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This Nobel Laureate's meditations on Nazi-occupied Paris are as timely as ever

French writer Patrick Modiano poses during portrait session held on December 20, 2004 in Paris, France.
French writer Patrick Modiano poses during portrait session held on December 20, 2004 in Paris, France.
(Ulf Andersen/Getty)

"At times, it seems, our memories act much like Polaroids," writes Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano in Afterimage.

The narrator in Afterimage, one of three novellas in Modiano's latest work, Suspended Sentences, is a 19-year-old volunteer archivist for a photographer named Francis Jansen. Though Jansen seems not to care for the images he's collected in suitcases over 25 years, the narrator is intent on not letting the photographs, nor the memories they contain, fall into the black void of the past. The young man spends his days cataloging Jansen's work, creating an alphabetical index of every image the photographer captured.

That index is an afterimage of Jansen's Polaroids, which are themselves afterimages of history, which is itself an afterimage of an event. Modiano's book takes this remove one step further: the narrator here is an afterimage of the author.

All of Modiano's writing is flooded with afterimages. And, in particular, one: Nazi-occupied Paris.

Afterimages

When the Nobel committee awarded Modiano the 2014 Prize in Literature, it was for the "art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation."

Occupied Paris was the "soil I grew up in," Modiano said. His parents met there during World War II. His mother was a Flemish actress; his father, an Italian Jew. Modiano was born on July 30, 1945, and though the occupation officially ended in December 1944, Modiano's entire life has been tormented by its specters.

As Alexandra Schwartz explains in the New Yorker:

Like Rushdie's midnight's children, Europeans born in 1945 share a certain liminal condition. They escaped the threat, but not the taint, of the war. They were born into freedom but conceived in turmoil; they grew up looking over their shoulders.

Imagine being born in late 2001, and learning years later that your parents lived in downtown Manhattan as the tragic events of 9/11 unfolded. That fateful morning would be forever behind you, and yet forever before you. You would have been born into a world in which 9/11 was already a memory, but the very existence and persistence of that memory would swirl around you, forever coloring your perception both of your parents and your birthplace.

That's what Nazi-occupied Paris is for Modiano: his birthright. And for more than a century now, Modiano has been wrestling with his inheritance.

At the time of Modiano's Nobel win, only a few of his almost three dozen works had been translated into English. However, following the announcement, Modiano's publisher, Yale University Press, which was planning a March 2015 release of an English translation of Suspended Sentences, accelerated its publication date to November 2014.

The three novellas in Suspended Sentences offer a vivid glimpse into Modiano's photographic remembrance of things past. By his own admission, Modiano is afflicted with "the mania of looking back" — back in the direction of something that has been lost, something that, whether or not he wants to recover it, remains superimposed on his memory, like an overexposed roll of film that accidentally captures one too many images.

The first novella is titled Afterimage, the image you see when you close your eyes after staring at something intently. An afterimage is a ghost of what happened, a haunting trace that continues to force itself onto your vision even against your will.

Reading through the novellas in Suspended Sentences, one gets the sense that Modiano is desperately trying to piece together the afterimages he's collected over the years into one historical narrative. Page after page, says Adam Kirsch at the New Republic, the writer "remains bewildered by history," and struggles "to make a coherent narrative out of the fragments he inherited."

Literary detective stories

Some have called Modiano's works literary detective stories. His narrators start with a historical curiosity, then spend the novel trying to figure out the details. The missing contexts his narrators are so desperate to reconstruct are Modiano's salvation.

Modiano's acclaimed novel Dora Bruder, which was published in English as The Search Warrant, is a perfect example of this type of literary detective work. A literary hybrid, Dora Bruder fuses together several genres — biography, autobiography, detective novel — to reconstruct the history, of its title character: the real-life 15 year-old daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who, after running away from the safety of the convent that was hiding her, ended up being deported to Auschwitz.

When he first learned of Dora, all Modiano had were a few words on a page, a missing persons headline in a December 1941 edition of the French newspaper Paris Soir.

