Modiano’s Memoryscapes

Debarati Sanyal

Patrick Modiano’s reputation as a writer of wartime Paris was sealed last fall by the Nobel Prize, which recognized him “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” This is in keeping with Modiano’s own claim that the Nazi occupation and its aftermath form the matrix of his literary imaginings, from La Place de L’Étoile (1968), which catapulted him into literary fame, to his most famous translated novel, Dora Bruder (1997), about a Jewish runaway deported to Auschwitz. 

There is, however, a much longer history to Modiano’s melancholy fiction, with its distinct blend of personal rumination and precarious historical retrieval. Its roots lie in 19th-century Paris, a city so swiftly transformed by modernization that only an “art of memory” could recollect what had been and was no longer there. Charles Baudelaire’s “The Swan” famously recalls those disappeared by modernization:

 

Paris changes! but nothing in my melancholy
          Has stirred! New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone,
          Old neighborhoods, all for me become allegory,
          And my cherished memories are heavier than rocks.
 

 

For Baudelaire, the modern poet was a symbolic ragpicker, less an idle flaneur than an anxious prowler who collected modernity’s debris and stored it in poetic memory.

Modiano readily acknowledges the influence of the 19th-century urban imaginary on his writings: “I am of the generation … which wanted … to explore what Baudelaire called the ‘sinuous folds of the old capital cities.’” The Nobelist continues the tradition of the poet as ragpicker, an archivist of the disappeared, albeit in a distinctively post-Holocaust vein. His elusive narrators pace through the night and fog of postwar Paris, sounding out the capital’s center and peripheries for past vibrations, lost names, echoes of footsteps long gone. Over the course of almost 30 novels, Modiano’s hunted and haunted narrators—detectives, fugitives, amnesiacs, lost teens, orphans, refugees—walk the creases and edges of an anonymous city that becomes a layered archive and fragile site of memory.

In addition to Baudelaire, another of Modiano’s precursors is Eugène Atget, whose documentary photography recorded places slated to vanish in a new wave of urban reconstruction. Atget captured sites that become staples of Modiano’s memoryscapes: convents, boarding schools, urban peripheries, and wastelands, as well as literal ragpickers occupying precarious dwellings at the city’s edge, as in this image, captioned with the ominous “will disappear.”

<i>Porte d’Italie. - zone des fortifications - va disparaître (chiffonniers) 18e arr</i> (pencil-written title on print held at George Eastman House, Rochester, NY)

Atget and Baudelaire help us grasp the contradictory poles of Patrick Modiano’s “art of memory”: its project of historical documentation, on the one hand, and its faith in literary imagination, on the other. The opening of a recent novel, L’herbe des nuits (2012, untranslated), illustrates these poles while introducing us to key obsessions in Modiano’s work. L’herbe des nuits opens with typical uncertainty: “And yet, I didn’t dream it,” the narrator muses today, straining to recall a time in the Paris of the ’60s when he loved a mysterious woman who moved in Moroccan circles and may or may not have killed someone. No witnesses remain, and the setting of these events has changed beyond recognition: “Time had made a clean slate. The neighborhood was new, sanitized.” 

In the absence of witnesses or physical traces, the only evidence that the past was not a dream lies in the pages of an old black notebook “filled with names, phone numbers, and dates, as well as short texts that might have something to do with literature. But in what category should they be classified? Diary? Fragments of memory? And what about the hundreds of classified ads copied out of newspapers? Lost dogs. Furnished apartments. Employment sought and offered. Fortune tellers.” This list is not random; at least three of these categories resonate throughout Modiano’s fiction.

Lost dogs: Stray or neglected canines appear in several of the author’s novels. Modiano’s mother was as neglectful of her chow chow as she would later be of her son, and the dog jumped out of a window to its death. The aptly titled memoir Un pedigree (2005; Pedigree, 2015) is a portrait of the writer as a melancholic dog: abandoned by his mother, passed on to relatives and friends, left in boarding schools, ignored by his father. In La petite bijou (2001, untranslated), the female narrator is abandoned as a child on a train with a sign around her neck, just as her pet poodle was “lost” by her mother on a walk. Bad parents, missing pets, and stray children abound in these works, counterbalanced by the kindness of random strangers who offer provisional refuge and expect nothing in return.

Furnished apartments: Modiano’s Paris is full of ephemeral sites of transit, including bare hotel rooms and rented apartments, surroundings that are as sparse and elusive as their inhabitants’ psychological interior. A paradoxical figure for this transience is the slum landlord Peter Rachman, a historical figure who appears in Du plus loin de l’oubli (1995; Out of the Dark, 1998). Rachman was a Polish Jew who survived the Nazi and Soviet camps. In Modiano’s novel, Rachman, presumably haunted by his time in the camps, periodically hops into his Jaguar to visit decrepit properties and takes naps on camp beds amid the rubble. Even the most powerful remain in the grip of a “past that refuses to pass” (Henry Rousso).

