Illegitimate Son: On Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano Book Covers

I was born on July 30, 1945, at 11 Allée Marguerite in Boulogne-Billancourt, to a Jewish man and a Flemish woman who had met in Paris under the Occupation. I write ‘Jewish’ without really knowing what the word meant to my father, and because at the time it was what appeared on the identity papers. Periods of great turbulence often lead to rash encounters, with the result that I’ve never felt like a legitimate son, much less an heir.

This is the opening paragraph of Patrick Modiano’s Pedigree: A Memoir (2005), as translated by Mark Polizzotti. The lines can be taken as representative of the book’s directness and clarity of style. Pedigree is, however, an unusual autobiography in several respects. Modiano claims at one point that he has ‘nothing to confess or elucidate’ and ‘no interest in soul-searching or self-reflection’. In a passage recalling the death of his younger brother, he digresses to observe that he is ‘writing these pages the way one compiles a report or résumé, as documentation and to have nothing to do with a life that wasn’t my own’. He describes his memoir as ‘just a simple film of deeds and facts’. Yet this apparently neutral process of setting out known details, this stated desire to record only that which is remembered or in some sense verifiable, makes it impossible to ignore the elliptical nature of his account of his family background and childhood. Though he claims that, with the exception of his brother’s death, nothing he is relating matters to him, his professed indifference would seem to be refuted by the obsessive manner in which his novels return to a small number of closely related themes, all of which have personal resonances.

Like much of Modiano’s work, Pedigree displays an attitude toward the past that is ambiguous, and perhaps in a deeper sense conflicted. Its notionally scrupulous approach is replicated in his novels, which are easy to read, but can be hard to grasp. They are invariably succinct, but they are also formally ingenious and possessed of a distinctive searching quality. Tangible traces of past lives – official records, identity papers, newspaper clippings, photographs, old addresses and phone numbers – often feature as clues. These concrete details are presented in ways that emphasise their mysteriousness, their ability to hold unknowable personal histories beyond themselves. This generates the sense of irresolution that impels Modiano’s enigmatic plots, granting much of his work a loose generic affinity with detective fiction; unlike detective fiction, however, his novels tend to withhold any final understanding. There are moments of partial revelation, moments when lost details are recovered and preserved against the effacing march of time, moments of connection and imaginative identification – but their deeper mysteries remain unsolved because they are ultimately insoluble.

It is unsurprising, then, that testimonials and critical assessments of Modiano’s writing should so often resort (as I have already done) to vague terms like ‘mysterious’ and ‘atmospheric’ and ‘haunting’. But the element of uncertainty is not only thematically significant on both a personal and a historical level; it also renders these two levels indistinct. Modiano’s books are not simply preoccupied with memory and the elusiveness of the past; they are troubled by the fragility and impermanence of human relationships, which are depicted as unreliable and contingent. The world of his novels is one of coincidences and fateful encounters. It is a shady world of criminal dealings, in which people are unforthcoming or evasive, origins are unknown or unclear, identities are falsified. It is a transient world of hotels and cafés – a world of passing acquaintances and broken family connections, in which people are apt to run away, commit suicide or disappear without explanation, and characters are disturbed by feelings of emptiness and loss.

All of this has the effect of making Pedigree seem essential to the understanding of Modiano’s novels, in that it appears to provide an autobiographical explanation for their obsessive and enigmatic qualities. The portrait it paints of his neglectful parents, though fragmentary, is quite devastating. His father, he reveals, was a black marketeer, who went by various aliases and associated with a host of disreputable characters. His actress mother was ‘a pretty girl with an arid heart’. Neither of them took any interest in their two sons. Modiano was sent away to a boarding school that ‘catered to the unloved, bastards, lost children’. Of his mother, he writes:

I seldom saw her. I can’t recall a single act of genuine warmth or protectiveness from her. I was always on my guard around her. Her sudden flares of temper upset me deeply …

Early in the book, Modiano remembers that his mother once owned a lapdog that ‘killed itself by leaping from a window’. He adds a flash of deadpan humour: ‘I feel a great kinship with him.’ Later, he observes:

nothing softened the coldness and hostility she had always shown me. I was never able to confide in her or ask her for help of any kind. Sometimes, like a mutt with no pedigree that has been too often left on its own, I feel the childish urge to set down in black and white just what she put me through, with her insensitivity and heartlessness. I keep it to myself. And I forgive her. It’s all so distant now.

