Patrick Modiano likes to say that his memory precedes his birth. Born in 1945, he is a product of the German occupation of France during World War II, which has left an indelible mark on his imagination. His own father, of Jewish-Italian origin, was a victim of Nazi oppression. Thus, many of Modiano’s novels are set in Occupied Paris, starting with his debut novel, La place de l’étoile (1968). His Paris is dark and menacing as in a Jean Renoir movie, with the characters moving about in the muddy waters of the black market, walking the thin line between Collaboration and Resistance.
Modiano now stands as one of France’s most celebrated writers. His books are automatic best sellers. Many were awarded prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1978 for Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person). Yet no more than a handful of his twenty books or so have been translated into English, and even fewer can be found in bookstores. Fortunately, Internet book sellers will come to the rescue of his American readers.
In November, the University of California Press is publishing one of Modiano’s most talked-about books in recent years, Dora Bruder. Part investigation, part autobiography, the result is a fascinating book in which the boundaries between fiction and reality are always difficult to distinguish.
The inspiration for the book comes when Modiano stumbles across a notice in the Paris-Soir of December 31, 1941, while doing research:
Looking for a young girl, Dora Bruder, 15 years old, 1 m 55, oval face, gray-brown eyes, gray sports coat, red pullover, navy blue skirt and hat, brown sports shoes. Address all information to Mr. and Ms. Bruder, 41 boulevard Ornano, Paris.
Modiano is struck not so much by the notice itself—thousands of people disappeared in the months and years following the invasion of Paris by the Wehrmacht in June 1940—but the address. He knows boulevard Ornano well, having wandered the streets of the neighborhood as a teenager. He sets out to discover more about the young woman.
Soon into the investigation, Modiano discovers that Dora and her father were deported to Auschwitz in September 1942. Nine months passed, then, between December 1941, date of the newspaper notice, and the deportation. What happened during those nine months? Where was Dora? What did she do? Why did she disappear in the first place? If the Germans or the French police had arrested her, there would be records, but none are to be found. Yet Modiano keeps thinking about the girl. In Dora Bruder he writes:
And the night, the unknown, oblivion, nothingness all around. It seemed to me like I would never find any trace of Dora Bruder. Therefore the yearning that I felt drove me to write a novel, Honeymoon, a way as another for keeping on concentrating my attention on Dora Bruder, and maybe, I said to myself, to elucidate or guess something about her, some place she had been, a detail of her life.
Honeymoon (Voyage de noces, 1990) tells the story of forty-something Jean Bo, a documentary film-maker who abandons wife and career to take refuge in the anonymity of suburban Paris hotels. Jean pretends to fly to Rio for a planned shooting, but instead buys a plane ticket to Milan. There an incident which occurred twenty years earlier comes back to him—the suicide of a woman he had briefly known when he was a teenager, one Ingrid Teyrsen. In his hiding places in the Parisian suburbs he becomes obsessed with composing the biography of Ingrid and her husband, both refugees in Occupied France. Like the narrator of Dora Bruder, he investigates Ingrid’s life, trying to put the missing pieces together. In doing so, Jean identifies with the woman and slips back and forth between present and past like through a wall of smoke. In time he learns that Ingrid had run away from home in 1941, forcing her parents to place a notice in the paper:
Looking for a young girl, Ingrid Teyrsen, sixteen years old, 1,60 m, oval face, gray eyes, brown sports coat, light blue pull-over, beige skirt and hat, black sports shoes. Address all information to Mr. Teyrsen, 39 bis boulevard Ornano, Paris.
The notice does nothing to bring Ingrid home, but attracts the attention of the police, always willing to hand Jews over to the German authorities. Ingrid survives the war, but will eventually get crushed by the weight of guilt.
