When Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014, he was an almost completely unknown quantity in America, where only one of his many books was in print. Over the last year, Yale University Press has led the effort to remedy this situation, releasing a steady stream of Modiano’s work in new paperback editions. Last year we had Suspended Sentences, a collection of novellas, and earlier this year there came Pedigree, a memoir. Now two more Modiano titles have been published, each a short novel: After the Circus, translated by Mark Polizzotti, and Paris Nocturne, translated by Phoebe Weston-Evans. Rarely do we have the opportunity to watch a major writer take shape before our eyes, as if his entire career were being replayed in fast-forward. Not since the Roberto Bolano craze of the last decade have American readers seen anything like it
Unlike Bolano, however—or other European writers such as Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard—the unveiling of Modiano’s work has not inspired anything like a literary craze. Perhaps the Nobel itself has paradoxically served to dampen enthusiasm. Readers love the feeling of having made a discovery, of being in on a literary secret; and no writer who comes with the imprimatur of the Swedish Academy can give that kind of excitement.
There is also, however, a literary reason why Modiano continues to fly under the critical and commercial radar. In the books we have had a chance to read so far—and these are only a fraction of his oeuvre—Modiano appears as a very private, inward-turning, and obsessive kind of writer. No matter the genre he is working in—whether he is writing novellas or novels or memoirs—he is in thrall to a single theme, which is his own childhood and youth. He is engaged in a perpetual quest to make sense of what happened to him early in life, and to evoke the eerie atmosphere of abandonment, confusion, and loss that his experiences created. In a sense, Modiano can be thought of as an anti-Proust: where Proust describes his early life with miraculous, even suspicious fullness and detail, Modiano gropes among the shadows of a childhood he barely remembers.
What makes this blank so resonant is the way it reflects the wider crisis of memory in French society after World War II. Modiano was born in 1945, just after the end of the Nazi Occupation, to a Sephardic Jewish father who was a con man and petty criminal, and a Belgian mother who was a small-time actress. The couple separated shortly thereafter, and neither parent seemed to have much interest in raising Patrick, who was farmed out to a series of relatives, strangers, and boarding schools. The situation was calculated to make his parents objects of longing, and of an insatiable curiosity—especially about their lives during the war, just before he was born.
Albert Modiano, the novelist’s father, managed to survive as a Jew in Paris partly due to his criminal connections; but exactly what he got up to, or what shadowy forces helped him, remains a mystery. In book after book, Modiano writes as a kind of familial detective, trying to piece together the scraps of evidence and memory that would explain his parents’ personalities and actions—just as France at large struggled to make sense of its own experiences under German rule. This peculiarly French dimension to Modiano’s work is reflected in his obsessive explorations of Paris, where nearly all his books have been set, and which he evokes with a unsettling combination of total familiarity and deep estrangement.
Those are also the keynotes of Paris Nocturne, a book in which the experience of shattered memory and deja vu is worked into the very texture of the narrative. The story begins with the teenaged narrator—who is, like all of Modiano’s narrators, easily taken as a version of the author—getting hit by a car as he crosses the street. He and the driver, a woman named Jacqueline Beausergent, are both taken to the hospital by a “huge brown-haired man” who appears on the scene, evidently a passenger in the car. When he awakens from ether, the narrator finds himself in a new place, a private clinic, from which he is hurriedly discharged; the huge man appears again and forces him to sign a statement taking responsibility for the crash. Everything in these opening pages happens in a blur, leaving the reader, like the narrator, uncertain of exactly what has really happened and why.
The remainder of the novel is devoted to the narrator’s attempts to track down Jacqueline and the brown-haired man. He feels compelled to do this, partly in order to confirm just what happened the night of the accident, but more importantly because of a strange sense of deja vu:
“I remembered the strange impression I had in the police van all the way to the Hotel-Dieu, that I had already seen her face somewhere else ... I had already crossed paths with a certain Jacqueline Beausergent, or the same person going by a different name. I had read that only a small number of encounters are the product of chance. The same circumstances, the same faces keep coming back, like the pieces of colored glass in a kaleidoscope, with the play of mirrors giving the illusion that the combinations are infinitely variable. But in fact the combinations are rather limited.”
This intuition that all of life consists of the repetition of a few key moments and relationships could be taken in a psychological sense—it is, after all, Freudian wisdom that childhood repeats itself in adulthood. But Modiano—like his German contemporary W.G. Sebald, in books like Austerlitz—blurs the line between psychology and metaphysics. Perhaps, Modiano wonders, it is reality, not just our minds, that creates patterns and repetitions in our experience. As the narrator of Paris Nocturne confides more details about his life, and about the strange set of people with whom he was associating at the time of the accident, he becomes convinced that the accident itself had happened before. Surely he had once been struck by a car as a child, he starts to believe, and the woman who took him to the hospital on that occasion was none other than Jacqueline. Finding her might be the key to restoring the whole lost world of his fractured upbringing.
The power of Paris Nocturne lies in its convincing evocation of this kind of deja vu, this uncertainty whether past is present or present is past. Knowing the actual facts about one’s own life is, for Modiano, an impossibility: “Whole sections of our lives end up slipping into oblivion ... on this strip of old film, spots of mold cause shifts in time and give the impression that two events occurring months apart took place on the same day or even simultaneously.” The smell of ether, which unites his childhood and adult memories of being in the hospital, becomes for Modiano what the madeleine was for Proust, but in reverse: a sensation that leads, not to restoration of the past, but to oblivion.
Paris Nocturne, as its title suggests, has the nighttime logic of a dream. After the Circus, by contrast, transposes Modiano’s favorite themes into a taut, hard-boiled crime story. Once again the book starts with a sudden, frightening encounter with an unknown woman. Our narrator, this time called Jean, is 18 years old when he gets picked up and interrogated by the police, simply because his name has been found in the address book of an unnamed criminal. (Address books are always sites of peril and fascination in Modiano: several of his novels contain lists of names and addresses ostensibly reproduced from address books, which serve, like photographs in Sebald, both to confirm and complicate the novel’s relationship with reality.) As he leaves the interrogation room, he sees a young woman, Gisele, being brought in next; he waits for her to leave the police station, and soon the two are inseparable.
Gisele, however, turns out to be another insoluble enigma: where she came from, why she’s always changing addresses, the identity of her former husband, and above all the real business of the shady characters who are her friends. Jean is enlisted by one of those friends, the suavely menacing Ansart, to deliver a message to a man in a cafe. It seems like a harmless mission, but Jean is getting paid so much to do it that he knows something sinister is going on. When the man turns up dead, and Ansart disappears, Jean and Gisele must try to escape Paris before the police close in.
So far it sounds like it could be a movie, a film noir; but the story’s themes of identity and vulnerability make it authentically Modiano’s. There is, for example, the moment late in the book when someone—perhaps a policeman, but perhaps not—keeps calling Jean, trying to feed him information about Gisele that will drive the two apart:
“She wanted me to hang up, grabbed the receiver and tried to wrest it away from me, but she couldn’t. I kept it glued to my ear. One evening, at the same hour, in the same place, during the Occupation, my father had received a similar phone call ... It was no doubt a man much like the one from before, brown hair, balding, tan coat, who belonged to Superintendent Permilleux’s squad and was tasked with ferreting out undeclared Jews.”
Here the sensation of deja vu returns with a historical vengeance. In After the Circus and Paris Nocturne, Modiano is writing metaphysical mystery stories, in which the search for answers is never afforded an easy solution. The more of Modiano’s work you read, the more familiar and inevitable his peculiar set of obsessions starts to feel—which is one sign of a major writer.