His dysfunctional relationship with his father was murkier and more complicated, characterised by what Modiano describes as his father’s ‘mysterious compulsion always to push me away’. In a crucial scene – which he revisits in another of his autobiographical works, The Search Warrant (1997), where he writes that the incident has ‘taken on a symbolic quality for me’ – he recalls that his mother sent him to his father’s apartment one day to ask for some support money. His father responded by calling the police and having him arrested, declaring to the authorities that his teenage son was a troublemaker and a ‘hooligan’. Pedigree concludes with the 21-year-old Modiano breaking off all contact, after his father demanded he join the army. He documents this decisive sundering by reproducing their final communication: an angry exchange of letters in which his outlaw father denounces him as a ‘dishonest and ill-bred youngster’.

Modiano recounts these distressing experiences in a dispassionate manner, but when he writes of his parents ‘there’s nothing I can do: that’s the soil – or the dung – from which I emerged’, the note of hurt and bitterness is unmistakable. And the reverberations of his unhappy childhood can certainly be felt in his novels. His protagonists are no more given to soul-searching or self-reflection than their creator, but it is hard not to notice that his novels are replete with characters who are estranged from their parents or drawn to surrogate parent-figures, and sometimes both. His imaginative transformations of his experience of parental rejection can be dramatic and vivid, even grotesque. In the early novel Ring Roads (1972), for example, the narrator’s father tries to push him under a train. There is a scene in Paris Nocturne (2003) in which the unnamed narrator, whose father once had him arrested, is walking along the street one night when a hideous maternal figure – who, in a creepily comical touch, bears an uncanny resemblance to Leni Riefenstahl – emerges from the shadows like something from a ‘forgotten childhood nightmare’ and attacks him. In Little Jewel (2001), which is unusual among Modiano’s novels for having a female narrator, a young woman named Thérèse becomes convinced that a lady in a yellow coat she glimpses at a train station is her actress mother, whom she had long believed to be dead. Her pursuit of this elusive person summons traumatic childhood memories:

even after all these years, a vision rose before me, as if it had emerged from the deep: the grimacing face, the dilated eyes, and something like spittle on those lips. And the screeching voice, and the stream of abuse. Anyone who didn’t know her would not have been able to imagine the abrupt transformation of such a beautiful face. I could feel myself in the grip of fear again.

What becomes increasingly apparent the more one reads Modiano’s novels is that, whatever cathartic purpose they may serve for their author, their autobiographical elements are not merely expressive. They are more imaginative and speculative than confessional. The absence of reliable family structures becomes a motif that implies a radical sense of deracination that is central to his work.

It is significant on this point that many of the novels feature protagonists on the cusp of adulthood, in their late teens or early twenties, when their identities and social positions are still uncertain – Villa Triste (1975), Young Once (1981), Honeymoon (1990), Flowers of Ruin (1991), After the Circus (1992), Afterimage (1993) and In the Café of Lost Youth (2007) all fall into this category. Many of these books are set in the early 1960s, when Modiano was himself a young man. But they have nothing of the bildungsroman about them. Instead, they are concerned with youth as a liminal or suspended state – a state of uncertainty touched with naivety. Their narratives tend to be defined by moments of discontinuity and rupture, moments of sudden transition when a character steps out of one existence and into another. They are invariably divided between (at least) two time periods, usually decades apart, and the act of looking back comes to emphasise the distance between a ‘now’ and a ‘then’, in a way that renders events indistinct and casts them in an elegiac light.

This felt distance is one of the keys to Modiano’s work. Its importance is made explicit in numerous expressions of disquiet at the thought of past lives being effaced. ‘I refused to accept that people could disappear without a trace,’ declares the narrator of Afterimage, one of three superb mid-period novellas collected in Suspended Sentences. The line can be read as a kind of mission statement for Modiano’s work in general. The cycle of flight and pursuit that is evident in his novels is, in this sense, driven by the mystery of other people: characters are seeking to recover a lost past, seeking understanding and connection (or more often reconnection), and in directing their searches outward, reaching back into history, striving to preserve whatever meagre facts they are able to salvage, they are seeking a kind of resolution without really knowing what resolution might mean, what form it might take, or if such a thing is even possible.

