The Melancholy of Patrick Modiano




IN 2014, FRENCH AUTHOR Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” With the first-year anniversary of his award having just passed, it seemed as if it would be a good time to review a large portion of his fiction and discuss some of the themes that inform his writing, which deserves a wider audience in the United States.

Modiano is a prolific writer. He has written more than 20 works of fiction as well as screenplays (Lacombe, Lucien co-written with Louis Malle) and children’s books and memoirs. He published his first novel, La Place de l’étoile, in 1968, for which he was awarded the Fénéon Prize and Roger Nimier Prize. His most celebrated work, or perhaps the most widely known, Missing Person, won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the year of its publication. Over the years, Modiano has won many other French literary awards, including the Grand Prix National des Lettres, in 1996, for his work overall. 

Generally Modiano writes short, easy-to-read novels (most are around 200 pages long, some shorter) with big themes: memory, loss, identity, seeking. They are easily approachable and satisfying to read. Despite this, he is still not widely read in the United States. At the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize last October, many of his books were unavailable in English translation and, Missing Person, the novel for which he won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, had sold only 2,425 copies in the United States. The availability of his work in English has now been largely solved through the industrious work of several talented translators, and more of his novels are becoming available on an almost monthly basis. [1] 

Works discussed in this article include Ring Roads (Les Boulevards de ceinture, 1972), Missing Person (Rue des Boutiques Obscures, 1978), Suspended Sentences (Remise de peine, 1988), Honeymoon (Voyage de noces, 1990), Flowers of Ruin (Fleurs de ruine, 1991), Afterimage (Chien de printemps, 1993), Out of the Dark (Du plus loin de l’oubli, 1995), Dora Bruder (1997), Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue (2007), and Pedigree: A Memoir (Un Pedigree, 2015).

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Modiano achieved literary recognition early in his career, at least in France, but his creation of himself as a writer could not have been easy, given his penurious and precarious early life. He was born in 1945, just outside Paris, but his family had not been in the terroir of France for very long. His mother was Belgian, born in Antwerp. His Jewish father’s family was originally from Greece and came to France by way of Italy. His mother and father met and married during World War II, had two children (Modiano’s younger brother Rudy died of leukemia at age 10), and separated sometime after that. Socioeconomically, the family would classify as petite bourgeoisie and after 1947 they slipped into what Modiano refers to in Pedigree as “splendid poverty.” Suspect because of their outsider and low-class standing, frequently nearly destitute, they were sometimes driven to crime. Modiano himself admits to stealing books from both private individuals and from libraries in order to sell them to second-hand book dealers; his mother was not beyond shoplifting. 

His mother was, as he notes in Pedigree, “a pretty girl with an arid heart.” She abandoned the family to pursue a theatrical career, landing bit parts in minor plays throughout Europe, often leaving Modiano in the care of friends or relatives. His father, with whom Modiano never established a bond, continually placed him in schools in and out of Paris whenever he could afford to, and eked out a living through shady deals with disreputable people, some of whom were thought to have been gangsters. Given the petty larceny that mother and son engaged in, and the father’s suspicious illegal dealings, and the paranoia that follows in the wake of criminality, it is understandable that the narrator of Ring Roads (a semi-autobiographical novel about father and son) remarks that in Paris, for people like them, “Menace loomed everywhere.” 

It has been claimed that Modiano’s range of work is narrow and repetitive. He himself has said that for over 45 years he has always been writing the same novel (on fait toujours le même roman). But if his works deal with a narrow range of themes and are repetitive, they are so in the way that Ravel’s Boléro is repetitive: a simple melody with insistent, intricate, increasing orchestration that holds our attention from beginning to spectacular end. 

The novels reviewed in this article, like most of Modiano’s work, revolve around tragedy while not conforming to the classic structure of tragedy, in which someone who possesses high social position, or great wealth, or intelligence, or power, or beauty suffers a reversal of fortune due to some flaw of character. Rather, his novels are infused with the tragic sense of life, as defined by the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who named this state of existence: the sense of tragedy that comes from our being self-conscious creatures who, through the act of living, are brought face to face with our frailty and our limitations, the chief one of which is our mortality. 

