January 18, 2019

Patrick Modiano: In Search of a Father

Patrick Modiano: In Search of a Father
By Elaine Margolin

Nobel Prize winning author Patrick Modiano is always looking for his dead father.  I am looking for mine.  Perhaps this is what draws me to him.  Both Modiano and I don’t want to find our fathers to tell them we love them or miss them or even forgive them for their negligence, but simply because we feel called to do so.   Modiano was born in Paris in 1945 at the end of the war, but he has expressed many times his feeling that he somehow lived through it.  Recurring thoughts about the Occupation and his Jewish father’s collaboration with the Nazis preoccupy him.  Now 69, he is the author of more than 40 novels, most of them less than 200 pages.  All of his works revisit again and again the abandonments he endured as a child; wounds that have left him reclusive and uncomfortable with others.  Although married for decades to a Jewish woman of Tunisian origin, and the father of two grown daughters, he comes across in interviews, and on the written page, including “Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas” (translated by Mark Polizzotti and published by Yale University Press), as a broken man whose face still shows the ravages of emotional neglect.

Modiano’s mother was a Belgian actress whom he has described as “a pretty girl with a dry heart.”  His Jewish father miraculously managed to talk his way out of the Drancy internment center and survive the Holocaust by collaborating with the purchasing division of the Gestapo.  After the war, as he was growing up, both parents would disappear for long periods of time leaving him and his younger brother with various unsavory characters where he was left to fend for himself.   His parents soon divorced, and his father abandoned him again.   This trauma was augmented by his brother’s death at 10 from a childhood illness and his mother’s repeated absences to travel with various theatre groups throughout France.  He was really on his own.

Modiano has been compared to W.G. Sebald.  And the comparison is warranted.  They both write narratives shrouded in mystery and digress frequently into strange and exotic realms.  Both men were born at the end of the war and carry a pervasive guilt for the misdeeds of their parents and the events that preceded their birth.  Both find solace in bizarre objects and letters and the particular geography that marks any given street.  Sebald litters his books with stark black and white photographs that often correspond to his story; and just as frequently don’t.  Modiano interjects into his stories long lists of people’s names, often taken directly from an old phone book, and seems comforted by the tangible proof that these people once existed, even though their whereabouts are no longer known.  Both men seem to understand that they can never know enough about the Nazi tragedy; there is always more.    And both writers are burdened by their father’s active participation.  Sebald was the son of an enthusiastic Nazi; and Modiano is the Jewish son of a Nazi collaborator who did whatever it took to escape the fate of the 75,000 other Jews in France who were brutally butchered by the Nazi regime.

But although there are similarities between the two writers, they are different in an essential way.  Modiano’s prose is magically charged, but not claustrophobic as Sebald’s narratives are.  Sebald demands total engagement and a sort of submission to his complex and layered stories.  Not Modiano.  His uncluttered and restrained language encourages the reader to tumble back into time alongside him.  In my case, there were eerie similarities that brought me closer to him.  Both of us had Jewish fathers who felt their Judaism was merely a burden or an accident of fate that they disguised when they could.  Both of our fathers seemed happiest in perpetual flight, moving inconspicuously amidst busy city streets careful not to catch the attention of anyone.  Both men could not find the requisite tenderness for their children; they were obsessed with their own survival and their own cleverness in a world that seemed to keep attacking them.  Both men saw emotional abandonment as a viable solution to the messiness of family life.  Their moral parameters grew and shrank according to their own needs and the situation they found themselves in.  When a young Patrick Modiano once approached his father for financial help when he was struggling as a young writer, his father grew enraged and called the police on him.  My own father told me when I was a young girl about how he escaped combat during the Second World War by purposely failing a test in boot camp that was required in order to be shipped overseas.  The story shocked me even then; but it also confirmed what I knew about him; he came first.