There is an element of existential wonder in this search for understanding: an acute awareness of life’s contingencies. In Pedigree, Modiano records his lack of any ‘clear sense of why at a given moment you found yourself with certain individuals rather than others, in certain places rather than others’ – a line that echoes the famous passage from Pascal’s Pensées about the terrifying silence and empty infinitude of the universe: ‘I am stunned to find myself here rather than elsewhere, for there is no reason why it should be here rather than there, and now rather than then.’

No less significant, however, is the corresponding awareness, which runs counter to the perpetually unfulfilled desire for the reassurance of certainty, that there is something not merely fluid or unstable but disconcertingly ungrounded, even inessential, about identity itself. In his memoir, Modiano writes: ‘I am a dog who pretends to have a pedigree.’  And it is worth dwelling on the implications of the word pretends (the line in French is ‘Je suis un chien qui fait semblant d’avoir un pedigree’, which can have the stronger implication of ‘faking’). It is not as if Modiano never knew his parents; he just doesn’t know who they really were. He has limited information about their backgrounds, only a few sketchy details. He remembers them as ‘aimless’ and ‘unsettled’; they ‘didn’t belong to any particular milieu’. And the corollary to this void in his understanding, this lived indeterminacy, is that his own identity comes to be understood as something improvised and unresolved, a structure without foundations.

A heightened awareness of the unstable nature of identity pervades Modiano’s work. In addition to their numerous unexplained disappearances and suicides, their sense of the unreliability and fragmentary nature of memory, his novels feature any number of characters who are either disconnected from their personal histories or deliberately misrepresenting themselves. The uncertainty this creates gives an inward inflection to the characters’ outward investigations. The most obvious example is Guy Roland in Missing Person (1978), a private detective and an amnesiac, who doesn’t know who he is in a literal sense. But the narrator of Paris Nocturne could speak for many of Modiano’s protagonists when he states that he is ‘trying to discover, despite the obscurity of my origins and the chaos of my childhood, a fixed point, something reassuring, a landscape even, that would help me regain my footing’. As the narrator of Ring Roads comes to realise, having struggled to imagine his way into the criminal demimonde of the father he barely knew: ‘It was myself that I was hunting down so relentlessly.’

In Modiano’s most recent novel, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood (2014), there is a scene in which the central character, a writer named Jean Daragane, comes face-to-face with an old passport photo. Realising that his younger self has become a stranger to him, he experiences ‘a sort of giddiness, a tingling sensation at the roots of his hair’.

There are many comparable moments throughout Modiano’s novels – moments when his protagonists are overcome with feelings of ‘vertigo’ and ‘lightness’ and ‘euphoria’ and ‘floating’ and ‘emptiness’. These are closely associated with the many disconnections and disappearances that punctuate his books. They occur when characters become conscious of the voids of forgetting and unknowability that underlie their existence. And in this sense they encapsulate the peculiar ambivalence of Modiano’s novels, for these vertiginous sensations – which are likened on a number of occasions to the horrible thrill of throwing oneself from the top of a cliff or bridge – not only express a disquieting sense of instability and impermanence, they also speak of a countervailing desire to embrace the uncertainty, to liberate oneself from an assumed or inherited identity and the burden of the past.

There are several striking instances of this, but one of the most luminous occurs in the late work In the Café of Lost Youth – a rare Modiano novel that utilises multiple narrators. It is the story of a group of young bohemians (‘stray dogs’, the café owner calls them) who gather around a guru-like older figure named Guy de Vere, a character loosely based on the Situationist philosopher Guy Debord. The novel comes to focus on a girl named Jacqueline, whom they nickname ‘Louki’, and the moving passage in which she recounts her decision to break with the group captures the intimations of sublimity Modiano finds in such moments:

