Book Review: Translating Patrick Modiano

Mark Polizzotti sheds light on the nuances of working with the Nobel Prize winner.

Patrick Modiano (photo credit: REUTERS)
Patrick Modiano
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Mark Polizzotti, like most translators, does not get a great deal of recognition.
He has translated over 40 titles, beginning at the tender age of 17 – when he met the French experimental novelist Maurice Roche and, not knowing what else to say, rashly offered to translate one of his books.
Yet when there was finally an opportunity for him to be quoted in news outlets around the world, his timing was off.
When French novelist Patrick Modiano, whose trilogy of novellas, Suspended Sentences, Polizzotti translated, won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature in November, Polizzotti was on a plane headed to the Frankfurt Book Fair, unavailable to be interviewed.
However, translation has its own satisfactions – and Modiano is a compelling writer.
The Jerusalem Post sat down with Polizzotti, to discuss the nuances of working with the talented Modiano.
What is unique about Modiano?
One characteristic element is that he often tells the same stories. He tends to revisit them, with a different shading each time.
For instance, Dora Bruder (1997; English translation, 1999) is based on a personal ad from the 1940s. But even as his non-fiction account relates what he discovered about Dora, he also mixes in episodes from his own personal history, many of which have been told with variations in other books of his.
This sounds a bit like the work of Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld, telling a similar story in many ways.
(At this, Polizzotti takes the opportunity to mention he had been an editor at David R. Godine publishers, which brought out some of Appelfeld’s first English translations; he was also editor in charge of the 1997 anthology Six Israeli Novellas, edited by Gershon Shaked.)
Yes, but there’s an important difference: Appelfeld actually lived through the Holocaust. Modiano was born in 1945; the war was over. He had an oblique relationship to things, whereas in a book like [Appelfeld’s] Badenheim 1939, you are put in the middle of it.
Modiano’s father was an Italian Jew living in Paris who had underworld dealings.
He was picked up by the French “Jewish Affairs” police, then saved by the fellow who headed a group of petty criminals working hand-in-glove with the Gestapo, the Rue Lauriston gang.
Imagine what kind of identity this produces in the son. Modiano has spent practically his entire career trying to come to terms with this story. To make matters worse, he had a very difficult relationship with his father – and he never really got an answer. It is not an easy story.
I was struck by the use of photos in the stories. There is a line in the story “Afterimage”: “I had taken on this job because I refused to accept that people and things could disappear without a trace. How could anyone resign himself to that?” Is this a metaphor for the Holocaust as a whole, and Modiano’s attitude toward it?
I think that’s it. There are two large themes in his work, and one has to do with memory and preservation, the idea that things could disappear so completely.
The other has to do with responsibility, the way one reacts to extreme situations, such as the Nazi Occupation of France and the ethical questions it raised.
When I was in Paris after translating these novellas, I went back to find some of the places he mentions, but many of them were gone or had changed. The world he describes is one of memory; processed, recreated.
Family history, national history, the Holocaust, racial history: The question is, how does one keep these things from disappearing? It’s both a historical concern and a personal one. Modiano’s mother was constantly disappearing, on tour as an actress, and his father always seemed to want to keep him away, sending him to boarding school, the army and so on.
What in these novellas is true, and what is fiction?
I’m now translating his memoir Pedigree, and I discovered that a number of stories he tells as fiction are also in his memoir as fact. I was bowled over to see how closely his fiction hews to real facts – or rather, since most novelists draw on autobiography, how permeable the boundary is in his work between reality and invention.
Is Modiano a Jewish writer?
A good question – to some extent yes, and to some extent no.
There is a kind of denial of identity. Yet at the same time, Jewish history has indelibly colored his life and his personality. It is almost Kafkaesque – it is there, but so big that it is not there. My sense is that Jewishness is pushed away as an obvious identity marker, but it travels with him wherever he goes: his interaction with history, the enigma of who his father was and the mysterious life he led.
The question of Jewishness is mixed up in this puzzle of identity. The son never entirely figured out who Albert Modiano was. He put all the pieces together to craft an identity for his father – larger than life, hyper-real, and yet completely elusive.
This dovetails with one of the central issues behind his work, though rarely is it explicitly addressed: the near-disappearance of a race. Modiano was born just after the Holocaust, and this has colored his entire existence.
Any understanding of the writer must be enhanced by his own words, so we will end this introduction to Modiano with an excerpt from his Nobel Prize speech: “My distant relative, the painter Amedeo Modigliani, comes to mind.
“In his most stirring paintings, the models he chose were anonymous people, children and street girls, maids, small farmers, young apprentices. He painted them with an intense brush stroke reminiscent of the great Tuscan tradition – Botticelli and the Sienese painters of the Quattrocento. He also gave them – or rather revealed – all the grace and nobility that was inside them, beneath their humble appearance.
“The work of a novelist must travel in the same direction. His imagination, far from distorting reality, must get to the bottom of it, revealing this reality to itself, using the power of infrared and ultraviolet to detect what is hidden behind appearances. I could almost believe that the novelist, at his best, is a kind of clairvoyant or even visionary.
“He is also a seismograph, standing by to pick up barely perceptible movements.”