Back in May, I put aside a week for three Patrick Modiano reviews, calling it Patrick Modiano Week, and with more of his books cluttering his shelves, I thought it was about time to do it again. This week, then, watch out for another trio of Modiano reviews with three books, three different publishers and three genres – all starting today🙂
While Modiano is renowned mostly for his atmospheric novellas, he has been known to dabble in other areas, and one of these tangents is Lucien Lacombe (translated by Sabine Destrée, review copy courtesy of Other Press). Filmmaker Louis Malle directed and produced this film about a young man’s experiences towards the end of the Second World War, and Modiano co-wrote the screenplay with him. The film was released in 1974, meaning the screenplay dates from early in Modiano’s career (only preceded by The Occupation Trilogy), and while the style is, naturally, very different from his prose writing, the themes are very similar.
The story is set in the south-west of France in June 1944, and we first see the young Lucien Lacombe finishing off his work as a carer for the week before returning home for a visit. His father has been taken as a prisoner of war, and he finds his mother shacked up with an older man, and an unknown family renting his house. Young and embarrassed, he wants to do something rash to help him cope with his emotions, but he’s rejected when he asks the local resistance connection for a recommendation.
Chance intervenes on his return trip when he’s caught snooping around a shady establishment with music and drinking. The people inside decide to get him drunk, and unfortunately his mouth runs away with him and reveals a lot more than he would have liked. The next morning, he sees the results of his indiscretions and is left with little choice as to his next step. Far from becoming a freedom fighter, young Lucien is now in the position of aiding the occupiers in the German police force…
Modiano, who was born just after the end of World War Two, is fascinated by the war years and what people did to get by at the time. Many of his works look back at the period through a mist of half-lost memories, faded documents and unsubstantiated rumours, with his protagonists doomed to never fully understand what really happened. However, Lacombe Lucien is slightly different in that the reader (or viewer) is on the scene for the first time, able to see exactly what was going on.
The group of collaborators that Lucien falls in with are a fascinating bunch, a set of intriguing ne’er-do-wells whose task it is to raid houses and capture those with connections to the resistance. Quite apart from that, though, there’s the small matter of business deals on the side, a touch of light smuggling and appropriating valuables from the houses of those who are on the wrong side of the (German) law. When you throw in the champagne and dancing (as well as a few pretty girls), you can see how it’s only too tempting for a boy neglected by the outside world to want to belong, even if, with the Normandy Landings in progress, it’s unlikely to last too long.
Lucien becomes arrogant because of his power, but in truth he’s just a boy playing at being grown up, protected by his German Police ID. His new beliefs are tested after a meeting with a Jewish tailor, Horn, where he receives his first adult suit; of more importance, however, is his first glimpse of Horn’s beautiful daughter, France. Lucien attaches himself to the family, taking advantage of their inability to do anything about it, but underneath he remains a nice kid, as even Horn comes to realise:
Horns stiffens, stands there for a moment without moving a muscle, then turns and looks Lucien up and down.
Horn (musing): It’s strange, somehow I can’t bring myself to loathe you completely…
p.79 (Other Press, 2016)
The more time he spends around the family, the greater the affection the youth feels for the Jewish tailor’s daughter, but he knows that the Horns’ days are numbered. When the time comes, Lucien will have to think carefully about which way to jump.
Lacombe Lucien is an excellent story of a rather embarrassing part of French history, and one of the key elements is the writer’s examination of what drove people to collaborate. The ‘police’ consists of a group of outsiders, people rejected in the past who are now having their day in the sun, yet they are far from the only ones prepared to work against the national interest. This wider sense of betrayal comes across in the anonymous letters sent by the villagers every day:
She opens a drawer, takes out another bundle of letters, and places them on the table in front of Lucien.
Lucien: There are a lot more where they came from?
Lucienne (her eyes still lowered): We receive approximately two hundred a day. There was even one gentleman who wrote us informing against himself… accusing himself of crimes against the State. (She shrugs her shoulders.) It’s like a sickness. (pp.24/5)
Many of the letters are sent by people using the opportunity to settle old scores, and you would imagine that Modiano’s description of these events would be uncomfortable for many French readers, a heartless scratching away at a recently healed national wound…
Lacombe Lucien is recognisably Modiano-esque, full of war-time guilt, and fun-loving criminals making the most of their luck. As usual, there are familiar character types, such as the actress Betty Beaulieu, another of the many fictional counterparts of the writer’s own mother:
Betty (voice over): Personally, I don’t give a damn who wins the war, the English or the Germans!… All I know is that I’m wasting my time here… And what about my career?… Do you ever give my career a second’s thought? (p.38)
I’ll be examining this angle in more detail later this week. It’s enough here to say that the fate met by some of these characters indicates a certain ambivalence on the part of the writer towards people in real life…
Being a screenplay, there are limitations to the text. While there are none of the visual elements of the film, the inner workings of Lucien’s mind that a novel would bring are also lacking, which is a shame. It’s a very quick read (one sitting for me in well under an hour), but intriguing all the same, and a book that Modiano’s admirers will certainly enjoy. I was happy enough to pass the time with young Lucien, and I’m certainly tempted to seek out the film too🙂