How a Suicidal Dog Led a Writer to a Nobel Prize

Pedigree
By Patrick Modiano
Yale University Press, 144 Pages, $25

After the Circus
By Patrick Modiano
Yale University Press, 216 pages, $16

Paris Nocturne
By Patrick Modiano
Yale University Press, 160 pages, $16

In his recollection of his first 21 years, the Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick Modiano writes that, apart from his younger brother, Rudy, who died as a boy, “I don’t believe that anything I’ll relate here truly matters to me.” He contends that he writes the memoir “the way one compiles a report or résumé, as documentation and to have done with a life that wasn’t my own.”

“Pedigree” is the memoir’s title, which suggests, initially (and falsely), something refined, purebred. But the book, which takes its title from the fact that Modiano is “a dog who pretends to have a pedigree,” is “just a simple film of deeds and facts,” an erudite, evasive shrug. Filled with names — of people, of streets, of books — “Pedigree” is a roll call of sorts, an apparently listless recitation of mysterious figures and shady dealings. Or it would be if the opaque surface did not crack to offer glimmers of something pained and tender.

Modiano’s work has been receiving a resurgence in attention ever since the author won the 2014 Nobel Prize. He was born to a Jewish father who, under the Occupation, compounded his own status as a Jew (though he never registered as one, a fact that saved him from deportation) by engaging in black market dealings. His mother was Flemish — “a pretty girl with an arid heart.” He tells us that his mother had once been given a chow chow, “but she didn’t take care of it and left it with various people,” something she would go on to do with her son. The dog “killed itself by leaping from a window”; the son became a writer. In a rare moment of explicit emotion, Modiano confides that he feels a great sense of kinship with the dog, having encountered him in old photos.

In fact, Modiano became the sort of writer for whom the suicide of a dog can effectively express all that goes otherwise unsaid, all that remains silent through an excess of sorrow, the imprecise working of memory, the impossibility of knowing others and what befalls them, the implacable motion of time and history, the exigencies of survival and the attendant demands for complicity and compromise, and the ineffability of love. In the recent spate of newly-translated works, he also shows himself to be a writer of atmosphere, evoking great feeling without seeming to say much of anything. His is the art of a silently potent drama, of explosive roiling that makes itself improbably known.

Take, for example, “After the Circus” (1992): Set over the course of a few days in 1963, recollected 30 years later, the novel concerns the burgeoning romance between Jean, the narrator, and Gisèle, two young people adrift in Paris. Jean, a minor at 18, meets Gisèle as he is leaving a police interrogation and she is about to enter one. They exchange a look, and, impulsively, he decides to wait for her at a cafe, certain that she will pass by and come in. (“And what if she had gone in the opposite direction?” he wonders later. “The thought never occurred to me.”) Gisèle is slightly older, mysterious, connected somehow to vaguely menacing people who give the couple money in exchange for seemingly trivial favors. She hints at a painful past, mostly through her reticence and an inexplicable embrace of Jean’s escapist fantasies, themselves the product of a barely articulated history shaped by parental abandonment.

The novel, as Modiano’s novels tend to be, is at once elliptical and concise, diffuse in possibility and economical in facts. Very little is made concrete. Nearly nothing is definitively revealed. Instead, we gather feeling, moments of being, in the Woolfian sense. intimations of life’s essential sadness, which is sometimes gentle and sometimes furious. Modiano’s art is an essentially melancholy one, with moments of euphoric connection serving as preludes to disaster and loss. The novels are failed detective stories — hapless, hopeless quests to establish histories and uncover identities that can never be known. In “In the Café of Lost Youth,” several perspectives are insufficient to ascertain the truth of Louki, a beautiful young woman who frequents the late-night Parisian cafe the Condé, a meeting place of writers and philosophers, young beauties and old criminals, “of what a romantic philosopher once called ‘the Lost Youth.’” But it is precisely the unknowability, the blankness of character marked by small discoveries, that pulls us in and persists. “And if this whole period still endures in my memory,” one of the novel’s narrators theorizes, “it’s because of the questions that have remained unanswered.”

That may well be the motto of Modiano’s work, the credo of his oeuvre. In awarding him the Nobel, the Swedish Academy recognized him for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies.” But Modiano’s art is one that appreciates the ways in which memory accrues around not the known but the felt, around the atmospheric and the unsettled. Much of this has to do with his fascination with and commitment to chronicling — though it’s hard to view his project as a chronicle in the strict sense — the Occupation, the effortfully hidden wartime experience in France, or what the Nobel committee called the “uncovered… life-world of the Occupation.” In Modiano’s world, everything has already happened during the war. Even the now, though, has already become the past, recollected in a pained burst of nostalgia and longing, people merely trying to come to terms with events they cannot quite comprehend although they structure their lives and give them their meaningless meaning. History is a kind of hazy dream, thus the heady dreamy/nightmarish atmosphere of the novels.

What is remarkable about the novels, whether they focus on a marriage (as “Young Once” does) or on an accident (“Paris Nocturne”), a brief romance or an unrequited attraction, is the ways in which they come so close to the subject as to make it impossible to see clearly. I mean that as praise: Modiano writes as though through a scrim, at once transparent and cloudy, and shows us something that is beautiful because it is precisely imprecise, because it cannot, will not, may not be known.

Yevgeniya Traps writes about books for the Forward.

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