Clarity and obscurity in the work of Patrick Modiano

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1 Clarity and obscurity in the work of Patrick Modiano Morag Young Patrick Modiano is a prolific writer who has written over twenty novels since his literary début in 1968, as well as other works including children s books, a film script, and, most recently, an autobiographical fragment, Un Pedigree, published early this year. His writing, which revolves round his personal identity quest, has remained remarkably homogeneous over the past 37 years: his novels invariably describe how a first-person narrator, who bears a distinct resemblance to the author, returns to the past to search for his (or in a few cases, her) origins. This quest is similar to the detective story in that it involves the narrator in trying to unravel a mystery but, in marked contrast to the traditional roman à énigme, this mystery remains unsolved and narrative closure is not achieved. Modiano s use of this format with little change over such a long period has aroused expectations in his reading public, who eagerly await each new permutation on the same theme. The apparent uniformity of Modiano s writing is, however, deceptive. On closer inspection, his work reveals itself to be characterised by contrasts which give it a paradoxical quality: his quest for identity involves not only quest but flight, leads him back into the past in order to make sense of the present and opposes memory and forgetting. Alan Morris s recent study of the author 1 is constructed entirely round the theme of oppositions in Modiano s fiction, which Morris perceives as pervaded by ambiguity. In the introduction to this book, Morris provides a long list of bipolar tendencies which he sees as underlying Modiano s writing: Présent/passé, remémoration/oubli, construction/anéantissement, association/ dissociation, modernisme/classicisme, fixité/dérive, intégration/marginalisation, approche/ recul, enfance/âge adulte, bonheur/douleur, innocence/culpabilité, positif/ négatif, vérité/mensonge, certitude/mystère, réalité/rêve, clair/obcur, présence/absence, vie/mort (p. 11). It is to the antepenultimate pair of opposites, clair/obscur, that I wish to turn in this short article, where I shall address the subject of clarity and obscurity in Modiano s oeuvre. I intend to interpret these terms in quite a wide sense, first looking at the tension between clarity and obscurity in Modiano s use of style and genre before turning to more concrete examples of his use of black and white imagery in his novels. Firstly, in order to understand the ambiguity at the heart of Modiano s work, it is necessary to examine his reasons for writing. These have been very clearly stated by the author himself: 1 Alan Morris, Patrick Modiano (Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000). Page 1

2 Comme tous les gens qui n ont ni terroir ni racines, je suis obsédé par ma préhistoire. Et ma préhistoire, c est la période trouble et honteuse de l Occupation: j ai toujours eu le sentiment, pour d obscures raisons d ordre familial, que j étais né de ce cauchemar. Les lumières crépusculaires de cette époque sont pour moi ce que devait être la Gironde pour Mauriac ou la Normandie pour La Varende; c est de là que je suis issu. Ce n est pas l Occupation historique que j ai dépeinte dans mes trois premiers romans, c est la lumière incertaine de mes origines. Cette ambiance où tout se dérobe, où tout semble vaciller 2 Here the contrast between light and dark is apparent, as Modiano explains his pressing need to recreate the murky period of the Occupation in order to illuminate his origins. The writer carries out what amounts to a forensic investigation, adopting the framework of the detective story in his efforts to shed light on the mystery of his family s past. As Todorov has observed, clarity of language is a characteristic of the roman à énigme, to offset the complications necessitated by a plot in which prospection and retrospection vie with each other, as the first story, that of the crime, becomes intertwined with the second story, that of the unravelling of the mystery surrounding it: Et c est de peur que cette seconde histoire ne devienne elle-même opaque, ne jette une ombre inutile sur la première, qu on a tant recommandé de garder le style neutre et simple, de le rendre imperceptible. 3 Again, images of light and dark are in evidence. Modiano s use of conventions from the detective story is complex, so I shall return to this subject later in this paper. What I would like to consider at this point is whether his style is in fact characterised by the clarity which Todorov considers appropriate for a detective-style investigation of a past mystery. Modiano s style is indeed noted for its purity: the author has described himself as writing in la langue française la plus classique. 4 This choice of style is quite surprising, considering the date at which he started writing, 1968, and the main focus of his novels, the identity quest. His decision not to engage with the revolutionary events which were taking place as he embarked on his literary career but to return to the past, using a fairly conventional rather than an innovative style in his search for self sets him apart from other writers, so that his work cannot be considered to belong to any existing school. 5 He can, however, be considered to have been instrumental in inaugurating a literary trend, that of the mode rétro, involving the reassessment of the present by means of a return to 2 Jean-Louis Ezine, Les écrivains sur la sellette (Paris: Seuil, 1981, p. 22). 3 Tzvetan Todorov (1966) Typologie du roman policier in Poétique de la prose (Paris: Seuil, 1971), p Jean-Louis Ezine, Sur la sellette: Patrick Modiano ou le passé antérieur, Les Nouvelles Littéraires, 6-12 October 1975, p See C.T. Mitchell and P. R. Côté, Shaping the Novel: Textual Interplay in the Fiction of Malraux, Hébert and Modiano (Providence-Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1996, p. 164). Page 2

