There’s no getting around it: meeting the greatest French writer alive is very impressive. Patrick Modiano published his first novel, La Place de l’Etoile, in 1968; he won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, and over the following three decades he has confirmed his landmark status in national literature with a celebrated body of work.
One of the few French writers to achieve both critical and public success—his new novel L’Horizon has already sold 80,000 copies—Modiano has developed a rare combination of excellence and elegance so compelling that singer-songwriter Vincent Delerm evoked it in his 2004 song Le Baiser Modiano.
Yet the nearly 65-year-old writer shuns the limelight and remains humble despite his fame and success. You’ll never stumble upon him at one of those literary cocktail parties Parisian editors adore, nor will you spy his rangy figure on popular talk shows. Modiano’s interviews are few, but his words are priceless.
For the past few years he’s lived in a charming historical building between Place Saint Sulpice and the Jardin du Luxembourg—a perfect base for this inveterate flâneur who knows the Paris street map by heart. His wife opens the door, but there’s no mistaking the famous silhouette in the background, looking like an awkward giant. With disarming kindness, he ushers you into his office, a vast room packed with antique furniture and endless bookshelves—mainly essays on wartime, in both French and English. “I do read English pretty well, but I can’t speak it,” he apologizes. “It is difficult for me.”
This last sentence will be repeated several times over the course of the interview. It is difficult to explain the story of this sensitive boy, born in 1945 to an Italian Jewish father and a Belgian mother. His childhood was torn by various displacements, his father’s absence and the tragic death of his brother Rudy, struck by leukemia at age 10. He recalled this tormented but nostalgic epoch in his popular memoir Un Pedigree, in 2005: “I couldn’t write an autobiography, that’s why I called it a ‘pedigree’: It’s a book less on what I did than on what others, mainly my parents, did to me.”
During the Algerian war, Modiano was stranded in Paris, almost on his own. When he begged his father for a little money, the elder Modiano called the police. But when his talent was spotted by the renowned author Raymond Queneau, who also happened to be his math teacher, young Patrick began to write. His first foray into literature, La Place de l’Etoile—a novel about a wartime Jewish collaborator—so displeased his father that he tried to buy up all the existing copies. A few years later the budding writer won the Académie Française’s Grand Prix du Roman for his novel Les Boulevards de Ceinture (Ring Roads).
“Actually, I never thought of doing anything else,” he says of his literary career. “I had no diploma, no definite goal to achieve. But it is tough for a young writer to begin so early. Really, I prefer not to read my early books. Not that I don’t like them, but I don’t recognize myself anymore, like an old actor watching himself as a young leading man.”
Modiano’s novels all delve into the puzzle of identity: How can I track evidence of my existence through the traces of the past? Obsessed with the troubled and shameful period of the Occupation—during which his father had engaged in some shady dealings—Modiano returns to this theme in all of his novels, book after book building a remarkably homogeneous work. “After each novel, I have the impression that I have cleared it all away,” he says between two silences. “But I know I’ll come back over and over again to tiny details, little things that are part of what I am. In the end, we are all determined by the place and the time in which we were born.” The place, for him, is Paris, the city he writes about constantly, describing the evolution of its streets, its habits and its people. In fact, Modiano might very well be to Paris what Woody Allen is to New York: a memory and a conscience.
A new step
His latest novel, L’Horizon, published in France in March, brings all these themes together. Modiano’s narrator, Jean Bosmans, a fragile man pursued by his mother’s ghost, dwells on his youth and the people he has lost. Among them is the enigmatic Margaret Le Coz, a young woman he met and fell in love with in the 1960s. The two loners spent several weeks wandering the winding streets of a now long-forgotten Paris, fleeing a phantom menace. One day, however, without notice, Margaret boarded a train and vanished into the void—but not from Jean’s memory. Forty years later, he is now ready to look for his vanished love.
This 26th book not only epitomizes Modiano’s style and concerns but also marks a new step in his personal quest, after a mysterious walkabout in Berlin. “The city is my age,” he says, breaking another lingering silence to describe Berlin, almost a completely new city rebuilt from the ashes of war. “Its long, geometric avenues still bear the marks of history. But if you look at it right, you can still spot ancient wastelands beneath the concrete. These are the very roots of my generation.” Symbolic roots that gave rise, over the years, to one of the most wonderful trees in French literature.
L’Horizon, Gallimard, 171 pages, €16.50
3 top-tier Modiano novels
Missing Person (Rue des Boutiques Obscures). From Polynesia to Rome, an amnesiac tries to collect data on his past and his acquaintances. Awarded the Goncourt Prize in 1978, Modiano’s sixth novel addresses the never-ending search for identity in a world where “the sand holds the traces of our footsteps but a few moments”.
Out of the Dark (Du Plus Loin de l’Oubli). In this 1996 novel, Modiano’s narrator recalls his shadowy love affair in the 1960s with the enigmatic Jacqueline. Fifteen years after their breakup, they meet again, but she has changed her name and denies their past. What is real and what is not remain to be seen in this dreamlike novel that typifies Modiano’s obsessions and elegiac prose.
Dora Bruder. At the core of this poignant novel, published in 1997, is Modiano’s real-life investigation into the disappearance of a young Jewish girl, announced in a newspaper—back in 1941. Struck by this discovery, haunted by the legacy of this mysterious teenager, the author seeks out any tiny scraps of information in an effort to finally come to terms with his own lost adolescence.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of France Today