Fortune tellers: If the writer is a symbolic ragpicker who sifts through notes on bits of paper to document the past, he is also endowed with a don de voyance (gift of second sight, or clairvoyance) that captures energetic currents from the past or anticipates what is yet to come. The novelist’s imaginative efforts and obsessive attention to detail lead to flashes of intuition, an ability to see, or rather, sense what is no longer or not yet there. In Dora Bruder, for instance, the narrator realizes with astonishment that Victor Hugo invented an urban space that has become a historical reality 80 years later. In Les misérables, criminal Jean Valjean and his ward Cosette flee Inspector Javert and his policemen through actually existing streets, then suddenly stumble into a fictional neighborhood and find refuge in an imaginary convent. The convent is located at exactly the same address as the Catholic boarding school where the real Dora Bruder would be hidden by her parents when the occupation’s anti-Semitic legislation went into effect. Even at their most archival, historical, or photographic, Modiano’s memoryscapes suggest that the writer has an almost paranormal capacity to sense vibrations from the past or intimations of the future.

Over the course of almost 30 novels, Modiano’s hunted and haunted narrators walk the creases and edges of an anonymous city that becomes a layered archive and fragile site of memory.

The Nobel Academy hailed Modiano as “a Marcel Proust of our time,” but in Proust, time is regained. No such luck for Modiano’s narrators, for whom the past is a trauma that returns, unbidden, to haunt them. How can we recover what was not known in the first place? In Rue des boutiques obscures (1978; Missing Person, 1980) an amnesiac-turned-detective follows an old Russian émigré who might have clues to his identity. No Proustian resurrection of the past awaits; instead of a madeleine, the émigré hands him an old biscuit tin full of yellowing photographs, in which the narrator seeks to recognize himself. As Modiano says in relation to Proust, “Today, I get the sense that memory is much less sure of itself, engaged as it is in a constant struggle against amnesia and oblivion. This layer, this mass of oblivion that obscures everything, means we can only pick up fragments of the past, disconnected traces, fleeting and almost ungraspable human destinies.” 

Nowhere is the tension between imaginative reparation and historical documentation more evident than in the composition of Dora Bruder, a novel that has consecrated Modiano as a writer of the Holocaust, although, as I’ve been suggesting, his writing can’t be fully grasped within this periodization alone. In 1988, Modiano—ever the symbolic ragpicker—was sifting through newspapers from the time of the occupation when he came upon a missing persons ad for a teenage runaway: “Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, oval-shaped face, gray-brown eyes, gray sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes. Address all information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.”

Modiano then found Dora Bruder’s name in Serge Klarsfeld’s Mémorial de la déportation des Juifs de France (1978; Memorial to the Jews Deported from France, 1983), a volume listing the victims of Nazi deportation by transport. Haunted by the adolescent’s escape from boarding school and her definitive disappearance in Auschwitz, the novelist initially wrote Voyage de noces (1990; Honeymoon, 1995), a novel of aching tenderness that attempts a “rescue operation” by means of fiction. A young Jewish girl whose description corresponds to Dora Bruder’s but whom Modiano names Ingrid Teyrsen flees Nazi-occupied Paris, survives the war, and a quarter of a century later commits suicide in Milan. In the frame narrative, during a stopover in Milan, the narrator realizes that he knew the woman who committed suicide from several years before, when he was hitchhiking in the south of France and felt held, even hosted, within Ingrid’s attentive, gray-blue gaze. After her enigmatic suicide, the narrator becomes obsessed with reconstructing her fate. Years later, now an explorer of distant lands and supposedly en route to Argentina, the narrator stages his own disappearance and washes up in various hotels in the the Parisian periphery. Still working on her biography, he rents a flat once occupied by Ingrid and her husband, Rigaud. But the essentials of a person’s life stubbornly resist knowledge: “All that remains is the essential: the blanks, the silences and the pauses.”

Modiano’s desire to resurrect Dora Bruder is personified by the character of Rigaud, who flees occupied Paris with Ingrid Teyrsen (who, we only gradually discover, is Jewish), protects her from the surveillance of the French police, and watches over her sleep. They hide in a hotel and then in a deserted villa on the French Riviera. Thanks to Rigaud, Ingrid survives the war. Yet the force of history stops fiction in its tracks. The novel’s attempt to “save” Ingrid-Dora, to fill in the blanks and repair the past, still leads to her disappearance. Years later, the narrator passes what used to be the hotel in which Ingrid lived with her father, before she ran away and he was deported. As he contemplates the blank residential buildings that have replaced the hotel, a feeling of emptiness washes over him: “One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs and disappears. But in the end it returns in force, and she couldn’t shake it off. Nor could I.” We are left to imagine that Ingrid’s suicide in Milan is linked to her running away from home, leaving her father to face his fate alone. Those who appear to be saved—Dora’s fictional resurrection as Ingrid, who survives the war—drown in the end, perhaps out of guilt for surviving in the first place.

