowed to select one and I chose Modiano’s Dora Bruder. I didn’t know anything about this book beforehand. I’d only read that it was one of Modiano’s must-reads, and it was included in the 10-work volume I’d already purchased from Gallimard. I hope to say more about this book in a subsequent post but for now, let me just end by saying that I found Dora Bruder to be worthy of masterpiece prominence. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before and Modiano’s scattered manner of mixing facts with emotions, sequencing disparate events, jumping about in both time and space, and comparing people that have little observable connection with each other, works beautifully in this non-fictional account of a young French, Jewish woman who disappeared along with countless others in the midst of World War II.
Starting by his autobiography was tough.
For once, this was a Nobel I knew and loved! I fell in love with Rue des boutiques obscures in my teens , when it won le Goncourt. Since, I have read several others by him, and I recently have re-read Rue des boutiques obscures with one of my French students.
Great style, though all his books are like variations on the same theme.
What’s shocking though for me is that he has such a hard time talking when interviewed, hardly finishes any sentence. And in his old age just as when he received le Goncourt – there are interviews on youtube going back to that time.
He has just published his 30th novel, Chevreuse
I agree about Modiano’s shocking inability to finish a sentence. This post is the first one I ever wrote. I’ve been meaning to update it for a long time.
I wrote a longer paper on Modiano when I was getting my masters but it’s in French. I’ve read a few more of his books since. I agree that his style is unwavering. One thing I love is his uncanny ability to weave remembrances into his stories. He also describes place like no other. I always feel like I’m there on the street with the central character. These characteristics are even present in his children’s book, Catherine Certitude, which I loved!