Yesterday I picked up, in the UEA library, the English translation of Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano’s non-fiction book Dora Bruder (translated by Joanna Kilmartin for Harvill as The Search Warrant) and read it on the train back to London – easy enough to finish in the two hours that journey allots.
And, despite its subject matter, it is an easy read: clear without being limpid, articulate without eloquence, conscientious and free of guile. It is easy to see why a book such as this might appeal to the Nobel committee. It sets writing out as a humane art, a way of seeing clearly, with none of the complications and doubts that Twentieth Century thought has thrown up to complicate and explain our inability to come to terms with our own history.
That’s not to say that there is no ambiguity in Modiano’s book, which is his account of his attempt, over many years, to uncover what traces remain of a Parisian Jewish teenager sent to the camps, starting from a short notice in a newspaper, in 1941, asking for her whereabouts after she had run away from her convent school.
(It’s tempting to talk about Modiano’s writing, but I can’t yet generalise about that; this is the first book of his I’ve read. I’ve just started an earlier novel, with another, in French to follow. For a useful overview, see Leo Robson’s piece for the New Statesman.)
So, yes, the book is full of gaps, but the gaps are seen clearly. The author is present, inserting elements of his own autobiography as well as the details of his search of Dora, but his presence is a stable one, troubled but untroubling. There is none of the anguished breast-beating of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, in which the author questions his motives in writing about the activities of the Third Reich, and even his right to do so. There is none of the strategic obfuscation of WG Sebald, whose path through the labyrinth seems to build new, secondary or side-labyrinths, splitting off like fractals, as he goes.
(That labyrinth trope is borrowed from Philippa Comber’s memoir of Sebald, Ariadne’s Thread, which I haven’t yet properly read. The labyrinth isn’t a metaphor I would necessarily associate with Sebald. We’ll see.)
Modiano gives us what information he can about Dora, her parents, where they lived, and the circumstances of their arrests and deportations. He allows the documents, where they exist, to speak for themselves. And he explains his reasons: he, like Dora, ran away from home (in her case, school). He, and his father – and, in one central scene, he and his father – have ridden, like Dora, in the back of a Black Maria, taken to the police station for questioning, or worse. And, above all, he knows the areas of Paris where she and her family lived. He has followed her footsteps, without knowing, and not, knowing. He can’t understand why the very buildings don’t give up their testimony, tell her story, fill in the gaps.
Sometimes the buildings don’t do this because they are not the same buildings, and Modiano, carefully but specifically, links the human habit of demolition and rebuilding with that of erasing and rewriting history.
After the war, most buildings in the district been pulled down, methodically, in accordance with a government plan. To the extent that, due for demolition had been allotted a name and number: Block 16. I have found photographs. One shows the Rue des Jardins-Saint-Paul with the houses on the left-hand side still standing. Another , the half-demolished buildings beside Saint-Gervais church and around the Hôtel de Sens. Another, a wasteland along the banks of the Seine, with pedestrians crossing between two redundant pavements: all that remains of the Rue des Nonnains-D’Hyères. And on this wasteland, they have built row upon row of houses, altering the course of an old street in the process.
The façades are rectangular, the windows square, the cement the colour of amnesia. The street lamps throw out a cold light. Here and there, a decorative touch, some artificial flowers: a bench, a square, some trees. They have not been content with putting up a sign, like that on the wall of Tourelles barracks: “Filming or photography prohibited.” They have obliterated everything in order to build a sort of Swiss village, in order that nobody, ever again, would question its neutrality.
The writing, in a way, is itself pedestrian, but its neutrality is the neutrality of sterilised medical instruments. That line, though: “the cement the colour of amnesia”.
Thinking of those buildings, I was reminded of the line from James Fenton’s ‘A German Requiem’: “It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses.” Which is used somewhere, I forgot where, as an epigram.
(Looking at that line, now, that line of Fenton’s, what is incredibly clever about it, from a structural point of view, is the way “the spaces between” elbow their way into the phrase, as if a sentence is like a row of houses, and the spaces, in making themselves apparent, grow until their take up more space than the houses themselves.)
Certainly, it seems that other of Modiano’s books are more playful, and it’s interesting to read in this piece by Boyd Tonkin that an early mentor was Raymond Queneau; I’m currently also reading the far more programatically postmodern Eric Chevillard, and it’s hard to think of two more different French writers.
You can read an extract from The Search Warrant at Telegraph online.