Remember to Forget: Patrick Modiano’s “Sleep of Memory”

By Thomas J. MillayNovember 13, 2018

Remember to Forget: Patrick Modiano’s “Sleep of Memory”

Sleep of Memory by Patrick Modiano

“I HAVE SOME trepidation about bringing up those days. They are the last and most memorable days of a part of my youth,” writes Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, in his latest novel. Why trepidation? Surely his place in society is now secure, having won such a prize. Yet, as Modiano surely knows, even a Nobel cannot prevent one from being arrested for past crimes. The atmosphere of anxiety that always pervades Modiano’s novels has not dissipated as a result of his recent accolades. As Modiano is surely aware, the law cares little for cultural achievements. If one is an accomplice to murder, one must be subject to punishment.

Despite an understandable hesitation, Modiano continues to force himself to write, to set down on paper crimes that the past has already covered over, possible consequences be damned.

Of course, the crimes recorded in his novels may or may not be autobiographical. But given Modiano’s past, as GD Dess has summarized in an excellent overview of his life and work, it is not unreasonable to suppose he has some personal involvement with crime, whatever that might be. It is not outside the realm of possibility that we could see Modiano on television someday, handcuffed and heading off to prison because one of his novels gave a clue to his past that was a touch too close to reality.

So why write about these things at all? Why risk it? Here, Modiano is often misunderstood. The Nobel committee wrote that he received the prize “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” He is often spoken of this way, as someone operating contre l’oubli, dedicated to the task of retrieving and preserving memories of a world that is quickly slipping away. It is surely correct to see Modiano in that light, but it is only a partial truth. If one looks closely at his professed reasons for writing, Modiano remembers only to forget, or remembers only to enable forgetting.

This is to note a fact that has been written about, but not often enough: Modiano is an author marked by trauma. Memory is an ambiguous thing for such an author: it is both the vehicle for the continuation of the wounds past trauma has inflicted, and the only possible way to overcome the pain that has formed the traumatized self. For repressed memory shapes the self even if one wishes to deny its status as authentic memory. In the case of the traumatized subject, one writes in order to bring the repressed to the surface; and it is only when such surfacing occurs that one can move forward with life. The relation between trauma and writing has been the subject of exceptional studies by theorists such as Judith Herman, Cathy Caruth, and Shelly Rambo, and all of this material is relevant to understanding Modiano. He writes, perhaps at some risk to himself and those he once knew, in order to continue to live. It is only in the full remembering of such pasts that anything like forgetting can occur, and in this context “forgetting” would mean something like the lifting of the weight that a memory used to hold.

The title of the first novel Modiano has written post-Nobel victory is singularly apropos, Sleep of Memory, putting a memory that has agitated the self for too long to a final, authoritative rest. The author writes about such a purpose near the end of this brief, poignant volume:

Last year, at the bottom of a large envelope, among expired navy blue passports and report cards from a children’s home and a boarding school in the Haute-Savoie, I came upon some typed sheets.

At first, I hesitated to reread those few pages of onionskin held together by a rusty paperclip. I wanted to get rid of them right away, but that struck me as impossible, like radioactive waste that it’s no use burying hundreds of feet underground.

The only way to defuse this thin file once and for all was to copy out portions of it and blend them into the pages of a novel, as I did thirty years ago. That way, no one would know whether they belonged to reality or the realm of dreams. Today, March 10, 2017, I again opened the pale green folder, removed the paperclip that left rust stains on the first sheet and, before ripping the whole thing to shreds and leaving not a single material trace, I’ll copy over a few sentences and then be done with it.

To “be done with it”; such is the goal, anyway. The perpetual need to write another novel speaks to the impossibility of ever finally achieving this aim — a fact for which Modiano’s readers may feel grateful, if also a little guilty at the same time.