Later I revisited that same intoxication every time I broke off ties with someone. I was never really myself when I wasn’t running away. My only happy memories are of flight and escape … At the end of the street ahead of me was wide-open sky, as if it led up to the edge of a cliff. I advanced with that feeling of lightness that can sometimes come to you in a dream. You no longer fear a thing in the world, potential dangers seem laughable. If something goes really wrong, you just need to wake yourself up. You’re invincible … Soon I would reach the cliff’s edge and I would throw myself into the void. What happiness it would be to float through the air and finally know the feeling of weightlessness I had been searching for my whole life …

Modiano’s ability to generate a potent air of melancholy at these moments is one of the distinctive features of his work (he is particularly good at resonant endings). The pathos generated by this sense of the lightness of being is related to his understanding that such revelatory glimpses of freedom are inevitably fleeting and bound up with the experience of loss. There is a doomed quality to the relationships in Modiano’s fiction. This is true even when his characters develop something like a genuine closeness. The ill-fated love affairs in Villa Triste and After the Circus, for example, are tainted from the start by an element of dishonesty. The characters are seeking the consolations of intimacy, but are reticent about revealing their pasts. They are, in a sense, estranged from themselves, which means they also retain a certain distance from each other, even at their closest. As a result, their consolations can only ever be temporary; their separation is inevitable.

The implications of this distance are understood to be social as well as personal. Modiano’s novels are conscious of the elements of superficiality and hypocrisy in the ways that people seek to present themselves. Forged identification documents are a recurring motif. In Little Jewel, Thérèse remembers her abusive mother insisting that they act alongside each other in a film as a loving mother and daughter – a perverse misrepresentation of the reality of their relationship. The false pretence of respectability becomes the subject of darker insinuations in the latter part of the novel, when Thérèse befriends a young girl whose smiling, impeccably bourgeois, yet utterly unloving parents are twice described as having the ‘smooth faces of murderers who would remain unpunished’. There are many louche characters in Modiano’s fiction (the narrator of Villa Triste is one, though there are plenty of minor examples) who are trying to pass themselves off as aristocrats – if one is going to pretend to have a pedigree, it might as well be impressive. But this kind of opportunistic dishonesty also entails an element of communal hypocrisy. The middle section of Honeymoon flashes back to the years of Occupation, to a luxurious hotel where ‘people behaved as if the war didn’t exist’. They act like ‘walkers-on from a touring company who had got stuck in Juan-les-Pins because of the war and were compelled to play their parts of phoney holidaymakers on the beach and in the restaurant run by a phoney Princesse de Bourbon’. A similar refusal among the cosseted characters in Villa Triste to acknowledge the vicious Algerian War summons a weary irony: ‘No, it was best to avoid knowing anything about the fate of the world … Concentrate on trivialities … Avoid important topics …’

It is in this context that Modiano’s obsession with the Nazi Occupation of France acquires its significance. As a general rule, he tends not to plunge directly into the corruptions of that time, but to set his fiction at a remove. The Occupation comes in this way to function as a dark backdrop, its details viewed glancingly and indistinctly. It is a definitive period of moral and social confusion that has faded into history, yet continues to have a destabilising effect on French society. It is the soil (or dung) from which characters have emerged. As Jean, the narrator of Honeymoon, observes of the war that everyone is striving so hard to ignore, it created a ‘world in which everything could fluctuate from one moment to the next’.

Modiano’s precocious early novels, recently published in English translation as The Occupation Trilogy, are revealing on this point. His first two books, La Place de l’Étoile (1968) and The Night Watch (1969), are uncharacteristically brash – by his third book, Ring Roads, the refined style and controlled pathos of his mature fiction are beginning to come to the fore. But these apprentice works are notable for the directness with which they examine compromises, betrayals and categorical uncertainties of the period of Occupation. La Place de l’Étoile is based around the counterintuitive notion of a Jewish collaborator, while The Night Watch is the story of a young man caught between the machinations of the Gestapo and the Resistance, who is coerced into what one character describes as ‘a little casual double-crossing’. The direct provocation of these novels is their challenge to the ennobling mythology of the French Resistance, their focus on the shameful fact of widespread collaboration. La Place de l’Étoile, in particular, is an indictment. In a spirit of satirical ruthlessness, it insists on the connection between collaboration and the deep currents of antisemitism that had long flowed through French society.

