Ideas

Patrick Modiano’s world of shadows

How the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize uses literature to tell us something historians can’t

Patrick Messina/Contour by Getty Images

Little more than a decade ago, “Catherine Certitude” set foot in America. A children’s story with ravishing artwork by Jean-Jacques Sempé, the celebrated New Yorker cartoonist, the book is narrated by a woman, Catherine, who recalls her childhood in Paris. Unable to wear her glasses in her dance class, Catherine would practice not wearing them during the day. Shapes lost their sharpness, she recalls, and “everything was blurry.” Lulled by a world that had become “as soft and downy as my big pillow,” Catherine daydreams until her father softly asks why she isn’t wearing her glasses. When she puts them back on, the world regains its edge and clarity: “I couldn’t dream anymore.”

In dreams, of course, begin responsibilities. Few writers know this better than the story’s author, Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature this month. Though “Catherine Certitude” is, unlike most of Modiano’s work, for children, let us take him at his word: “I am,” he told a journalist, “always writing the same book.” Like many of Modiano’s narrators, Catherine confronts a past as blurred as is her world without glasses. Why, for instance, did her father, Georges Certitude, change the family name? Wasn’t there something shady about his shipping company? And why does her father collaborate—a charged word, especially in France—with a louche type who has a mysterious claim on him?

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Modiano’s name was hardly less mysterious to Americans when they learned he had won the Nobel Prize. He is little known beyond the Francophone world, and his books’ apparent theme—Paris under the German occupation—can seem all too French for a global audience. But this is a pity: As readers of his novels understand, Modiano’s concerns are ours as well, probing the complex relationship between then and now, and the provisional nature of historical understanding.

Just as another Nobel Prize winner, William Faulkner, was more than a novelist of America’s post-bellum South, Modiano is much more than a chronicler of France’s dark years. Both writers remind us that the past is not dead—in fact, it’s not even past—and do so in a way that most professional historians, wedded to documentary evidence and often indifferent to moral imagination, cannot.

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“La Place de l’étoile” (literally “Star Place,” referring to both the vast roundabout surrounding the Arc de Triomphe and the yellow star French Jews had to wear), Modiano’s first book, burst onto the French literary scene in 1968. The story unfolds during the years of Vichy, the reactionary, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic regime that collaborated with the Nazis. Following the Liberation, the nation allowed the shadow of Charles de Gaulle to blot out the memory of those shameful years. They had been a nation of resisters, they murmured to themselves, dozing on a Gaullist myth as soft and downy as Catherine’s pillow.

Come 1968, the volcanic energy of the student rebellions rocked France. The students, born after the war, challenged not just de Gaulle’s paternalism but also their parents’ silence on what had taken place. Modiano joined this protest movement on the pages of “La Place de l’étoile,” a manic satire of the toxic anti-Semitism that coursed through interwar and Vichy France.

Overnight, it seemed, France was forced to confront a new vision of itself as a nation of collaborators, both in books like Modiano’s and in Marcel Ophuls’s iconic documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity,” released shortly afterward. Historians have since added nuance to our understanding of Vichy, presenting a past more complex than a Manichaean battle between resistance and collaboration. Yet even today, France struggles with this legacy. On the day Modiano won the Nobel Prize, Eric Zemmour’s reactionary “Le France Suicide” (“France Kills Itself”), which claims that Vichy in fact saved the lives of most French Jews, sat at the top of France’s best-seller lists.

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Modiano has continued to explore the shadows and silences that inhabit this chapter of French history. Born in 1945, Modiano long declared 1947 his birth year in an effort to distance himself from the war. Still, as he insists in “Livret de famille” (“Family Album”), he feels he experienced the Occupation, as if “my memory preceded my birth.” With tragic persistence, the so-called dark years flow through Modiano’s work. His narrators, hobbled by willful or unwilled ignorance, gather the flotsam left by the past, trying to reimagine the currents of occupation, resistance, and collaboration as they rose and swept across the lives of those caught in their path.

Harvard’s Arthur Goldhammer, one of our country’s preeminent French translators, told me that Modiano is “a psychoanalyst of the damage done to the French psyche by the Occupation, and you need to sit through all the ‘sessions’ to receive the full benefit of his work.” But if you have the time for just one book, he added, perhaps it ought to be “Dora Bruder.” In this slim work, published in English translation in 1999, Modiano narrates his own effort to piece together the identity of a refugee Jewish girl whose existence he discovered upon stumbling across a classified in a 1941 Paris newspaper. Their lives, though separated by decades, intersect in unsettling ways against the backdrop of Paris. But Bruder was deported and murdered at Auschwitz, while Modiano was spared.

Perhaps only just spared. As readers of “Dora Bruder” discover, the author’s father, Albert Modiano, was also Jewish. A black marketer, the elder Modiano escaped deportation by luck and design, making himself indispensable to German officers and French mobsters, while his Catholic wife (and Modiano’s mother) was an actress employed by the German-owned Continental Films. Collaboration, for the Modianos, was a family affair.

In “Catherine Certitude,” which looks back at this era, Catherine’s certitudes crumble as she gropes her way, with her glasses, towards a past more complex than she ever suspected. Where does her search leave her, and us? Once Sempé’s pastel dreamscapes of New York give way to the dim streets and gray skies of occupied Paris, we find we’ve been led into Modiano’s own past—and, perhaps, our own.

The responsibility of historians, as they try to illuminate our collective past, is to treat the past with clarity and caution. The force of their interpretations, but also their limitation, comes from their attachment to the documentary traces of earlier eras.

The novelist is not subject to this constraint. But that freedom entails a different kind of responsibility. Through his spare language and intuitive leaps, moments of hesitation and flashes of awareness, Modiano underscores the fragility of historical knowledge. He reminds his readers, regardless of their national origins, that both personal and collective identity is a volatile thing, and that the past, though elusive, nevertheless shapes our present. In the end, Modiano offers a kind of modesty in his purchase on history: Our understanding of the past will always remain partial and provisional. At the same time, we also come to see, like Catherine, that in surrendering our old certitudes, we may win insights that make our lives more fully human and humane in the present.

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston. Harvard will publish his new book, “Boswell’s Enlightenment,” next spring.
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