3 the Vichy period. 6 This period was still surrounded by secrecy and obfuscation when Modiano started writing, so he adopted a clear style in order to shed light on it. This contrast between purity of style and opaqueness of content persists throughout his work. Modiano s least fictional novel, Dora Bruder (1997) provides the clearest illustration of this contrast. In this book, he painstakingly recreates the movements of a Jewish girl in Paris up to and including her deportation to Auschwitz where she and her family perished. Onto her tale of flight, as she runs away from home, and ultimate disappearance he projects his own subsequent experience of absconding from boarding school, together with veiled references to his brother s untimely death. The work as a whole is a swingeing indictment of French collaboration in the Holocaust, the extent of which Modiano sets out to expose, methodically unearthing evidence of long-concealed crimes. His aim in writing the book is expressed with the utmost clarity, using language which is at once polished and lapidary, as the following quotation will demonstrate: En écrivant ce livre, je lance des appels comme des signaux de phare dont je doute malheureusement qu ils puissent éclairer la nuit. Mais j espère toujours (p. 42). This striking image of the writer s role as a beacon illuminating a murky area underlies the novel, which contains frequent references to the opposition between light and darkness, retrieval and concealment, as in this example, where Modiano underlines the difficulty of his task: Il faut longtemps pour que resurgisse à la lumière ce qui a été effacé (p. 13). By using a clear but refined style, Modiano imparts an elegiac quality to this sombre tale of flight, disappearance and death. The urgency of the task of turning the spotlight on the hidden crimes of the Holocaust before all the evidence for them disappears is also reinforced by the plainness and directness of the language he uses. We have, then, an apparently clear dichotomy in Modiano s writing between clarity of style and darkness of subject matter. As stated at the beginning of this article, however, Modiano s work is characterised by ambiguity, so that nothing is exactly as it seems. I now wish to consider briefly some aspects of his use of language, which reveal underlying complexity, before moving on to examine his use of genre, where he ludically adapts the rather simplistic conventions of the traditional detective story to reflect the considerably more complicated reality of life in an age of uncertainty. Two linguistic features recur throughout Modiano s writing, disrupting the simplicity of his style by introducing an element of uncertainty. These are pronoun switching and unorthodox tense usage, which I shall now examine in turn. Pronoun switching is most in evidence in Modiano s first novel, La Place de l Étoile, a dazzling exploration of the theme of identity in which the author creates a protean hero, Raphael Schlemilovitch, who embarks on a picaresque exploration of his Jewishness. In the second half of the novel, Modiano abandons the use of 6 See A. Morris, Collaboration and Resistance reviewed: Writers and the Mode Rétro in Post-Gaullist France (New York-Oxford: Berg, 1992). Page 3