Its title refers to the crossroads where the Arc de Triomphe stands, the hub of the great wheel of Paris, but the novel’s epigraph bestows an additional meaning:

In June 1942, a German officer approaches a young man and says ‘Excuse me, monsieur, where is the Place de l’Etoile?’

The young man gestures to the left side of his chest.

(Jewish story)

In pointing to his heart, the young man makes an apparent gesture of love and pride, though with an important element of ambiguity. If we understand the Place de l’Étoile in this context to be a synecdoche for Paris, and by extension France, then he is asserting his patriotism. But the gesture can also be understood as an affirmation of his Jewishness: the literal translation of Place de l’Étoile is ‘place of the star’ and the left side of the chest was where French Jews were forced to wear the Star of David.  These interpretations are not mutually exclusive. The young man could be indicating to the Nazi interloper that, in his heart, he remains defiant: he is both a proud Jew and a loyal Frenchman. Yet the novel tears this dual identity apart. Its narrator, Raphäel Schlemilovitch, stages a chaotic performance of contradictory personas. The novel’s general sense of instability and disorientation is compounded by the dreamlike fluidity of its time scheme, which has Schlemilovitch moving imaginatively between Occupation-era and postwar France. Ostensibly a child of the latter, he nevertheless claims not only to have rubbed shoulders with some of France’s most notorious antisemites and collaborators, but to have been embraced by the Nazis as ‘the official Jew of the Third Reich’.

La Place de L’Étoile satirises a certain kind of exclusionary and self-reinforcing logic of identity  – the kind of pernicious determinism founded in rank prejudice that, during the Occupation, led to people wearing identifying stars and being deported because the word ‘Jewish’ happened to be stamped on their official papers. It begins with a torrent of outrageous abuse, in the form of a parody of French literature’s most flagrant antisemite, Louis-Ferdinand Céline: ‘… Schlemilovitch? … Ah, the foul-smelling mould of the ghettos! … that shithouse lothario! … runt of a foreskin! …’ The novel goes on to name dozens of antisemitic writers, citing them in an almost ritualistic manner as reminders of the considerable extent to which sections of the French intelligentsia were willing to collaborate with the Nazis in word and deed.

In the face of this native hostility, Schlemilovitch flaunts his difference, his nominal exclusion from the category of authentic Frenchness. He embraces and lampoons Jewish stereotypes, makes a show of his disreputable behaviour. He declares that his actions run ‘counter to the virtues cultivated by the French: discretion, thrift, work … I am not a son of France.’ He claims to be a pimp and a white slave trader. He pokes fun at the notion of the intellectual Jew: ‘I felt like telling the headmaster that, alas, I was a Jew,’ he remarks when he enrolls at the lycée. ‘Hence: always top of the class.’ He becomes a buffoon, imagining himself performing a Marx Brothers style vaudeville act in which he repeatedly kicks his father in the pants. He accepts responsibility for the most preposterous antisemitic fantasies:

Yes, through my millions and my orgies, I personally preside over the International Jewish Conspiracy. Yes, the Second World War was directly triggered by me. Yes, I am a sort of Bluebeard, a cannibal who feeds on Aryan girls though only after raping them. Yes, I dream of bankrupting the entire French peasantry and Jewifying the region of Cantal.

This ludicrous embrace of his Jewishness implies an obverse satirical principle – namely, that Schlemilovitch can become a son of France only insofar as he can turn against himself, embrace the nation’s longstanding tradition of antisemitism. Thus he becomes a willing collaborator. He asserts that Dreyfus was guilty. He appropriates Céline’s literary style so that he might become a great French-Jewish writer. There is an amusing postwar scene set in the lycée, in which Schlemilovitch – who is six foot six and fortunate to have been ‘born into a nation of short-arsed bastards’ – comes to the aid of his harassed teacher, instituting his own ‘Jewish reign of terror’. Having physically subdued his unruly classmates, he reads to them from the works of Charles Maurras, Paul Chack and Henri Béraud – all of whom were prominent antisemites and fascist sympathisers. In doing so, he reflects the invidious logic of antisemitism back at them. ‘Surely Maurras, Chack and Béraud were just like their grandfathers,’ Schlemilovitch states with mock indignation when his classmates react with disgust. ‘Here I was taking the trouble to introduce them to the healthiest, the purest of their compatriots and the ungrateful bastards called me a “Nazi”.’