Honeymoon, one of Modiano’s most intricately literary works, attempts to rescue the memory of the dead from oblivion by offering a provisional fictional survival. By contrast, Dora Bruder, written seven year later, reads like a sparse historical investigation. The novelist expressly wished he could renounce literature altogether in the reconstruction of her life: “I’d love to have a dossier, like attorneys, filled with all sorts of pieces, police reports, witness testimony, expert conclusions. Then I’d no longer need recourse to fiction.” In some sense, Dora Bruder is that dossier, a heterogeneous archive that tries to grasp the contours of the young girl’s life before she was caught by the police and deported to Auschwitz.

Dora Bruder’s narrator is a ragpicker in the age of bureaucracy, gleaning photographs, forms, birth certificates, meteorological records, police reports, letters of inquiry to the French police and other documents that hint at the occupation’s immense administration of classification and annihilation. The dossier that emerges from these pages is as much an indictment of French collaboration with Nazi deportation as it is a testimony to Dora’s fleeting existence. This is no surprise coming from an author who has always punctured the Gaullist myth of a France unified under the banner of Resistance. In his screenplay for Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974), sheer circumstance—in the form of a flat bicycle tire—turns a peasant who wanted to join the Resistance into a Gestapo tool.

In Dora Bruder, Modiano’s project appears to be the antithesis of literature, as if he sought to recreate for one individual what Serge Klarsfeld had accomplished for France’s deported Jews as a whole. Over the years, Klarsfeld provided Modiano with key information and photographs about the Bruder family. Remarkably, although the novelist details his own efforts to reconstruct her life in Dora Bruder, the historian’s role is never acknowledged. Klarsfeld was none too pleased about this erasure and accused the novelist of being in love with Dora or with her shadow. Despite his admiration for a “beautiful book about Dora and about you as well,” for Klarsfeld, the historian’s systematic erasure from this investigation turned Dora Bruder into fiction rather than fact, granting the novelist the status of “sole demiurge” in a shared quest. 

The elusive nature of the past is a constant feature of Modiano’s writing ... It also evokes the moral ambiguity of wanting or claiming to know, and the corollary threat of rehearsing the violence of the past. 

Klarsfeld was right to remark that Modiano’s novel blurred the line between biography and autobiography (“a beautiful book about Dora, and about you”). In what the French call a ressassement, or rumination, Modiano returns time and again in this book, as in others, to his personal obsessions: with his father, a Jew who survived the occupation through shady activities and possibly connections with collaborators, with his desolate youth, and, most importantly, with his existential unease at appearing too late on the scene of history, or at least what he considered to be its primal scene, that is to say, the occupation. In Dora Bruder, the narrator explores connections between the Jewish adolescent’s fate under the occupation, his father’s clandestine existence during the same period, and his own troubled youth in the 1960s, all of which are rebellions and escapes that take place in the same streets of Paris, albeit under dramatically different circumstances.

The blurring of boundaries between Dora, Modiano, and his father may cause unease, especially against the backdrop of the Nazi genocide. It might lead us to think that we can borrow another’s past to feel our own, that memory is a prosthetic device we can hook up to our psychic organism. But as we’ve seen, this blurring of time, space, self, and other are constant elements of Modiano’s ghostly narratives, whether these unfold in London during the Profumo affair (Out of the Dark), or Paris during the Algerian War (Des inconnues, 1999; untranslated). Although the narrator of Dora Bruder attempts to retrace his subject’s steps, he never walks in her shoes; the links between different orders of experience are tentative, leading not to transparency but to lack, to a confrontation with “this blank, this mute block of the unknown.”

The elusive nature of the past—even one’s own, let alone another’s—is a constant feature of Modiano’s writing. For example, we don’t find out how Dora spent her days as a fugitive prior to her capture and deportation. This loss or lack of knowledge is not simply a failure. It also evokes the moral ambiguity of wanting or claiming to know, and the corollary threat of rehearsing the violence of the past. After all, the historical data that restores Dora’s passage through occupied Paris today (including the missing persons ad in the newspaper) was once used to track her down and make her disappear forever:

 

I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Dépôt, the barracks, the camps, History, time—everything that defiles and destroys you—have been able to take away from her.

 

In passages such as this one, Modiano’s memoryscapes diverge from the project of historical recovery; their empty spaces wield an ethical and imaginative force that is peculiar to literature alone.

Ironically, the novelist discovered that it was the explicitly fictional Honeymoon that had brought him closest to Dora’s shadow. In a scene from the earlier novel that is reproduced verbatim in Dora Bruder, Ingrid and Rigaud ride in a sled through snowy Paris streets that the novelist later realized passed by the boarding school from which Dora fled on a winter’s night. This surreal coincidence, in which narrative invention precedes historical knowledge and makes random contact with reality, is akin to Hugo’s prescience or Baudelaire’s memory. Sheets of time past and time virtual are superimposed on the urban landscape, vibrating with energetic currents, flickers of past selves, the barely audible echo of voices long gone. And in a final twist, literature and history have converged once again to change the city in the name of memory: Paris has just inaugurated a new place, called promenade Dora-Bruder.