In “Suspended Sentences,” written over two decades ago, Modiano presents us with three novellas that have just been translated into English.  In “Afterimage,” the narrator, who is always an autobiographical version of Modiano looking back upon his earlier life, begins his story declaring “I met Francis Jansen when I was 19, in the spring of 1964, and today I want to relate the little I know about him.”  Jansen, a professional photographer, had befriended Modiano and his young girlfriend in a Parisian café.  Modiano wants to help him organize his large inventory of photographs and Jansen consents.  Jansen is a Jew who lives quietly in Paris and rarely answers the phone.  A lady whom he is involved with often stops by his apartment, but Jansen usually manages to avoid her.  Modiano spends hours at his apartment when Jansen isn’t home labeling and sorting through Jansen’s photographs which captivate him with their subtle insights.  Modiano finds comfort simply looking at the pictures and thinking to himself how hard it really is to “accept that people and things could disappear without a trace.”

On a rare outing with Francis Jansen in Paris, Modiano recalls that the restaurant they are in he has visited before.  It was with his father.  He feels troubled by this memory and explains that “It called to mind a part of my life so distant I could barely relate it to the present.  I ended up wondering if I was really the child who used to come here with his father.  Numbness and amnesia gradually overcame me, like sleep on the day I was hit by a van and they pressed an ether-soaked pad over my face.  In another moment, I’d no longer even know who I was, and none of these strangers would be able to tell me…”  Jansen notices Modiano’s malaise and whispers gently to him “Don’t let it faze you, kid.  I’ve fallen into my share of black holes too….”  Modiano would later draw great comfort from Jansen’s tender words that night, and repeat them to himself when he felt afraid.  “Don’t let it faze you, kid.  I’ve fallen into my share of black holes too….”  And Jansen did just that.  One day when Modiano showed up at his apartment everything was missing.  Jansen had disappeared without a trace.  But Modiano was already growing accustomed to everyone eventually leaving.

      In the title novella, “Suspended Sentences,” Modiano is left with strangers after both his parents take flight.  The house he is in has a menacing quality and strangers come and go at odd hours.  Modiano doesn’t indulge in self-sympathy; he is used to the loveless universe he inhabits.  He says simply “My mother had gone on the road for a play, and my brother and I were living with friends of hers, in a small town outside Paris.”  He recalls that the house he lived in at that time had large windows and an ivy-covered façade that looked out upon apple and pear trees.   His father would visit sometimes, just for a few hours, and then leave again.  He remembers little about what his father would say to him, but retains a vivid impression of his father leaving.  He would make a similar gesture each time.  He would limply wave his hand through the car window as it sped off, and the memory of that careless and thoughtless gesture still had the power to bring back the desolation and revulsion he felt back then.

    In “Flowers of Ruin,” Modiano is trying to trace the true identity of a café waiter who has assumed a false identity but whom Modiano suspects of having collaborated with the Nazis.  He confronts the man with his suspicions and is ignored, but he is a relentless detective in pursuit of the truth.  But something different surfaces in this story that catches the reader’s attention.  It almost sounds as if he is grappling with the first inklings of empathy for his father; a man he clearly still despises.  He begins to imagine what his father might have felt like as a young man hunted down like an animal by those who wished to destroy him.  He recognizes that his father was caught in the most extreme and horrendous of circumstances, and wonders how he himself might have felt if he was “arrested in a round-up of French detectives without knowing what he was guilty of, and freed by a member of the Rue Lauriston gang?”  He concedes how “strange it must have been to walk out of the “hole” as my father called it-and find yourself in one of those automobiles that smelled of leather, slowly crossing Paris toward the Right Bank after curfew…”

     In the end, I felt a strange comfort reading Modiano.  I was comforted by his discomfort; and his perpetual sense of estrangement from the world.  I understood his lack of belonging, and his devotion to his own seclusion.  I was moved by the half-life he had created for himself, and a certain willed defiance that never seems to wither.  Unlike Sebald, whose desolation seems complete and impenetrable, Modiano still has an aliveness that draws breath from his pain.  It emitted the slimmest signals of hope for something better, although I’m not precisely sure what that might be.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.