We continue to be the beneficiaries of Modiano’s pain with this new novel, which has many of the satisfactions typical of a Modiano novel: absent parents, chance encounters, disappearing women, dalliances in the occult, the mysteries of Paris charted via specific streets and the seasons. Above all is a mood that cannot be adequately described but is familiar to anyone who has read one of Modiano’s books, a mood ably conveyed by the sensitive and spare translation of Mark Polizzotti. Compared to recent works, however, Sleep of Memory does not have the formal purity of The Black Notebook or the humor of So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood. The disparate narrative of the former is brought into unity through the haunting of one female character, Dannie, and this lends an affecting singularity to the reading experience that Sleep of Memory does not have, haunted as it is by several women and not just the one. So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood is perhaps Modiano’s most humorous work since his first novel, La Place de l’Étoile. For example, it possesses the following delightful passage on the relation between a Modiano-esque detective and modern technology:

For the past few years, he hardly ever used this computer on which most of his research came to nothing. The rare people whom he would have liked to trace had succeeded in escaping the vigilance of this machine. They had slipped through the net because they belonged to another age and because they were not exactly saints. He remembered his father whom he hardly knew and who used to say to him in a soft voice: “I’d be a tough case for dozens of examining magistrates.” No trace of his father on the computer. Any more than of Torstel or Perrin de Lara whose names he had typed out on the keyboard the previous day, before Chantal Grippay arrived. In the case of Perrin de Lara, the usual phenomenon had occurred: a great many Perrins were displayed on the screen, and the night was not long enough to go through the entire list. Those whom he would have liked to hear from were often hidden among a crowd of anonymous people, or else behind a famous character who bore the same name. And when he typed out a direct question on the keyboard: “Is Jacques Perrin de Lara still alive? If so, give me his address”, the computer seemed incapable of replying and you could sense a certain hesitation and a certain embarrassment passing through the multiple wires that connected the machine to electrical sockets.

Sleep of Memory is missing these elements of formal purity and humor. Still, it has other virtues.

First, it has some of the best aphorisms one can find in Modiano. A brief sampling here: “For me, Paris is littered with ghosts”; “with a little effort they come back to you, those names that lie dormant beneath a thin coating of snow and neglect”; “Those people you often wonder about, whose disappearance is shrouded in mystery, a mystery you’ll never be able to solve — you’d be surprised to learn that they simply changed neighborhoods”; “quite simply, we live at the mercy of certain silences.” As always, with Modiano, melancholy is formulated with precision, and the enjoyment gained from reading a new text is seeing how he’s done it this time, how he has returned to the same themes, delighting us anew with yet a more perfect way of putting the matter.

Second, there is an unforgettable evocation of domestic space when the narrator goes to visit a friend of a friend named Madeleine Péraud, who teaches yoga and occult sciences. Péraud’s house is a realm of utter quiet in the midst of Paris, such that when one enters one feels one has left the city entirely. There are two windows that look out onto a garden, and Péraud speaks with a calm voice. The narrator and his friend are asked to sit on a red sofa that faces these windows. The room is lit by a floor lamp that stands between the two windows, giving off a soft light as Péraud asks questions of a gentle, non-interrogative nature. Modiano speaks frequently of the eternal return, but the peculiar way this scene is written, with its repetitive cadences and unhurried grace, brings the reader into his cyclical universe. Times stands still not just for Jean, the narrator, but for us as well.

The third and final virtue has to do with horror. Sleep of Memory manages to attach a feeling not just of unease but of genuine terror to the past. It seems the past may at any moment return to impound the present, making us pay an unredeemed debt that has been accruing interest for some time. We are the beneficiaries of Modiano’s pain, and the trauma rising to the surface (like a body floating in a river, the body of a certain Ludovic F.) feels exquisitely real.


Thomas J. Millay is a PhD student in Theology at Baylor University. His fiction has been published in the Blotter.

LARB Contributor

Thomas J. Millay, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hong Kierkegaard Library, St. Olaf College, and the author of You Must Change Your Life: Søren Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Reading (Cascade Press, 2020) and Kierkegaard and the New Nationalism (Lexington Press, 2021). His fiction has been published in The Blotter and his poetry in Earth & Altar.


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