The sarcasm is not at all typical of Modiano’s subsequent writing. La Place de L’Étoile is an incendiary work by a young man (it was published when he was 23) who is outraged by the hypocrisy of his society and its apparent unwillingness to admit the extent of its historical culpability. The view of the Occupation he develops in later works is more intimate, subtle and evocative. The association between the confusions of that period and the elusive father-figures who haunt his novels becomes not simply a way of personalising the historical trauma or condemning its moral corruptions, but one of the means by which Modiano opens up an imaginative space – a space in which it becomes possible to catch what he calls ‘fugitive gleams’ of the past.

The peculiar taint the Occupation bequeathed to postwar France is part of the distinctive atmosphere of Modiano’s fiction, even when the subject is consigned to the background, but what fascinates him is the moral ambiguity that accrues to his Jewish father’s dimly perceived but certainly inglorious criminal activities. Ring Roads and Flowers of Ruin both feature protagonists who are trying to imagine the lives of their outlaw fathers – fathers who, in the words of the narrator of Flowers of Ruin (whose name is Patrick), ‘had weathered all the contradictions of the Occupation period, and who had told me practically nothing about it before we parted forever’. Near the end of Ring Roads, after the scene in which his father tries to push him under a train, the narrator reflects:

A father wanting to kill his son or to be rid of him seems to me to be symptomatic of the huge upheaval in our moral values today. Not long ago, the converse phenomenon could be observed: sons killed their fathers to prove their strength. But now, who is there for us to lash out at? Orphans that we are, we are doomed to track ghosts in our search for fatherhood. We never find it. It always slips away.

The lapse into the first-person-plural is significant. It makes explicit the idea that Modiano is inclined to leave implicit – namely, that his personal sense of deracination is being transformed in his fiction into an expression of a collective estrangement from the past. But no less significant is the implication in both Ring Roads and Flowers of Ruin that the fathers in those books survived the war because they were criminals. The latter suggests that Patrick’s father (whose name is Albert) was caught in a police round-up, but was released thanks to his connection to the Rue Lauriston Gang, a notorious criminal organisation that collaborated with the Gestapo during the Occupation. The connection is also alluded to in Suspended Sentences (1988), in which the narrator records the dubious path taken by his father’s cronies:

They set up shop in a private hotel on Rue Lauriston, near Place de l’Etoile, with a few other unsavory individuals. Those hoods – to use my father’s expression – slowly got sucked into the system: from black marketeering, they’d moved into doing the police’s dirty work for the Germans.

This constitutes the better part of Modiano’s morally ambiguous inheritance as an illegitimate son. In Pedigree, he writes of his father’s refusal to speak of his wartime experiences, which leads him to wonder ‘what he had felt, deep inside, in Paris during that period. Fear? The strange sensation of being hunted simply because someone had classified him as a specific type of prey, when he himself didn’t really know what he was?’ Since the Nazis made his father an outlaw, Modiano observes in The Search Warrant, ‘he had no choice but to follow that same course, to live on his wits in Paris and vanish into the swamps of the black market’. Later in the book he makes the same exculpatory point in general terms about the existential threat faced by French Jews:

According to German decrees, Vichy laws and articles in the press, they were no better than vermin and common criminals, so they felt justified in behaving like outlaws in order to survive. For them, it was a point of honour. And I applaud them for it.

The Search Warrant, which has also been translated under its original French title Dora Bruder, is perhaps Modiano’s most explicit articulation of his complicated relationship with the past, and the way in which his mature work understands questions of time, history and identity to be intimately entwined. The book is not a work of fiction, though it does assume the form of a historical detective story, as Modiano decribes his attempts over a period of many years to discover the fate of the eponymous Dora, a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl, who in 1941 ran away from her convent school and disappeared. His obsession with her case takes on layers of implication. She becomes, in her elusiveness, an emblematic figure: her disappearance one of many thousands of individual tragedies that occurred during the Occupation. More than this, she is a figure in whom Modiano’s thematic preoccupations can be seen to converge.