Modiano’s work is also different from classic tragedy in that, for the most part, the people he writes about are from the lower strata of society — gamblers, drifters, grifters, prostitutes, slumlords, and jockeys. Modiano admits in Ring Roads that:  

I know the life stories of these shadows is of no great interest to anyone, but if I didn’t write it down, no one else would do it. It is my duty, since I knew them, to drag them — if only for an instant — from the darkness. It is a duty, but for me it is also a necessary thing. 

Commentators and critics have pointed out that the structure of many of Modiano’s novels borrows the format of detective stories. However, while his characters are frequently chasing down clues and coming up with theories about the behavior of the people they are investigating, and imagining what that person could have been doing or thinking at any given point in time, Modiano’s writing is not the stuff typical of the detective genre. In fact, his narrators, who are frequently carrying out some sort of investigation, have more in common with Samuel Beckett’s deracinated, self-reflecting characters (especially in the trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable) than they do with Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe — who always get their man. For in Modiano, no villain will be captured, no vengeance wreaked, no one brought to justice. 

Also as in Beckett, characters in Modiano’s novels share their mental states, memories (or lack thereof), and describe their physical locations (or lack thereof) with great gusto and enthralling detail. What happened to them, where they are, where they are going, why they are going where they are going, what they have lost, what they have left, are questions with which they struggle. Coincidentally, perhaps, both Modiano’s and Beckett’s protagonists/narrators are writers, or want to be writers, or tell people they are writers. And, they struggle with memory issues. In Malone Dies, Malone writes: “At first I did not write, I just said the thing. Then I forgot what I had said. A minimum of memory is indispensable, if one is to live really.” 

Memory occupies an odd place in consciousness, somewhere between reality and dream. This intersection is an area of interest for Modiano, and he is acutely aware of the intermittent interpenetration of these different states of consciousness and how, for example, “the contagion of dreams into reality” affects our existence. 

What our memories hold, how we maintain them or find them when they seem to have disappeared, and how we verify that they are correct if we find them, are the very subjects about which Modiano writes. By capturing his memories about people and places and writing them down, in the form of novels and memoirs, he forces himself, and us, to remember them. This is because, as he says in Afterimage, “I refused to accept that people and things could disappear without a trace. How could anyone resign himself to that?” 

Other writers have devoted their art to capturing memories, notably Proust, to whom Modiano is often compared. In Proust, however, memories arise from sensations or sensorial impressions, and in Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel, the narrator of the novel, does not question the verisimilitude or reality of his memories. His concern is whether a memory will “ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old dead moment.” [2]

Modiano is not concerned with bringing what he calls a “dead moment” to consciousness, nor with the structure of memory or how it functions, as Proust was. A narrator in a Modiano novel either has a memory of an event: “I remember a car ride, five years later, from Pigalle to the Champs-Elysées”; or, he has no memory of an event. Or, like a character in Beckett’s trilogy, he has no memory even of himself, as the narrator in search of himself in Missing Person, thinks: “I no longer remember if, that evening, my name was Jimmy or Pedro, Stern or McEvory.” Characters in Modiano stories often find themselves in a state in which reality, memory, and dream are becoming conflated, as with the narrator in Out of the Dark: “I was in a dream, and I had to wake up. The ties connecting me to the present were stretching.”

Modiano’s protagonists unearth names, dates, old telephone directories, addresses, pictures, police files and fabricate a past (real or imaginary?) out of the memories they disinter. But Damocles’s sword hangs over them, constantly threatening obliteration. It is Modiano’s work to keep the threat at bay for as long as possible so that he can proceed with his investigation. The exquisite structure and pacing of his storytelling technique allows him to create, like Proust, a hallucinatory world of intense emotional reality.