4 the first person on several occasions, switching to both the second and the third person singular and also to the first person plural. 7 This pronoun switching has a profoundly disorientating effect on the reader, as the focus of the narrative is abruptly and repeatedly altered. The technique, however, is extremely effective in representing the multidimensional nature of the identity quest, in which subjectivity and objectivity compete with each other as Schlemilovitch explores both his relationship with his estranged Jewish father and his role as an aspiring European writer. Though considerably less prominent in his subsequent novels, pronoun switching persists throughout Modiano s writing, destabilising the narrative. In Rue des Boutiques Obscures, for example, the first-person narrator, who, having lost his memory, is searching for his missing self, is mysteriously transformed into the third person for the space of one chapter, further obscuring his already confused identity. 8 In La Petite Bijou, a novel concerning a young girl s search for her lost mother, in which the two main protagonists already have multiple identities conferred by the use of a variety of names, Modiano makes brief but telling use of pronoun switching. At the end of the story, when the firstperson narrator finally comes to understand the nature of her quest, she becomes detached from herself, seeing herself from outside: Tu vas encore rester là quelque temps, et après, ce sera fini. Tu es là parce que tu as voulu remonter une dernière fois le cours des années pour essayer de comprendre (p. 147). Modiano s continued though discreet use of pronoun switching, then, underlines the shifting focus which characterises the modern identity quest. As far as tense usage is concerned, Modiano makes anarchic use of the narrative tenses, introducing temporal instability into his writing. By constantly changing from the narrative present to the passé composé and passé simple with transitional use of the narrative imperfect, he switches the focus of events between the present, the past seen from the present perspective and the past seen from a more detached, objective standpoint. A short section in Les Boulevards de ceinture, for example, describing the narrator s first meeting with his estranged father, starts in the passé composé: C est à dix-sept ans que je l ai rencontré pour la première fois (p. 77). The text then moves briefly into the past historic to describe the first appearance of the father figure: Un inconnu à la peau basanée, au costume de flanelle sombre et qui se leva lorsqu il m aperçut. After the father has introduced himself, the passé composé reappears: Nous nous sommes retrouvés dehors, followed by a narrative imperfect: Il me souriait. Finally, there is a move into the narrative present: Il pleut. Mon père et moi nous marchons côte à côte, sans dire un mot (p. 77). A somewhat different instance of unconventional tense usage occurs in Remise de peine, in which, as Jean-Michel Adam has pointed out, 9 a section of narrative concerning a night time visit to a castle by the two 7 See La Place de l Étoile, pp , , 132-3, 141-3, and See Rue des Boutiques Obscures, pp See Jean-Michel Adam, Mémoire et fiction dans Remise de peine de Modiano in Doubrovsky, Lejeune, Lejeune (eds), Autofictions et Cie (Ritm 6: Université de Paris X, 1993, pp ). Page 4

5 young brothers is told in a mixture of conditional and imperfect tenses, so that it is unclear if the visit actually took place or was merely envisaged. Tense mixing of this type has been theorised by linguistics specialists, notably Anne Judge, who has christened it le système multifocal. In this system, il n y a pas de point de vue unique, mais une multiplicité de points de vue, selon le temps employé. L optique ressemble à celle d une caméra qui change de position, d angle et de profondeur. 10 Thus, as with Modiano s use of pronoun switching, a shifting perspective is revealed by his idiosyncratic use of tenses. I would argue, therefore, that the apparent simplicity of his style is to some extent deceptive, concealing hidden depths of meaning. The tension between surface simplicity and underlying complexity is also apparent in Modiano s use of genre. As we have seen, Modiano uses a framework for his search for self which superficially resembles that of the classical detective story: the narrator travels back in time in order to elucidate a past mystery by means of the examination of a large amount of factual evidence, presented in the form of clues. On closer inspection, however, Modiano s use of conventions from crime fiction turns out to be subversive rather than imitative. Firstly, he complicates the fairly straightforward duality represented by Todorov s first and second stories by introducing many more time layers: each of his novels moves frequently between at least three main time periods, the writer s present, the narrator s adolescence in the 1960s and the period of the Occupation with which it is linked. In some works, such as Dora Bruder, considerably more time layers may be involved: there are nine main periods in this book, the earliest of which concerns the evocation of Jean Valjean s flight through Paris, 11 followed by references to the history of the Bruder family in the 1920s and 30s, then the crucial period of the Occupation and subsequent references to five periods in the author s life which link him with Dora. Secondly, most of the clues are revealed to be red herrings and the author resolutely refuses to solve the mystery at the heart of each novel. Thus, instead of imitating the artificially ordered world of crime fiction, Modiano can be seen to be parodying it, demonstrating that the identity quest is not susceptible to neat solutions. This ludic element is increasingly apparent in the writer s most recent works, where a note of selfparody creeps in, as he gently mocks his pursuit of a search for self which defies resolution. In Du plus loin de l oubli, for example, a chance encounter with a woman, Jacqueline, whom the narrator had been closely involved with fifteen years previously relaunches an identity quest which now seems to have become circular. In a telling exchange between the narrator and Jacqueline (now renamed Thérèse), Modiano can be seen both to be mocking the easy answers provided by the detective story and casting doubt on the possibility of recreating the present self by means of the recourse to the past. This occurs at the end of an episode 10 Anne Judge, Les temps du passé français et leur enseignement in Cahiers Chronos 9 (Amsterdam- New York: Rodopi, 2002, p From Victor Hugo s Les Misérables. Page 5

