A literary life

Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s memoir is finally translated into English

Patrick Modiano: I write ‘Jewish’ without really knowing what it means. (photo credit: CATHERINE HÉLIE/EDITIONS GALLIMARD)
Patrick Modiano: I write ‘Jewish’ without really knowing what it means.
What is a Jewish writer? Does one merely need to be Jewish and a writer to qualify, or does one have to explore Jewish themes in their works? A noted literary critic wrote recently that it would be wrong to call Patrick Modiano a Jewish writer, “since he does not engage explicitly with Jewishness or Judaism.” Though this is true, Modiano’s writing comes out of a sense of what happened to Jews in France at a specific period of history, and his grappling with what that means for him and his life. He would not be searching for a past had the experience of his Jewish father not taken it from him; Modiano’s subjects and writing would be different without the Jewish historical experience.
All this comes to the surface in his memoir, Pedigree, written in 2005 and only published in English this year (translated by Mark Polizotti). Though Modiano has won a wide variety of French literary prizes, it was only when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year that a great deal of his work was translated into English and published by major American publishing houses.
Modiano’s father was from a Jewish family with roots in Thessaloniki and had cousins in London, Alexandria, Milan and Budapest, according to Pedigree.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he mentions his connection to the Italian- Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani, a distant relative, and described both writer and painter as uncovering mysteries of day-to-day life.
Modiano’s first novel was published in May 1968, a year before the seminal 1969 French Holocaust film The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophuls came out and brought awareness to the French public of the extent of the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis. Modiano’s fictional works all involve a sense of looking for a lost past and investigating what his parents did during the war. Modiano’s father was twice released from internment because his work trading on the black market made him valuable.
In Pedigree, Modiano states that “I write ‘Jewish’ without really knowing what the word meant to my father, and because at the time it was what appeared on identity papers.”
The book’s other reference to its writer’s Jewish background is when Albert Modiano takes his son to see a “documentary on the Nuremberg Trials, Hitler’s Executioners.”
Despite their joint experience, he never learned what his father thought of the film or the events it described; “we never talked about it, not even as we left the theater,” he writes.
Pedigree recounts experiences in the author’s life that he repeats in his fiction.
He writes about his parents and their relationship, and being left in the care of other adults when they left him and his younger brother for months at a time. He writes of his father’s abusive treatment – calling the police on him when he came to ask for money for himself and his mother. He and his father finally broke their ties for good when Modiano turned 21.
His mother is no less unkind. He writes of her selling a “fountain pen, ‘made of gold with a diamond nib,’ that Maurice Chevalier had presented to me at a literary awards ceremony. They gave me only two hundred francs for it, which my mother pocketed, steely-eyed.”
Modiano writes of his mother: “[S]ometimes, like a mutt with no pedigree that has too often been left on its own, I feel the childish urge to set down in black and white just what she put me through, with her insensitivity and heartlessness. I keep it to myself. And I forgive her. It’s all so distant now....”
Perhaps the best description of his need to uncover the past can be found in this passage: “One afternoon when school let out, there was no one waiting for me. I tried to go home on my own, but as I crossed the street I was knocked down by a van. The driver brought me back to the nuns, who placed an ether-soaked pad over my face to put me to sleep. Since then, I’ve been quite sensitive to the smell of ether. Overly sensitive. Ether has the curious ability to remind me of pain, then immediately erase it. Memory and amnesia.”
Writing seems to serve both these functions for Modiano, both the recreation of memories and allowing amnesia, once the ideas have been consigned to the page.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Modiano explained that his overwhelming need “to unravel a mystery gave me the desire to write, as if writing and imagination could help me finally tie up all those loose ends.”
This tale of a son who feels himself to be “a dog who pretends to have a pedigree,” since “my mother and father didn’t belong to any particular milieu,” ends – fittingly – at the time he receives the life-changing news that his first novel has been accepted for publication, launching his career.