Published:  12:00 AM, 11 March 2017

Modiano: An author of Paris mysteries keeps his own


Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2014 "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation."

It's often said that Patrick Modiano keeps writing the same book. That is partly true, but only in the way that Cézanne kept painting the same apples. Most of this novelist's 30-odd atmospheric books, set in the murky waters and demimonde of occupied or newly liberated Paris, resemble and build on the others, yet each is completely distinct.

"There are often refrains, things that come back, but they're not really the same," Mr. Modiano said in a recent interview in his airy apartment by the Luxembourg Gardens here. "It's like a photographer who tries to capture someone from different angles and it's not quite coming out right," he continued. "He takes a shot from one angle, and then he hesitates, and he takes another from a different angle."

Mr. Modiano, 70 and well over six feet tall, was sitting tentatively on the edge of a large ottoman, having chosen what seemed to be the least comfortable seat in his study, for a rare interview occasioned by the release this fall of at least six of his novels in new English translations. Beyond his desk, high windows looked onto a quiet courtyard. Bookshelves ran from floor to soaring ceiling - novels, art catalogs, old Paris phone books, a book by the American historian Robert Paxton, whose groundbreaking work on Vichy France helped burst the myth that the country had resisted German rule.

Mr. Modiano has examined some of the same questions as Mr. Paxton, exploring the moral ambiguities of Parisians during the war - what they revealed and what they kept hidden, what they did to survive. (Mr. Modiano's father sold goods on the black market.) The Nobel committee lauded him "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most unspeakable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation."
Regarded as one of France's most important novelists and translated into 36 languages before the Nobel, he became more widely known in English only after the prize, with about 20 of his books expected to be in English by the middle of next year. In 2014, his total sales in France grew exponentially to 400,000 copies, according to his publisher, Gallimard.

In 1968, Mr. Modiano published his first novel, "La Place de l'Étoile" ("The Place of the Star"), which appeared in English in September in Bloomsbury's "The Occupation Trilogy." The book's narrator is a Jewish swindler and pimp. Its vivacious, baroque style - "This is when I was frittering away my Venezuelan inheritance," it begins - contrasts with its somber title, which refers both to the Paris square and the spot on their chests where Jews were forced to pin yellow stars.

The book immediately put Mr. Modiano on the literary map in France. "In the '60s in France, everything that happened during the occupation, about the Jews and all that, we didn't really talk much about it," he said in the interview. The novel's "violent" tone "was maybe because no one talked about it," he continued. Writing it was "like puncturing an abscess."

After "La Place de l'Étoile," Mr. Modiano's books develop a different tone, one more mellow and melancholic, somewhere between sepia and film noir, more akin to the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson than to the work of other writers. Often the narrator is a young man trying to make sense of the shady figures of his Paris childhood. Other books are set in the Paris of the 1950s and early '60s, when the war in Algeria was raging. Mr. Modiano's books are like mystery novels, in which the search for information only creates more mysteries.

Most of his books are semi- or quasi-autobiographical, and he is extremely protective of his privacy. In August, Yale University Press published "Pedigree," his 2005 nonfiction account of his origins. He said he had written it as notes and had not expected to publish it, adding, "Especially when you talk about very personal things, about people who have mattered in your life, you risk not always telling the truth, so autobiography has always bothered me." Some of his novels are more autobiographical than the autobiography, he said.

Mr. Modiano was born on July 30, 1945, a year after the liberation of Paris, and sees himself as a product of the occupation, when strange alliances occurred, including the one between his parents. His mother, a beautiful Flemish actress whose family leaned right, worked for a German film company in Paris during the war. His father, born in Paris, was of Jewish origin, but did not register as a Jew during the occupation; his father's father had been born in Thessaloniki, Greece, to a Tuscan Jewish family.

As children, he and his younger brother were left with strange people for long periods of time, while his mother was on tour acting and his father, involved in illicit business, was not around. Mr. Modiano wrote about this experience in "Suspended Sentences," the 1988 title novella in a collection published last year.

Mr. Modiano wrote "La Place de l'Étoile" when he was 19 and 20 - "too young," he said - and published it at 23 with the help of Raymond Queneau, a friend of his mother, whose 1947 "Exercises in Style," the same story told 99 ways, clearly left an impression. "He saw that my parents weren't really looking after me and that I was living in boardinghouses," Mr. Modiano said. When he was 14 and 15, Mr. Queneau would help him with his homework. Mr. Queneau took "La Place de l'Étoile" to his publisher, Gallimard, who has published Mr. Modiano ever since.

Mr. Modiano won the Goncourt Prize for his 1978 novel, "Rue des Boutiques Obscures" ("Missing Person" in a 1980 English translation), about a private detective who loses his memory in the 1950s and tries to reconstruct it. This year, the City of Paris renamed a promenade after Dora Bruder, the subject and title of his 1997 book about the search for a girl who went missing during the war and turned out to have been deported.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in October issued his most recent novel, from 2014, "So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood," about an older man drawn back into an unsolved murder. Yale just released "Paris Nocturne" (2003), in which a car crash triggers a mystery; and "After the Circus" (1992), about a younger man and an older woman in the mid-60s.

Mr. Modiano often comes across as stammering and shy. Asked about when he discovered his father had Jewish origins, about the current troubled political climate in France, about how, in his books, fate and circumstance seem to determine one's political allegiances as much as any moral choice, he would start a sentence and then trail off, saying "C'est compliqué"- "It's complicated."

A fictionalized Modiano, more canny than timid, emerges in "Jours Nocturnes," or "Dark Days," a 2014 novel by the French writer Myriam Anissimov, who was close to Mr. Modiano in the '60s and '70s, when he composed song lyrics. "He created a myth about his persona," Ms. Anissimov said affectionately. "He's not at all shy. He's much smarter than people think."

The afternoon light had shifted. Many mysteries were left unsolved. Mr. Modiano showed the way to the door. It faced a glass-cased bookshelf with some Christie's auction catalogs and a box of Modiano poker cards, an Italian brand. Think how many hands can spring from the same deck, especially when dealt with such skill.

The writer is the European culture  correspondent for  The New York Times.


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