Her fate comes, inevitably, to be associated in his mind with that of his father, even though there is nothing to connect them, other than the fact that they were both living in Paris at the same time, wandering the same streets. They did, however, have one important thing in common:

Utterly different though they were, both, that winter, had found themselves in the same category, classed as outlaws. My father, too, had missed the census on October 1940, and, like Dora Bruder, had no ‘Jewish dossier’ number. Consequently, no longer having any legal existence, he had cut all threads with a world where you were nothing without a job, a family, a nationality, a date of birth, an address. Henceforth he was in limbo. Not unlike Dora, after her escape.

For Modiano, the search for Dora Bruder is an exercise in bearing witness, an attempt to recover  details of a past life that would otherwise be lost, though he recognises that there is a sense in which his search is doomed to fail. There is precious little evidence to be discovered and, regardless of what he finds, his understanding can only ever be fragmentary. In writing the book, he is merely ‘sending out signals, like a lighthouse beacon in whose power to illuminate the darkness I have, alas, no faith. But I live in hope.’ And it is in this sense that The Search Warrant enacts a process that defines Modiano’s writing. His novels pursue their moments of connection and insight – those ‘fugitive gleams’ – with a studious intensity. In doing so, they combine a principled resistance to forgetting with a belief in the novelist’s powers of intuition and imaginative identification, which they locate in those moments of disruption and disconnection when assumed identities reveal their essential fragility, when characters manage to evade restrictions and official determinations, and reality slips into an oneiric state of uncertainty.

There is a crucial passage in The Search Warrant where Modiano discusses a scene from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, in which Inspector Javert is pursuing Jean Valjean and Cosette through the streets of Paris. Hugo has provided enough details to make it possible to trace their route on a map of the city. Just as it appears that the fugitives are about to be caught, however, Hugo has them swerve into a fictional district called Petit Picpus, where they flee along streets that are entirely imaginary. The effect, writes Modiano, is to induce a ‘feeling of vertigo, as if Cosette and Jean Valjean, to escape Javert and his police, have taken a leap into space’. But what is particularly uncanny is that they finally evade Javert by ducking behind a wall and hiding in the garden of a convent school, the address of which Hugo gives as 62 Rue de Petit-Picpus – ‘the same address as that of the Convent of the Holy Heart where Dora was a boarder’.

Modiano goes on to speak of the implications of this coincidence in general terms, placing the concept at the heart of his novelistic practice:

Like many writers before me, I believe in coincidence and, sometimes, in the novelist’s gift for clairvoyance – the word ‘gift’ not being the right one, for it implies a kind of superiority. Clairvoyance is simply part of the profession: the essential leaps of the imagination, the need to fix one’s mind on detail – to the point of obsession, in fact –  so as not to lose the thread and give in to one’s natural laziness.

Modiano’s fastidious recording of old addresses and phone numbers assumes its paradoxical importance in this light, as does the psychogeographical dimension of his work, which is of particular importance in The Search Warrant. The pervasive feeling of ‘emptiness’ (the word appears repeatedly in Joanna Kilmartin’s translation) that compels his investigations is generated by his ‘knowledge of what has been destroyed, razed to the ground’. As he walks the streets of Paris, he is aware that much of the old city was torn down after the war and replaced with ‘cement the colour of amnesia’. He feels that ‘street-names and house-numbers no longer correspond to anything’. The same idea is given succinct expression in After the Circus, in which the narrator observes that ‘topographical details have a strange effect on me: instead of clarifying and sharpening images from the past, they give me a harrowing sensation of emptiness and severed relationships’.

Modiano’s writing is constantly seeking to turn this emptiness on its head, to collapse the distance between present and past, to make that which is present and tangible speak of that which is intangible and absent. ‘The past and present merge in my mind through a phenomenon of superimposition,’ declares Jean, the narrator of Honeymoon, encapsulating the peculiar duality that is evident throughout the novels and the sense of temporal uncertainty they cultivate: ‘That’s where the malaise must come from.’