I will not attempt to convey ways in which his intricate plot lines alone provide pleasure, nor comment on the sheer stylistic beauty of his classic French prose — the clarity, the precision — nor analyze his technique of shifting timeframes, and use of multiple verb tenses, all of which create a unique aesthetic experience while reading him. I will instead discuss the way his themes play out in his art — and since Modiano says he is always writing the same book, it should do to analyze one or two of them. Because Modiano gives away the end in the beginning of most of his stories, I don’t think anything here counts as a spoiler.

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Modiano was awarded the Prix Goncourt for Missing Person more than 30 years ago, but the novel reads as fresh as if it had been written yesterday. It begins portentously with the sentence: I am nothing. This early work is constructed like a detective tale, and the narrator is a detective. Guy Roland, which may or may not be the narrator’s real name, has worked at a detective agency under the direction of his boss, Hutte, for over eight years. Guy is suffering from amnesia and when he went to work at the agency, Hutte provided him with papers to back up his adopted name and identity. It is only after his boss retires, and he is freed from labor, that he can take on the task of finding himself.

Naturally this involves an investigation. At first Guy is led to believe, mistakenly, that he may be a man called Freddie Howard de Luz. However, in time his research leads him to believe his real name may be Jimmy Pedro Stern, and he may have been born in Greece. But some evidence indicates that his real name and identity might be Pedro McEvoy and he might be from the Dominican Republic. If he is Stern, he disappeared in 1940. If he is McEvoy, he left France before the war.

In seeking his past, the narrator rounds up the usual (Modiano) suspects for questioning, and gives us their names, addresses, old photos, and telephone numbers. Missing Person is a slim book of just over 150 pages, in which more characters — no fewer than 22 — make an appearance than in many novels twice the length. Not an insignificant number of them have died or committed suicide.

In his search to discover who he is, Guy works by intuition, premonition, supposition, and dream-like imaginings. He constantly hypothesizes about people’s motives and behavior. The disparate details he uncovers serve as his Ariadne’s thread — one he hopes will lead him to himself. But even when he feels he is making some progress, he acknowledges when he feels stymied and baffled: “Scraps, shreds have come to light as a result of my searches…But then that is perhaps what a life amounts to…Is it really my life I’m tracking down? Or someone else’s into which I have somehow infiltrated myself?”

Guy believes that places hold traces of the lives that have lived there:

I believe that the entrance-halls of buildings still retain the echo of footsteps of those who used to cross them and who have since vanished. Something continues to vibrate after they have gone, fading waves, but which can still be picked up if one listens carefully.

Yet, despite his persistent attempts to raise clues from the locations he visits, physical reality resists his efforts. When Guy discovers that he and his girlfriend at the time, Denise Coudreuse, might have been living in the same building in which the Blue Rider murdered Scouffi, he ponders: “An event as tragic as this must surely have left some trace, if we had lived through it on the floor below.” But, he concedes: “Not a trace of it in my memory.”

Guy follows a number of leads in his search for himself. Early on, the Russian Styoppa de Dzhagorev gives him a red box containing mementos and keepsakes, photographs and newspaper clippings of the past that might be useful in his search. Later on, Guy visits the former villa of Freddie Howard de Luz, whom he thinks may have been a childhood friend. Bob, the groundskeeper he interrogates, gives him useful information, and before he leaves gives him a box of full of Freddie’s keepsakes and mementos. Guy notes, sadly: “It certainly seemed everything ended with old chocolate or biscuit or cigar boxes.”

Finally, his investigation leads him to conclude that he and Denise were probably victims of a double-cross when, in an attempt to cross the Franco-Swiss border in the winter, during the waning days of the war, Denise disappears. He, too, may have disappeared. The trauma of being tricked and abandoned in the mountains in the cold, and left to die, may have been, he decides, the traumatic event that produced his amnesia, but he can never confirm it. Denise’s physical whereabouts remain unknown, but thanks to Guy’s work she now has a name and a history. In the end, Guy is physically present, but despite his efforts he remains a missing person, with no verifiable name or history. He may be Jimmy Pedro Stern or he may be Pedro McEvoy. Or he may be neither. Or, it may be, as he says in the beginning of the novel, that he is nothing.

