Not that the plot come as a surprise. Most of the novels Modiano has written over four prolific decades have been first-person narratives about dreamy young men left to their own devices, and wandering around Paris amid criminal types while trying to piece together the murky past of absentee parents. Un pedigree follows this familiar pattern. Names and sentences have been lifted almost verbatim from previous books. Crucially, Un pedigree is told in the haunted, pared-down style, blending geographical precision with emotional ambiguity, that has enabled Modiano to go over the same ground without ever sounding stale.
If neither the substance nor the style represents a novel departure, what makes this book so unsettling? Its openly autobiographical character. Un pedigree purports to be an account of the first twenty-one years of Patrick Modiano. It is hard to overstate the shocking novelty of such a confession. Of course, it was always clear that his books were to some extent autobiographical. The fact that central characters tended to be French writers born in 1945 was a bit of a giveaway. But readers never knew or cared how much his stories were based on fact. The distance between the author and the narrator, the essence of fiction, was always maintained. The "I" was a just another character, resembling the author, perhaps, but also shielding him.
Modiano is in fact the most secretive of French literary stars - usually a garrulous lot. He never writes in newspapers, and in his rare interviews has been uncomfortable talking about himself, or anything else. His bottled-up persona has contributed to the mystique of his books, which have always asked more questions than they answer.
Un pedigree tugs at the veil of ignorance that had been his trademark. It is about Patrick Modiano and other real people. Some of them are famous, as his mother, a minor actress, was well-connected in the entertainment world of the 1950s and 1960s and had an affair with the writer Jean Cau. The most startling aspect of this book is how little new material it contains: readers are forced to look at his whole work in an entirely new light. You feel like a visitor in a gallery who suddenly realises that what he thought were abstract paintings are in fact judiciously placed windows, and that the strange and wonderful shapes he had been admiring are real objects.
Patrick's father in Un pedigree is the same man who appears in Modiano's novels as the narrator's father. A petty criminal before the war, he failed to register with the Vichy authorities as a Jew, and eked out a clandestine living on the black market in occupied Paris. He was picked up in a police raid in 1943 but avoided deportation, in an episode that neither Modiano nor any of his wartime-obsessed narrators has managed fully to elucidate. His parents were "lost butterflies" thrown together during a storm.
Patrick and his younger brother were the fruit of a haphazard relationship that deteriorated quickly after the war. The boys were treated like unwanted pets - "I am a dog who pretends to have a pedigree", Modiano writes - and parked with friends and boarding schools, in episodes told in detail in Remise de peine (1988) and De si braves garçons (1982).
At age 17 he was packed off to a pensionnat in Paris's Latin Quarter, "while my parents lived a few hundred yards away". He eventually ran away and spent the mid-1960s leading a life of Bohemian penury that would provide the material for many books. Un pedigree ends in 1966, when Patrick breaks with his father for good and starts writing his first novel.
Modiano's laconic style is put to striking effect, as it pulls the reader in two opposite directions. On the one hand, the intensely personal nature of the subject matter - particularly his unfulfilled yearning for parental love - makes his prose even more poignant. The sentence "She was a pretty girl with a dry heart" has different ring when applied, as in Un pedigree, to the writer's mother rather than to a fictional character. But on the other hand, the fact that this book reads so much like a Modiano novel gives it an unreal feel.
The shady associates of his father blend in with the high rollers that people Modiano's fiction - especially as the foreign-sounding names are the same. "This was more or less the world my father knew. Demi-monde? Gilded underworld? Before she vanishes into the cold night of oblivion, I will mention another Russian who was his friend at the time: Galina "Gay" Orloff." This passage in Un pedigree is one of many bursting with references to Modiano's novels. Rue des boutiques obscures (1978) has a character called "Gay Orlow". And the narrator of Fleurs de ruine (1991) describes his father's set, and his own relationship with it, in the same terms: "Marquesses and confidence men. Accidental aristocrats. Tribunal fodder (...) I lift them one last time from nothingness before they return there forever."
And as in his other books, Modiano likes to leave things unexplained. What caused his brother's premature death - of which he only says it affected him more than any other event recorded in Un pedigree? He might also have expanded on his friendship with Raymond Queneau: how does a 20-year-old unknown get to see France's greatest living novelist every weekend? Perhaps Modiano - who is about the same age now as Queneau was in the mid-1960s - does not want people to know. Did Queneau's books influence him? (There are strong similarities between Modiano's novels and such understated masterpieces as Un rude hiver and Odile.) But of this, the stuff of straightforward memoirs, we are told nothing. Modiano simply writes that Queneau liked to walk in Paris and loved dogs.
This autobiography masquerading as a novel exudes the same magic as Modiano's novels masquerading as autobiographies. Some of those windows look like paintings after all. As they close this weirdest and most wonderful of books, readers, as always with Modiano, are not quite sure.
Article paru précédemment dans le "Times Literary Supplement" (22 juillet 2005).
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