During the years of Nazi occupation of France, Albert Modiano, father of the newest Nobel laureate in literature, refused to wear the yellow star that Jews were required to wear. When he was arrested by French police working with the Gestapo, he was inexplicably freed by a black marketer working in collaboration with the Gestapo. Modiano survived the war years by working with those who helped set him free.
That episode is played over in different guises in many of Patrick Modiano’s novels, as explained by Mark Polizzotti, the translator of Modiano’s latest book to come out in English, “Suspended Sentence: Three Novellas” (Yale University Press), which is being rushed into print next month.
The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” The award carries a $1.1 million prize.
The French novelist was born in 1945 in a suburb of Paris. His father, a Jewish businessman from a Sephardic background, and his Belgian-born mother, an actress, divorced when he was a child. While he is little known in the U.S., he is widely embraced in France. Modiano made his literary debut in 1968 with the publication of “La Place de l’Etoile,” a novel yet to be published in English. To date, about a dozen of his more than 30 works of fiction, screenplays, memoir and children’s books have been published in English. He worked with director Louis Malle on the Academy Award-winning feature film “Lacombe Lucien.”
Margo Berdeshevsky, an American poet living in Paris, tells The Jewish Week, “I don’t see France as a place of extreme racism or as a place to fear. But there were years when there was much to be feared, and much that was ambiguous, and hidden, and much that was filled with horror. The years of the Holocaust were indeed such years, and Modiano explores that era with insight. And he opens the vaults of memory of the terrible Vichy years, for the common persons, with subtlety and artistry. After the war years, everyone wanted to say that they had been a “resistant." But as the memories have risen to the surface, in families and in literature such as Modiano’s—it is clear that too many French in that time were collaborators, and many chose to forget."
She adds, “It would be wonderful if people read Modiano’s works without jumping to conclusions about the present day. France is a safe place, these days, as compared with most of the world. But memory, the deep theme for Modiano—is never safe, is it? It is filled with both the true and the half true. The half remembered, and the imagined. And ordinary French, the subject Modiano so often addresses—were sometimes good humans, and sometimes terrible humans. A definition that is as true today as it ever was, in France, and throughout our troubled globe."
In a telephone conversation while on vacation in Paris, Polizzotti, an author, translator and director of the publications program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes Modiano’s work as fairly spare, with a quiet power and poetry in his phrases. He says Modiano deals with the moral ambiguities of the Nazi occupation, blending history, mystery and memoir into a seamless whole, sometimes shifting between stories in a single work. His narrators are often to the side of the situation they’re describing.
“He conveys a lovely, gauzy, slightly out-of-focus atmosphere,” Polizzotti says, also describing the work as a “nostalgic love letter to a Paris that is no more.”
Rachel Corkidi, a booklover in Paris, compares Modiano to the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld, in the way he creates worlds out of memory. Susan Reimer-Torn, an American writer who lived in Paris for 22 years, mentions “Suite Francaise” and other works by Irene Nemirovsky that also focus on the period of the Nazi occupation, a dark side of French history, she says, that many French people still grapple with.
Antoine Halff, a journalist and energy policy analyst who has lived in Paris and New York, points out that Modiano is deeply Jewish and also deeply rooted in French culture, with many literary echoes going back to the 19th century in his work. He says that while there’s no doubt that Modiano is Jewish, he’s not an ethnic writer, nor is he a Jewish communal figure. “Jewishness is at the center of his work. No Jewish organized movement can claim him as their writer.”
Halff continues: “It moves me deeply that he is recognized by the Nobel [committee] just weeks after I watched hundreds of protestors march under my window shouting ‘Death to the Jews.’”