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Honeymoon (Voyage de noces) is one of Modiano’s novels in which the mystery proposed at the commencement of the book is more or less solved right away. The plot is straightforward: it is told in a series of shifting scenes and time warps that provide a sense of depth that a linear narrative would not be able to accomplish. Jean B, a documentary filmmaker and explorer, is on his way to Paris by train. He has a stopover in Milan. While there, he learns that a Frenchwoman killed herself in his hotel just two days before. Later, he realizes he knew the woman when he was 20, 18 years ago. 

Not long after returning to Paris, instead of flying to Rio for work, he abandons his wife and his life and goes to live in the Parisian suburbs in an attempt to piece together the life of the woman who committed suicide: Ingrid Teyrsen. He explains why he is doing this to a friend: “It’s very simple. I just feel tired of my life and my job.” He admits he may attempt to write her biography. [3] 

The novel contains two significant newspaper notices. The first Jean B reads in the train on the way to Paris. Printed in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, it is the formal report of Ingrid Teyrsen’s suicide. The second notice, we learn later, was given to Jean B by Ingrid herself many years earlier. It is a notice that had been placed in a Paris paper when she was a girl, a notice penned by her father: “Missing: Ingrid Teyrsen, sixteen, 1m60, oval face, grey eyes, brown sports coat, light blue pullover, beige skirt and hat, black casual shoes. All information to M. Teyrsen, 39bis, Boulevard Ornano, Paris.” 

Between these two notices, we learn through Jean B some details of Ingrid’s life. She was married to a man named Rigaud, and Jean B met her and her husband purely by chance, in the south of France during the final months of World War II. The couple was hiding out on the Côte d’Azur, telling people they were on honeymoon. They picked Jean B up hitchhiking, took him with them to Saint-Tropez, and insisted that he stay with them for a few days. When he had to go, they paid for his train ticket to Paris, even giving him spending money since his had been stolen. 

That is the last he sees of Ingrid until years later, when, once again by chance, he happens upon her in Paris. They have a meal together and a desultory conversation during which Jean B notes:

It does also happen that one evening, because of someone’s attentive gaze, you feel a need to communicate to him not your experience, but quite simply some of the various details connected by an invisible thread, a thread which is in danger of breaking and which is called the course of a life.

And of course the thread is broken. Jean’s detective work uncovers the fact that Ingrid’s father was an Austrian Jew (and that she is therefore half-Jewish) and so couldn’t leave the city after the Germans invaded France. Returning from a dance class one night, Ingrid simply doesn’t go home. For whatever obscure reason, she cannot return. “Why did she feel so discouraged this evening at the prospect of going home to her father?” Perhaps, Jean B suggests: “She had a presentiment that if she went down the boulevard like the other people going home to the eighteenth arrondissement, the frontier would close behind her forever.” So she walks on.

Soon after abandoning her father, she calls to let him know she is okay. But she does not reach him. She calls again and although she is told he is expecting her call, she hangs up before speaking to him. While Modiano does not give us a word about the father’s feelings, one can only imagine his fretting, his worry, his heartbreak at not knowing what happened to his 16-year-old daughter since it was during that time period that Jews were routinely rounded up and shipped to transit camps and then off to concentration camps and certain death. And then, one can picture his anguish and emotional collapse when he is eventually taken away, by “some men,” forever, not knowing what became of his daughter. And then, later, his daughter’s shock and distress when she finally decides to return to her father — only to discover that he has been, in today’s language, disappeared. 

Ingrid never sees her father again. That night she does not return home, she takes up with Rigaud, whom she meets in a café. After selling the contents of his mother’s apartment to raise money, he takes her under his protection to the south of France, where they cross paths with the narrator. 

