Having read a few of Patrick Modiano’s later works (all from this century), I thought it might be a good idea to go back and look at some of his earlier books to see if the style is different to the later writing. Luckily, a recent release, The Occupation Trilogy, brings together three early works in English for the first time, allowing the casual Anglophone reader to get a glimpse of his initial forays into fiction, and having tried the first of the books, I can certainly recommend it. In terms of style, though, there really is no comparison – the Modiano of the late sixties was a very different writer to that of recent years…
La Place de l’Étoile (translated by Frank Wynne, review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury) was Modiano’s first book, and it’s a most impressive debut. The story is centred upon, and often told by, an impressive young man by the name of Raphäel Schlemilovitch, a French Jew who, having come into money, has to decide what to do with it. As he wanders around France, meeting several dubious characters along the way, he reads the classics, dreams of writing his own book one day and (naturally) seduces and corrupts any attractive woman he can find.
If it sounds like an amusing caper, a picaresque work in the vein of Tom Jones, then you’re not far off the mark. It’s often hard to take the story seriously, with Raphäel dreaming of places he’s visited and experiences he’s had, many of which happened before our dashing young hero was even born. There’s a method to Modiano’s apparent madness, however, and the events of the books are designed less to show our young friend’s antics than to provoke a reaction from the French reader by poking a finger into some rather recent wounds…
The two Modiano works I began with, Little Jewel and Paris Nocturne, were sparse works, with the text pared back to a bare minimum, and while So You Don’t Get Lost… had a slightly more fleshed out plot, it was still recognisably by the same writer. This cannot be said for La Place de l’Étoile, a story that delights in descriptive writing and exudes a joyous atmosphere, dragging the reader along on a hedonistic rampage through all that the French hold dear – all in a good cause, of course.
Raphäel himself is the heart of the novel, a wonderfully extravagant heir to a fortune, highly intelligent and irresistible to women. His name and his looks mark him out as a Jew, and he doesn’t care a bit, determined to stamp his mark across the country and take revenge for any mistreatment his people have suffered through the ages:
“Blond hair, pink complexions, porcelain eyes get on my nerves. Everything that radiates health and happiness turns my stomach. Racist after my fashion. Such prejudices are forgivable in a young consumptive Jew.”
p.79 (Bloomsbury, 2015)
In fact, Raphäel is the nightmare many French people believed in come true. Six-foot-six, two hundred pounds, the face of a god, he’s a man able to destroy their sons (with his enormous intellect or his equally sizeable fists) and deflower their daughters, selling them off to slave traders when he’s done with them.
Of course, there’s a reason behind all this exaggeration. As the story progresses, we spend more time in the past (if only in Schlemilovitch’s fantasies), learning of Gestapo collaborators and the torture of French Jews. It appears that Modiano, through his larger-than-life creation, is forcing his countrymen to cast their minds back to a period they’d rather forget, making them remember how they abandoned their Jewish countrymen to the Germans. Raphäel is the cartoon character they had built up in their minds to justify their behaviour – when the young Jew confronts them in all his twisted glory, they can only look away in shame…
This is the first translation into English of La Place de l’Étoile, and while it seems like a rather major omission, it’s not hard to see why it might not have been considered worth gambling on in the past. For one thing, it can be a confusing read at times, with the story switching between the ‘present’ (the 1960s) and the war years (‘reality’ and Raphäel’s fantasies) at the drop of a hat:
“Since 1935, I have been the lover of Eva Braun. Chancellor Hitler was always leaving her alone at the Berchtesgaden. I immediately began to think how I might turn this situation to my advantage.
I am skulking around the Berghof when I meet Eva for the first time. The instant attraction is mutual. Hitler comes to Obersalzberg once a month. We get along very well.” (p.80)
When you add the frequent, random switches of the narratorial point of view (from first- to second- to third-person), it adds up to a novel conservative publishers might be wary of.
It’s also a very French book, and to get the most out of La Place de l’Étoile, you would preferably have an extensive knowledge of French literature. While I picked up on some of the more obvious allusions:
“In Normandy, I will put the finishing touches to my sentimental education.” (p.64)
and had a quiet chuckle at Schlemilovitch’s dismissal of Voltaire (ironic seeing as his travels reminded me a little of Candide), I’m sure there were many more I didn’t even notice. Modiano (or Raphäel) delights in discussions of French writers, Jewish or otherwise, and at times it feels as if the reader is being force-fed a diet of unknown names. I’m sure the educated French reader would pick up a lot more from these – the stolid, Anglo-Saxon consumer might struggle a little more…
However, these flaws, if that’s what they are (hint – they aren’t), have nothing to do with the writer or his work, and La Place de l’Étoile would make a wonderful introduction to Modiano’s oeuvre, even if linguistically it appears far removed from his later books. More importantly, despite all the clever allusions, it’s actually a very easy, fun read, with Wynne doing a great job of making the book race along elegantly like a sports car on the Côte d’Azur 🙂
With another two books (The Night Watch and Ring Roads) collected in this volume, I’ll be very interested to see how Modiano’s work develops. I wonder if the writer will continue along this exuberant path for a while, or immediately begin to file away at the more superfluous elements of the writing. Whatever the case, you can rest assured that I’ll be reporting back to you all as soon as I’ve worked out where he goes from here 🙂