The Arty Semite

Patrick Modiano: Writing and Rewriting Recent Jewish History

By Benjamin Ivry

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On June 9, French novelist Patrick Modiano will receive a prestigious literary prize from the Fondation Simone et Cino del Duca, previously given to Jean Anouilh, Jorge Luis Borges, and Milan Kundera.

Modiano, born in 1945, is the son of Albert Modiano, an Italian Jew with roots in Salonica, who survived the war as a clandestine black marketer. As a writer, Patrick Modiano has taken decades to sort out his feelings about his miscreant father, who avoided deportation through Gestapo connections and had illicit business dealings with the notorious Maurice Sachs.

Only a few Modiano titles have been translated into English, like 1978’s “Missing Person” (Rue des boutiques obscures) from David R. Godine, which tells the story of Guy Roland, a Parisian whose identity is lost during the Nazi Occupation. Also translated is 1997’s “Dora Bruder” (University of California Press), which was inspired by a 1941 newspaper want ad seeking a runaway 15-year-old Jewish girl, who turns out to have been deported to Auschwitz.

Apart from such earnest stories, Modiano also co-authored the ambiguous screenplay of the 1974 Louis Malle film “Lacombe, Lucien,” which explores the motivations of a young French Nazi collaborator. Earlier, in 1968, Modiano published the novel “La Place de l’Étoile,” a wildly parodic jaunt involving antisemitic Jews and other tragic absurdities of modern history.

To make sense of such varied writings, Éditions Hermann has just published “Modiano or the Intermittences of Memory,” a collection of essays by various critics. As Paris literature professor Anny Dayan Rosenman notes, Modiano differs from such French Jewish novelists as Myriam Anissimov, Gérard Wajcman and Pierre Goldman because Modiano writes as the son of an amoral father.

In another essay, Philippe Zard notes that the protagonist in Modiano’s “La Place de l’Étoile” is named Schlemilovitch, or “son of a Schlemihl.” Jacques Lecarme adds that since 1968, four different versions of “La Place de l’Étoile” have appeared from Gallimard, each with silent expurgations from Modiano. These are explained by the evolution of antisemitism in France, which made Modiano’s wild 1960s description of an antisemitic Jew no longer obviously ironic. Modiano also deleted some homophobic and misogynistic remarks by characters in “La Place de l’Étoile,” lest literal-minded readers mistakenly think these opinions are the author’s.

Still busy writing and rewriting, Modiano, who has a new novel, “The Horizon,” out from Gallimard, continues to produce works fully cognizant of a morally complex French reality.

Watch Patrick Modiano describe his view of a novelist’s duty:


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