Inventing a life for Dora in a novel was not enough. The image of the vanished young woman lingers in Modiano’s mind. Truth is what he now strives for. He begins a long investigation, hunting for clues in archives and deportation lists, interviewing people who might have known her, roaming the streets around boulevard Ornano. The process proves to be painstaking. Four years are needed to determine Dora’s date of birth: February 25, 1926. Then Modiano has to face, the “sentinels of oblivion” at the administrative services in order to figure out where: in Paris. At times the search takes on Kafkaesque tones, if one can evoke the author of The Trial every time a story puts an individual up against a baffling system.
A reason for Modiano’s sense of urgency in tracing Dora’s destiny is an incident involving his late father. In February 1942, when Parisian Jews were forbidden by law to leave their houses after eight o’clock at night, Modiano’s father was arrested in a restaurant on the Champs-Élysées. On the way to the headquarters of the Police des Questions Juives, he noticed a young woman sitting across from him in the police van. He lost sight of her once at the headquarters, then managed to elude his captors and go underground for the rest of the war. When Modiano learns of Dora’s existence, he remembers his father’s story and wonders if that girl in the police van had not been her. Both Dora and his father were Jews, outcasts. “Perhaps I wanted the two to cross paths, my father and her, during that winter of 1942.”
By way of his father, Modiano comes to relate with Dora. In fact, the process of identification is such that the girl’s life and his merge at times. For Modiano the past is never simply the past, but a screen onto which he projects his own existential fixations. “From yesterday to today. With the passing of time, the perspectives blur for me, the winters mix one into the others. That of 1965 and that of 1942.” Half-Jewish, it could have been him in that police van, or on a train heading for a death camp in Poland, had he been born twenty years earlier. Through this osmosis between the writer and his character, Dora Bruder now exists, as Modiano himself does. Through his quest of Dora’s fate, he gives meaning to his own life and reveals his own identity. Inserted in the inquest about Dora are interpretations, confidences—Modiano’s own youth, his difficult relationship with his father, his quest for his own identity—and “atmospheres” which are the author’s main claim to fame. All this told in a precise and succinct style that is always elegant. The fluidity and purity of Modiano’s prose are coupled with strong evocative powers: “The façades were rectilinear, the windows square, the concrete the color of amnesia.”
The investigation is also a way of bringing back one of history’s missing persons, of reviving the past. Modiano takes on the role of guardian of memory. He gives Dora a face and an identity, but at the same time underlines the deficiencies in the collective memory of the French people when it comes to the Occupation. It is a case of chronic blackout, which enabled someone like Maurice Papon to enjoy a spectacular postwar career leading to the position of Paris chief of police, after having sent some 1,500 Jews to death camps in 1942-1944. Just as disturbing was the rise of François Mitterand. Only half a century after the fact was it revealed that the President of the Republic —Socialist hero, protector of the Arts, friend of great humanitarians such as Elie Wiesel—had been a civil servant in the Vichy regime.
Modiano’s goal is to wage a war against oblivion, and one could say that his oeuvre is a series of investigations. His detractors claim he always writes the same book, with characters on the trace of someone, or tracking a memory, or in search of a proof or a confirmation of their own history. In Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads, 1972) the narrator is in pursuit of his father, who might have been either a black market trafficker or a Jewish fugitive. Rue des boutiques obscures features an amnesiac detective trying to unravel the part he played during the war. His latest book, Des inconnues, is a collection of three stories about three anonymous women caught in complicated and sometimes violent situations. Inconnue means one who is unidentified, but also a stranger, in the Camusian sense of the term. Published last February, Des inconnues shot right up to the top of the best seller list in France. Evidently, readers remain interested in Modiano’s musings.
Patrick Modiano will find out if the girl in the police van alongside his father was Dora, but the investigation remains incomplete. Many questions about her life could never be answered. Still, Modiano’s compelling book extricates Dora from darkness. “Were I not here to write about it,” he notes, “there wouldn’t be any trace of this inconnue.” By sketching the life of one victim of Nazism, Modiano gives back an identity to millions of others lost in the Holocaust.
Jean Charbonneau’s fiction has appeared in Montreal-based magazines Stop and Liberté. He has reviewed books for Boston Book Review, Detroit Free Press, and other newspapers. He lives in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. (1999)