In many ways, Ingrid’s plight resembles Dora’s in Modiano’s novel about another missing girl, Dora Bruder. Dora wanders away from the school that was protecting her from the Nazis, also for reasons that remain undiscoverable. Like Ingrid’s father, Dora’s parents place an advertisement in the paper seeking the whereabouts of their daughter. And Dora, like Ingrid’s father, never returns. The last known notice of her occurs in the Tourelles Register for 1942. She had been interned: all the women in Tourelles were transferred to Drancy, and then on to Auschwitz where they were murdered by the Nazis. 

Modiano speculates that perhaps Dora experienced “the illusion that the passage of time is suspended,” and that she “need only slip through this breach to escape the trap which is closing around” her. And perhaps Ingrid was under the same illusion when she did not return home to her father that fateful night. 

Unlike Dora, Ingrid managed to avoid being rounded up and shipped off to a death camp, and she survived the war. But she could not survive the continual onslaught of her memories: “Circumstances and settings are of no importance. One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs and disappears. But in the end it returns in force, and she couldn’t shake it off.” 

Out of the Dark is probably the most straightforward of these works in structure: boy meets girl, boy wins girl, girl leaves boy, boy finds girl many years later. The characters in this novel (as in many Modiano novels) are mainly young people, in their early 20s. They are separated from their parents, cut off from history by either necessity or by choice. They are, as they often remind us, aimlessly drifting, trying to figure out their lives, or escape from them. They are lonely, alienated from the society in which they live. It is as if they are living out the lyrics from Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”: without a home, complete unknowns. 

The unnamed narrator is befriended by a couple he encounters in a café, Jacqueline and Gérard Van Bever. The narrator makes his living from selling old books, and the Van Bevers appear to make theirs from gambling. The three of them are drifters, living in the shabbier section of Paris. Gérard plays an insignificant role and is poorly delineated; Jacqueline becomes the central figure, but she nevertheless remains an enigma. 

Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Nana in Vivre sa vie — Godard’s groundbreaking film that traces the slow and haphazard descent of a young Parisian woman into prostitution — Jacqueline’s motives remain opaque (Godard’s Nana is a reference to the eponymous heroine of Emile Zola’s Nana [1880] in which a prostitute brings wreck and ruin to each of the successive men with whom she is involved — up until the day she dies from smallpox.) Jacqueline, like Godard’s Nana, rarely exhibits emotion. Both women occupy a Paris of coffee bars, pinball machines, and tawdry hotels. Jacqueline leaves Van Bever without too much thought or premeditation, just as Nana abandons her husband and child. Jacqueline dreams of escaping to Majorca; Nana dreams of becoming a movie actress. They live in a circumscribed reality in which there is nothing to do but imagine having money and leaving Paris. Whether Nana decides to become a prostitute or drifts into prostitution to keep body and soul together is unclear. Just as it is unclear why Jacqueline accepts money for sex. Both women appear impassive and dissociated from themselves except for the drive to fulfill their vision of life. The two of them live their lives the best they can. 

Jacqueline does so by going from man to man. Before departing on one of his gambling trips, Van Bever leaves Jacqueline under the watch of the narrator. She and the narrator get high on ether and sleep together. Neither of them informs Van Bever of this indiscretion. Shortly thereafter Jacqueline introduces the narrator to a friend of theirs, Pierre Cartaud. As it turns out, he is having sex with Jacqueline from time to time and gives her money for this privilege, of which Van Bever is aware. Learning this does not give the narrator pause, nor stop him from continuing to sleep with her. 

One day, Jacqueline suggests that the narrator sneak into Cartaud’s apartment and steal a briefcase full of money so they can escape Paris. Thrilled at the prospect of having Jacqueline to himself, he commits the crime. Afterward, while waiting to meet up with Jacqueline, he fantasizes, writing on pieces of paper the names and places of the people that have become part of his life. This exercise causes him to be overcome by the arbitrary nature of his existence: 

So this was my life? So my whole existence at this moment came down to about twenty unconnected names and addresses that had nothing in common but me? And why these rather than others? What did I have to do with these names and places? 