In December 1988, after reading the announcement of the search for Dora in the Paris Soir of December 1941, I had thought about it incessantly for months. The precision of certain details haunted me: "41 Boulevard Ornano, 1.55m, oval-shaped face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy-blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes." And all enveloped in night, ignorance, forgetfulness, oblivion.

With nothing but a few fragments of historical clues, Modiano sought to fill the gaps, the spaces that yawned within the annals of memory.

As Kirkus notes, Dora Bruder is "not a Holocaust memoir or historical fiction but a skillful reconstruction of a life that strides the two genres." This is true of most of Modiano's work, which seems to dance between histories, both experienced and imagined. The three novellas in his recent work exemplify this tendency, as all three contain cryptic references to Modiano's own past, even as they spin their invented tales.

Much of Modiano's engagement with the past involves his memory of his father, Albert, who, according to Alan Riding in the New York Times, "provides the real key to his unfinished exploration of the German occupation of France." Albert, recounts Riding:

spent the war years as a black marketeer associated with the notorious and brutal Rue Lauriston gang, also known as the French Gestapo. And since his father revealed nothing before his death in 1977, not even who ordered his release from a Jewish detention center in Paris in 1943, Modiano became obsessed with knowing more.

A variation of this memory appears in all three novellas, acting, says traslator Mark Polizzotti, as a central knot binding the stories together — "like a trauma that can be recounted over and over but never exhausted."

Common threads

Suspended Sentences, the collection's title work, tells the story of Patoche, who, along with his brother, is abandoned by his parents and sent to live with three strange women just outside Paris. The women — one of whom is a former circus performer — receive mysterious visitors every night, and on one such occasion, Patoche overhears mention of "the Rue Lauriston gang," more commonly known as Carlingue, who were Frenchmen working for the Gestapo during the occupation. Years later, the phrase continues to haunt Patoche, especially after his father speaks of it.

A similar storyline appears in Flowers of Ruin — by far the darkest tale of the three — in which the narrator, while trying to solve a mysterious double suicide, happens across a man who might have ties to the occupation.

Given Modiano's signature of including traces of his own past in his work, Polizzotti admits there is a certain temptation to read Modiano's novellas as "slices of autobiography." However, he cautions, "it is important to remember that these are fictions."

Modiano himself offers his readers a similar warning, noting that his fiction is "a kind of autobiography, but one that is dreamed-up or imaginary." All memory, he seems to suggest, involves the interplay of what happened and what might have happened. All history contains fiction; all fiction contains the past.

Memory is like a game of Jenga, which means, in the first place, it's constructed — not only by actual events, but by our interpretations of those events. To remember is not to recall a memory, but to create one, to call to mind a particular moment, and then to place it within a vast network of experiences in a way that makes sense of every other moment of our inescapable pasts.

Each of our remembered moments carefully balances on top of every other. All together, they form a vast, interconnected memory network. Each particular block needs to be handled with grace and precision, lest, after sloppily selecting one particular anecdote to examine, the entire memory network comes crashing down.

Modiano handles his memory network with care, with the same attention the narrator of Afterimages pays in cataloguing Jansen's portraits. Though abrupt chronological shifts and passing mentions of peripheral characters cast a certain haze over his stories, the precision with which he records various street names and locations throughout France's capital city show the respect and even compassion he feels for his birthplace.

In Afterimages, Jansen asks his archivist to explain his obsession with collecting photographs. "That's painstaking work, kid," he says. "Aren't you tired?" You get the sense here that Modiano is really asking himself to justify his mania with the past. Why pore over photographs? Over memories? Why invent possible histories? Isn't it exhausting to relive the past, especially one as troubled as Nazi Occupation?

Modiano allows his narrator to answer the question. "I had taken on this job because I refused to accept that people and things could disappear without a trace."

This isn't to say Modiano enjoys his literary detective work. Only that he feels obligated to do it, in spite of the pain it brings him. His birthright has burdened him with a terrifying calling, and, regardless of his wishes, it is irrevocable.