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Rob Spillman: Shades of Gray in Patrick Modiano’s Paris

Readpolitik: Reading the new Nobel laureate’s moody, wintry fictions in his moody, wintry city.

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Image from Flickr via Ron Reiring

By Rob Spillman

It is only fitting that Patrick Modiano is being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on December 10, for it seems forever December 10 in the moody Paris of Modiano’s fiction. Here in Paris, it is hard not to feel as if I am in one of Modiano’s “fictions” (as is the European manner of referring to his blend of fiction, memoir, and investigative journalism). It is misty, foggy, cold—the million shades of gray that Modiano so beautifully and thoroughly captures in his numerous works. Reading his clear, meticulous prose, it is also hard not to feel that you are becoming Modiano, the constant observer. At least, I have. I did a doublestart when reading “Afterimage,” one of the three novellas collected in Suspended Sentences (Yale/Margolis, deftly translated by Mark Polizzotti) when the narrator (who is, as in most of his work, “Patrick Modiano”) remembers when he was young and was taken on an errand by a glamorous woman to fetch a letter from Le Hotel Royal, the same timeless hotel from which I am writing this. And a little later on, when he tests whether an old coin-operated scale from his youth still works, and it does, showing that he weighs 168 pounds, exactly what I weigh.

Memory is Modiano’s milieu. Particularly memories that cannot be fully recovered.

The Nobel Committee awarded Modiano the Nobel Prize, it said, “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” The Occupation of Paris by the Nazis during World War II is a recurring touchstone. Modiano was born in 1945. During the war his father was a smuggler in the black market and disappeared from Modiano’s life when he was eighteen. His mother was an actress who also disappeared for long stretches to tour in far-off locales like Northern Africa. Memory is Modiano’s milieu. Particularly memories that cannot be fully recovered.

Modiano suddenly realizes his writerly affliction: “Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun?”

Another reason it is perpetually December 10 in Modiano’s fictional world is due to the melancholy that settles across each work like fog rolling off the Seine during a drizzle, blurring night and day, or as Modiano writes: “It gets dark early, and it’s just as well: night obliterates the grayness and monotony of these rainy days when you wonder if it really is daytime, or if we are going through some intermediary stage, a sort of gloomy eclipse lasting until dusk.” Yet the work isn’t necessarily gloomy. Rather it is nostalgic, resigned to the curse of trying to remember the marginal, the shadowy people and places of a fading Paris. In “Flowers of Ruin”, another novella in the Suspended Sentences collection, a young Modiano realizes that he has been chosen for a certain life of observing and recuperation of memories, that to start with he is doomed to try to figure out who a certain Phillipe de Pacheco really is. This dapper drifter who most likely stole another’s identity during the Occupation, who most likely was a waiter to a handsome, successful young couple on the fatal winter night in 1933 when they ventured out for an uncharacteristic wild night and wound up with two other couples and in the early hours, finally back home, shot themselves for no reason than Modiano can figure out. Sitting across from his beautiful young girlfriend, Modiano suddenly realizes his writerly affliction: “Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun?”

Luckily for us, Modiano gave himself over to this affliction, returning again and again to “prison fodder,” to those in the margins, in the gray shadows, like the band of smugglers and outlaws in the title novella “Suspended Sentences.” They are part of a notorious black market gang whom his father ran with, and whom he left Modiano and his younger brother with when his mother went on a year-long tour of North Africa. (Modiano’s brother, who died young, is another absence that haunts his work). “I rescue them from the void one last time before they sink back into it forever.”

One of Modiano’s most intriguing shadows is the real life Dora Bruder, a Jewish Parisian, who, at age sixteen, in July, 1942, ran away from her Catholic boarding school and was caught two months later by the Germans, arrested for roaming the streets without her yellow star. In this, Bruder is like Modiano’s own father, who was caught by the Nazis and escaped before he could be sent to the infamous Dranzy camp, a weigh-station on the way to Aushwitz. Bruder, unlike Modiano’s father, did not escape, and was sent on to Dranzy, and then shipped by cattle car to Aushwitz.

Modiano first fictionized Bruder in his 1990 novel Voyage de noces, calling her Ingred Teyrsen, and then, in 1997, he opted for the straightforward telling of Dora Bruder (University of California Press, coolly translated by Joana Kilmartin). Modiano won’t let go of the fact that the rebellious Bruder could and should have survived the war. If she had stayed in school, she would have been sheltered, her Jewish identity hidden, her father having not registered her in the Nazi’s Jewish census. She, like Modiano himself, chose to run away and live by her wits. But little is known of the actual Dora Bruder, and Modiano spends much of the book walking the misty December Parisian streets, wondering how these could be the same streets as Bruder’s, the same streets as the countless petty bureaucrats and collaborators that doomed Bruder and thousands of other Parisians to the death camps. “We persuade ourselves that these cannot be the same stones, the same corridors.” Yet Mariano persists, digging up scraps, bureaucratic filings, traces that are heartbreaking in their mundane efficiency. Hannah Arrendt’s banality of evil is rendered here in exacting detail. Yet Modiano persists, and will not give up on this sixteen year-old. “In writing this book, I send out signals, like a lighthouse beacon in whose power to illuminate the darkness, alas, I have no faith. But I live in hope.”

This is what gives Modiano’s work its quiet power—he will not relent. Despite the gloom, the slow erasure of the people and places he most wants to hold onto, Modiano still fights to remember and honor their memories. And now, with the Nobel, his work is guaranteed to fade to gray.

Rob Spillman is the Editor of Tin House.

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