For the crime he commits, Jacqueline rewards him by taking him out of Paris, the city in which he was aimlessly adrift, amid a meaningless concatenation of names and addresses. 

While some commentators have called this a love story, I’m not inclined to see it that way. The narrator’s happiness (a rare and unusual sentiment in Modiano’s work) has little or nothing to do with his being in love with Jacqueline and, I think, more to do with his escape from “all the gray, uncertain years I had lived up to then.” By taking him with her to London, she frees him from himself. What he feels, he says, is not love but “fleeting euphoria”: 

When the taxi turned onto the Mall and that shady, tree-lined avenue opened up before me, the first twenty years of my life fell to dust, like a weight, like hand-cuffs or a harness that I never thought I would be free of. Just like that, nothing remained of all those years. And if happiness was the fleeting euphoria I felt that afternoon, then for the first time in my existence I was happy. 

In London, the narrator and Jacqueline are nearly destitute, since it turns out there was very little money in that suitcase. Their life there is the mirror image of what it was in Paris, except this time the narrator and Jacqueline are a couple. They meet a woman in a café, Linda Jacobsen, who introduces them to an older man, Peter Rachman, who “likes young people.” He takes an immediate interest in Jacqueline. Soon she begins accepting money from Rachman, just as she did from Cartaud, and the narrator realizes that she has found a way “to express her gratitude” to Rachman, just as she had with Cartaud. While the narrator begins writing a novel (about two young people), and ignoring the situation, as did Van Bever, Jacqueline begins going out at night with Linda and coming home in the early hours of the morning. One day she vanishes without a trace, leaving the narrator, just as she left Van Bever. 

Fifteen years later, back in Paris, the narrator encounters Jacqueline again. He spots her in the street and follows her to a party. He learns she is married and has changed her identity: she is now called Thérèse Caisley. At first she doesn’t acknowledge him, but over the course of the evening, he breaks through to her. They leave the party together and she offers to drive him home. On the way they stop in a nearby park, deserted at that hour. She parks the car under some trees and once again they fall into each other’s arms. 

Fifteen years after the interlude at the party, he sees her once again. They are on the metro together. She doesn’t recognize him. He follows her. She looks weary and her face thinner. He had been dreaming about her lately: “I saw her in a little fishing port on the Mediterranean, sitting on the ground, knitting endlessly in the sunlight. Next to her, a saucer where passers-by left coins.” This time he does not engage her and leaves us with a final image of her as a lonely woman standing at a bar, pouring herself a glass of beer. A far better fate than the one that befalls Godard’s Nana or Zola’s. 

The number of characters that unaccountably go missing or vanish or who have committed suicide in Modiano’s work is astonishing. In Honeymoon, the narrator abandons his wife, to investigate the suicide of a woman who abandoned her father; in Missing Person, Guy Roland is abandoned by his boss which freed him to search for himself (earlier he had been abandoned in the mountains, in the snow, left to die); in Out of the Dark, Jacqueline abandons Van Bever and then the narrator; in Dora Bruder, Dora abandons her school and family and is murdered by the Nazis; in Ring Roads, the narrator’s father abandons him; in Suspended Sentences, the narrator and his brother are abandoned by their mother; in Afterimage, the photographer Jansen vanishes; in Flowers of Ruin, a young couple commits suicide and Philippe de Pacheco, whose real name turns out to be Charles Lombard, the one man who may be able to help the narrator understand the reasons for the suicide, vanishes; in Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue, Jacqueline Choureau (a different Jacqueline from the one in Out of the Dark), whose maiden name was Delanque but was known as Louki, abandons her husband and disappears without a trace and, ultimately, commits suicide; in Pedigree: A Memoir, Modiano himself tells us he was abandoned, for all intents and purposes, by both his mother and his father, and by his brother Rudy, who died at the age of 10. 

Abandonment, people disappearing, with or without cause, is something that Modiano recognizes but doesn’t want to believe in: “I refused to accept that people and things could disappear without a trace,” he has the narrator say in Afterimage, a sentiment echoed by many of his other protagonists. But in novel after novel, people do simply disappear, and not only do they disappear, but, as the concierge in Honeymoon tells the narrator, they “don’t come back any more. Haven’t you noticed that, Monsieur?” In other words, they vanish. 