In the ambivalence of the sentiment lies the deeper paradox. In cleaving to small certainties, Modiano’s novels enact a form of resistance not only to forgetting, but to the spectre of dissolution on a personal level. In So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, there is a passage in which the writer Daragane – who, in his later years, chooses to read nothing but Comte de Buffon’s encyclopedic Natural History, one of the great crumbling monuments of the French Enlightenment – remembers reading the memoirs of an unnamed philosopher, who was shocked to hear a woman declare: ‘After all, the war doesn’t alter my relationship with a blade of grass’. Daragane assumes the philosopher was appalled at the apparent frivolousness of the remark. Yet for him ‘the phrase had another meaning: in periods of disaster or mental anxiety, all you need do is look for a fixed point in order to keep your balance and not topple overboard’.

But Modiano’s fiction, with its profound awareness of the fluidity of our relationship with time and memory, also suggests that moments of dissolution and escape are themselves windows of understanding, moments that invite imaginative sympathy and recognition. They are moments when the ephemerality of existence might be seen to have acquired the gleam of permanence. In Paris Nocturne, there is a minor character named Dr Bouviere, a guru-like figure somewhat akin to Guy de Vere from In The Café of Lost Youth, who claims that life is an ‘eternal return’. The idea resurfaces in the later novel when Roland, one of its four narrators, remembers de Vere lending him a book on Nietzsche’s philosophy of Eternal Return. For the autodidact Roland, the idea comes to be associated with his own psychogeographical concept of ‘neutral zones’ – his belief that there are ‘transitional zones in Paris, no-man’s-lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefitted from a certain kind of immunity.’ It is an idea that only becomes real to him at the very instant that he and Louki are about to part forever, when he feels for the first time ‘what the Eternal Return really was … I held her arm tightly. We were there, together, in the same place, for all of eternity …’

For Modiano, this is more of a novelistic conceit than philosophical principle. His novels seek their own neutral zones, and they find them in their many luminous moments of transition. Their disturbing awareness of the ease with which a person can fall out of existence and be forgotten for all time, their recognition of the fragility of intimate relationships (one character taking another by the arm is another recurring motif), their sense that a fundamental breach can sometimes be as simple a matter as crossing a road – these are all encapsulated in such moments. In this sense, the most important connection between the disreputable Albert Modiano and the innocent Dora Bruder is the striving for imaginative identification of the author himself – a striving that is enacted in the process of writing. The thin but strong thread that connects Modiano to the teenage runaway Dora is his own experience of deracination, his fleeting glimpse of a double-edged freedom when he was her age and on the run from his hated boarding school, in which can be found the circularity and the pathos of his literary vision:

I remember the intensity of my feelings while I was on the run in January 1960 – an intensity such as I have seldom known. I was the intoxication of cutting all ties at a strike: the clean, deliberate break, with enforced rules, boarding school, teachers, classmates … The ecstasy cannot last. It has no future. Your high spirits are soon shattered for good.

Running away – it seems – is a call for help and occasionally a form of suicide. At least you experience a moment of eternity …


Patrick Modiano, After the Circus, translated by Mark Polizzotti (Yale University Press, 2015).
In the Café of Lost Youth, translated by Chris Clarke (NYRB Classics, 2016).
Honeymoon, translated by Barbara Wright (Harvill, 1992).
Little Jewel, translated by Penny Hueston (Text Publishing, 2015).
Missing Person, translated by Daniel Weissbort (Verba Mundi, 2005).
Paris Nocturne, translated by Phoebe Weston-Evans (Text Publishing, 2015).
Pedigree: A Memoir, translated by Mark Polizzotti (Yale University Press, 2015).
So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, translated by Euan Cameron (MacLehose Press, 2015).
Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas, translated by Mark Polizzotti (Yale University Press, 2014).
The Occupation Trilogy: La Place de l’Étoile, The Night Watch, Ring Roads, translated by Caroline Hillier, Patricia Wolf and Frank Wynne (Bloomsbury, 2015).
The Search Warrant, translated by Joanna Kilmartin (Harvill Secker, 2000).
Villa Triste, translated by John Cullen (Other Press, 2016).
Young Once, translated by Damion Searls (NYRB Classics, 2016).