6 where the narrator, having vainly attempted to get Thérèse to admit to remembering their shared experiences, resorts to a stratagem to gain her attention: Maintenant, son regard n exprimait plus rien, et il évitait le mien. J ai secoué vivement la tête, pour avoir l air de quelqu un qui se réveille en sursaut. - Excusez-moi Je pensais au livre que j écris en ce moment - C est un roman policier? m a-t-elle demandé d une voix calme. - Pas tout à fait. Cela n avait servi à rien. La surface était restée lisse. Des eaux dormantes. Ou plutôt, une couche épaisse de banquise qu il était impossible de percer après quinze ans (p. 171). Thus his long search for self through a return to the past has brought no simple solutions but has increasingly involved the author in a literary game in which the writer debunks the facile but artificial world of crime fiction, contrasting its neat paradigms with the complexity of the existential identity quest. In his exploration of the contrast between these two worlds, Modiano has become increasingly preoccupied with mystery rather than its solution, to the extent of revelling in the insoluble. In his most recent work, the autobiographical text Un Pedigree, Modiano acknowledges this fascination with mystification, admitting, when discussing his writing, that plus les choses demeuraient obscures et mystérieuses, plus je leur portais de l intérêt. Et même, j essayais de trouver du mystère à ce qui n en avait aucun (p. 45). Having demonstrated the complexity which underlies Modiano s use both of seemingly straightforward language and of the well-worn conventions of the detective story, I now wish to return to the images of darkness and light which recur throughout his fiction. Surely here there is a clear contrast between black and white? As we saw when considering Dora Bruder, Modiano s work does indeed contain many striking images in which light and dark are contrasted. A characteristic of his writing is his use of the physical environment to represent his protagonists inner turmoil, as they struggle towards increased self knowledge. Sunlight and shadow, summer and winter are frequently invoked in this way, as the following example from Du plus loin de l oubli will demonstrate: L autre nuit, un soleil couchant de février m éblouissait, le long de la rue Dante [ ] Au réveil, la période de ma vie où j avais connu Jacqueline m est apparue sous le même contraste d ombre et de lumière. Des rues blafardes, hivernales et aussi le soleil qui filtre à travers les fentes des persiennes (p. 14). In Vestiaire de l enfance, the narrator s chance meeting with a girl who will plunge him back into his deliberately suppressed past is foreshadowed by a strong contrast between light and darkness as he enters the café where she is sitting: Dehors, la lumière du soleil est si forte qu en pénétrant au Rosal, vous plongez Page 6

7 dans le noir (p. 13). Note, by the way, how Modiano s use of the narrative present and the second person pronoun involve the reader in the narrator s moment of drama. Elsewhere, the contrast between black and white is more oblique: in Remise de peine, the contrast between the innocence of the two young brothers and the guilt of those who surround them is economically expressed through references to a magazine entitled Noir et Blanc, copies of which litter the house, while in Des Inconnues, a book entitled In Search of Light and Shadow figures prominently (p. 160). It seems to me, however, that in between these polarised extremes of light and dark, a third metaphor intrudes which better encapsulates the complexity and ambiguity of Modiano s writing. This is the image of twilight, where Modiano s characters wander, a diaphanous grey in which they appear as ghosts without a clear identity. In each novel, among the stronger contrasts between darkness and light alluded to above, crepuscular images are quite frequently evoked. In Livret de famille, for example, the meeting between two of the many father surrogates who populate Modiano s novels is accompanied by gradually fading light: La pénombre entrait peu à peu dans la pièce (p. 37). The same twilight engulfs the narrator of Dimanches d août, as he becomes embroiled in a sordid story of diamond smuggling: Peu à peu, la pénombre a envahi ma chambre sans même que nous nous en apercevions (p. 179). The discovery of an old photograph which triggers the search for the father in Les Boulevards de ceinture is also described in terms of grey rather than black and white: the group of men, including the narrator s father demeurent prostrés et silencieux dans la pénombre qui les ronge (p. 20). Here again, the use of the narrative present and the choice of a very powerful verb to describe the effects of time on the viewer of the old photograph are striking. In conclusion, then, the image of pénombre appears to me to reflect the atmosphere of Modiano s novels perfectly, merging darkness and light into an ambivalent twilight. Although, as we have seen, much contrast between clarity and obscurity is in evidence in his writing, the degree of underlying ambiguity is such, both in style and subject matter, that grey rather than black and white can be considered to be the predominating shade which characterises his complex search for self. Page 7

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