Perhaps the most poetic example of someone disappearing, or vanishing, occurs in Modiano’s Flowers of Ruin. The narrator and a girlfriend are holed up in her room, waiting for her despised lover to leave his lookout outside her apartment: The “old prick,” as she refers to him, is standing in the street in the rain. The narrator watches him out the window: 

Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed. 

The act of vanishing is one of the central metaphors in the works under consideration in these novels. The implications — of leaving, of being left, of disappearing — are profound. Abandonment creates a pervasive disequilibrium in one’s life: as one suddenly finds oneself unbalanced, everything seems precarious. It doesn’t matter whether the abandonment is physical or emotional, if it is self-inflicted or other-inflicted. Like any act of abuse, the event leaves a psychic scar that produces restlessness, anxiety, anomie: conditions present in all Modiano’s characters. 

Because of this, Modiano’s protagonists exist in a world of perpetual existential emergency in which they are desperate to recapture a state of equilibrium within themselves. They count on their memory and the memory of others to help them do it. That is why Modiano’s narrators are constantly looking through newspaper articles, police files, and phone books, seeking confirmation, evidence, something: “some tangible proof,” the narrator of Suspended Sentences says, “that it wasn’t all in your head.” 

The tragedy is that memories are mortal; they degrade over time and disappear, abandoning us just like people. And Modiano suggests that loss, abandonment, and the threat of vanishing is the fate that we all suffer, that every day we, too, are abandoned. Loved ones pass away, children leave home, our significant other leaves us, or we leave them, our memory fails us, our friends unfriend us. His stories, told without sentimentality or emotion (the lack of which some readers find unnerving), portray the struggle in which we are all engaged as we work to keep our lives in balance in the face of these ongoing losses. 

The experience of reading Modiano helps us comes to terms with the fact that people and things do simply disappear, that memories fade and die, and that in the end life itself will abandon us; our tacit acknowledgment of this ineluctable outcome is what produces the haunting sense of melancholy that pervades his writing. 

At one point in the Flowers of Ruin, the narrator asks himself: “Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun.” It seems that, for Modiano, the answer appears to be: he has to.

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[1] Modiano is served well by his English translators — Daniel Weissbort, Barbara Wright, Mark Polizzotti, Caroline Hillier, and Jordan Stump — who have delivered nuanced and sensitive renderings of the French, capturing the tone and, importantly, the atmosphere of his writing. There is, however, a curious blooper in Honeymoon. In the French, a young man “ouvrit l’une des portières d’une conduit.” It is pretty clear that he opens a car door, and that the word in English text should be sedan, not saloon. But these things happen. 

[2] Proust’s investigation into the nature of memory and time brings him to this conclusion which is I think, worth quoting at length for it sheds light on his technique, and the differences between him and Modiano — as well as for its sheer beauty:  

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection […] Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind. 

[3] Another story in which a man abandons his life and his wife occurs in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film The Passenger. In this film David Locke (played by Jack Nicholson) is, like the narrator, a documentary filmmaker. We meet him in Africa as he is fruitlessly trying to meet with rebel leaders for an interview. Back at the hotel, he discovers Robertson, another hotel resident to whom he has talked once or twice, has died and with no apparent forethought he assumes the identity of the dead man. While it is evident that he is running away from something, it is never clear what it is. It may be the same reason that Jean B gives his friend: “It’s very simple. I just feel tired of my life and my job.” Locke appears to be suffering from the futility of merely existing as himself; he’s pursued by a free-floating anomie he cannot shake. But no sooner does he take up the dead man’s diary/appointment book and begin living his life, than he finds himself trapped in it and realizes he must flee from Robertson’s life just as he did from his, discovering too late that there is no escape.

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GD Dess is the author of the novel His Vision of Her (Harper & Row).


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