Patrick Modiano’s fiction, while changing slightly in focus from book to book, is centred upon certain themes. His work often explores the years of the German occupation in the early 1940s or features a protagonist reflecting on his post-war childhood, one overshadowed by parental neglect. It doesn’t take a genius (just as well) to realise that much of this comes from the writer’s own life, and today’s post examines a book in which Modiano, for once, removes the fictional veil obscuring the facts. Be warned – they’re not pretty…
Pedigree (translated by Mark Polizzotti, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) is a short memoir of sorts, beginning with the lives of the writer’s parents and extending until he turns twenty-one. Born just after the end of the Second World War, Modiano is fascinated by what went on during this period, particularly as his mother and father, individually and in tandem, led a rather fevered existence during the occupation.
The book begins with Modiano’s mother. Born in Belgium, she became a dancer and actress, and while by all accounts she was pretty enough, there didn’t seem to be much beauty within:
She was a pretty girl with an arid heart. Her fiancé had given her a chow-chow, but she didn’t take care of it and left it with various people, as she would later do with me. The chow-chow killed itself by leaping from a window. The dog appears in two or three photographs, and I have to admit that he touches me deeply and that I feel a great kinship with him.
p.7 (MacLehose Press, 2015)
Her ambitious nature led her to make the move to Paris with hopes of hitting it big. The war cramped her style a little at first, but she soon made connections with the Germans which helped her through the next few years.
The writer’s father came from a very different environment, and with his Jewish background had a far more nervous time of it during the war. A wheeler-dealer, Modiano senior had contacts all over, spending much of his time on shady meetings in hotel foyers and rented ‘offices’. Eventually, he met Patrick’s mother, and after a brief period of cohabitation, Patrick and his younger brother Rudy were born.
And that was pretty much it as far as a normal family life went. As he grew older, Modiano found himself shifted from carer to carer, with his mother constantly on tour and his father on ‘business trips’ all over the world. The parents offloaded their children onto grandparents, neighbours, anyone who put their hand up to look after them, basically. Later, Patrick spent most of his time at boarding school:
The Montcel school catered to the unloved, bastards, lost children. I remember a Brazilian who for a long while occupied the bed next to mine, who had had no news of his parents for two years, as if they had left him in the luggage locker of a forgotten station. Others were already smuggling blue jeans and sneaking past police roadblocks. (p.40)
As if things couldn’t get worse, one day his father picks him up in a car, casually informing him that Rudi has died…
The main impression we get from Pedigree is that Modiano deserves his Nobel Prize simply for having been born with two such selfish parents. The dog anecdote above rings true, as that’s how the boy is treated by his mum and dad. The writer carefully sets out a picture of a dysfunctional family living on separate floors of a Parisian apartment building (with stairs connecting!); the mother (and, occasionally, Patrick) residing on the third floor while Modiano’s father occupies the fourth floor with his new lover. At one point the poor boy is even sent to yet another boarding school – a few hundred meters from his parents’ abode…
Which is not to say that the writer is bitter about all this, as Pedigree is told in a calm, matter-of-fact manner, rather like his fiction. Much of the book is spent piecing together the facts as if they were related to a stranger, and Modiano’s usual uncertainty is evident as he attempts to tease out facts from memories and incomplete documents:
In September 1950, we were baptised at the church of Saint-Martin in Biarritz, without my parents being present. According to the baptism certificate, my godfather was a mysterious “Jean Minthe”, whom I didn’t know. (p.28)
As in his fiction, there are lists of names, mostly his father’s acquaintances, for the reader (and the writer) to wade through, hoping for some light to shine upon Modiano senior’s demi-monde existence.
The beauty of all this for admirers of Modiano’s work is seeing the prototypes for fictional characters. His time at a boarding school near the Swiss border provides the basis for Villa Triste, and two friends he introduces are the obvious originals of the main characters of that book. Château de Bréau, an old house outside Paris where he spends part of his childhood, is clearly the setting for Suspended Sentences and So You Don’t get Lost in the Neighbourhood, and anyone reading about the actress Suzanne Bouquerau will immediately see the connection to the character Annie Astrand from the latter novel.
Pedigree is a short, but fascinating book, and most people would enjoy the brief journey into the writer’s past. The most pleasure, though, is to be had if you’ve already been immersed in Modiano’s world, as each page contains subtle clues to the writer’s fiction. It’s a simple work written in a plain style, pressing ever onwards, never analysing, simply relating – it’s just a story of a boy trying to make sense of a broken childhood…
Another of the Modiano books I received from MacLehose recently was So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, a novel I read last year in French. At the time, I felt it was one of the better ones I’d tried, and rereading it (this time in Euan Cameron’s translation) I had no reason to change my mind. What made it stand out a little was that it seemed slightly more substantial than a few of the others, with more of a plot.
There is (of course) a story within a story, with Jean Daragane, an elderly writer, contacted by a couple who have found an address book he dropped at a railway station. They have an ulterior motive for returning it as they want to know more about a man, Guy Torstel, whose name appears both in the address book and in Daragane’s first novel. While Daragane brushes them off, claiming that it’s a mere coincidence, the event sets him off on a trip down memory lane – when the real story begins…
After having read Pedigree, much of what happens in the novel now takes on greater significance. As mentioned above, the house the young Jean stayed at, the school he attended and the woman, Annie Astrand, who cared for him, become more three-dimensional given the knowledge of their existence in real life. There’s also another, subtle link I couldn’t have picked up on the first reading. In another of Modiano’s books, Flowers of Ruin, an older girl takes the main character under her wing, and her real-life counterpart is also mentioned in Pedigree. Her name? Kiki Daragane. It’s ironic that in a novel hinging on the use of a real name to advance a work of fiction, Modiano is actually doing the same thing himself…