Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Excavation: Patrick Modiano and The Search Warrant

‘Perhaps, although as yet unaware of it, I was on the track of Dora Bruder and her parents. Already, imperceptibly, they were there.’
The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano (originally published in France in 1997 under the title Dora Bruder and published for the first time in English by Harvill Secker in 2000), is ostensibly the story of a man’s investigation into the fate of a young girl who disappears from Paris during the city’s occupation in World War II. The narrator, chancing upon a missing person’s notice for a fifteen-year-old girl named Dora Bruder in a 1941 edition of Paris Soir, is deeply struck by the mystery of the girl’s fate and endeavours to find out what happened to her. Little by little, through painstaking research, he uncovers what he can of the life of the missing Jewish girl: her stay at a convent school in the heart of the city during the early years of the war, her escape from the convent in the winter of 1941, and her eventual deportation in 1942 to a detention camp at Drancy and, finally, to Auschwitz. In his attempt to piece together an elusive puzzle, his preoccupation with Dora Bruder becomes more and more a tender, profound yet unflinching exploration of the horrors and losses suffered during this period of history. 

Modiano has said that ‘the great, the inevitable subject of the novel is always…time’, and The Search Warrant is no exception. Periods in history are clearly demarcated throughout, and the book shifts back and forth from the narrator’s youth in the 1960s and his own experiences of the streets where Dora lived, to his tentative reconstructions of Dora’s history during the 1930 and ‘40s, to the present in which he ruminates on the nature of his investigation, and elements of his own past. In fact, the present seems to be the only temporal space which the narrator cannot inhabit fully, as preoccupied as he is with the past. His present is saturated with the past, and the novel becomes a palimpsest of time and place as past merges into present, leaving its traces on the topography of Paris – its houses, streets and architecture. Now, today, these are quiet, peaceful, tree-lined streets – but eerily so, as if the buildings retained an impression of what had gone before. Indeed the narrator muses, ‘it is said that premises retain some stamp, however faint, of their previous inhabitants’. In his present he is compelled time and time again to acknowledge the history which, for him, inhabits and haunts these spaces still.

Yet despite the interminable presence Dora and her family have in the narrator’s life after he learns of her existence, it is a presence paradoxically characterised by absence. He says himself, ‘I have a sense of absence, of emptiness, whenever I find myself in a place where they have lived’. Much of Dora’s story that the narrator manages to unearth is piecemeal, the particulars all conjecture – so little is known about her that the gaps need to be filled in from elsewhere, other gleaned histories from people whose paths must, he surmises, have crossed hers, or been close to doing so. The area around the convent school where Dora lived for several months is depicted in a way that calls to mind the symbolic topographical resonances of W. G. Sebald, and represents a place of constant departure. Similarly, the neighbourhood in which Dora spent her childhood is ‘a network of escape routes… a place where nobody would stay for long. A crossroads from which each went his or her separate way to the four points of the compass’. Dora’s is a life, an existence, characterised by impermanence and loss.

Dora’s story, such as it is, with its inevitable gaps and silences, becomes interspersed with that of so many other victims of France’s occupation, so that we begin to get the sense that the narrator’s obsession with her fate must simply be the premise for a many-faceted exhumation of history: the workings of occupied Paris; the experiences of the countless thousands, millions even, as well as writers with whom he feels a particular bond, caught up in the horrors of war. Even the narrator’s own experiences of youth and their resonances with Dora’s life, are touched upon. This is a history both personal and universal, a question for the whole of humanity.

Peter Englund, the Nobel Academy’s permanent secretary, said in his presentation speech that Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation’. Ungraspable though these terrible destinies may be – we are left forever wondering the fate that met Dora Bruder after her deportation (though history allows us a shrewd assumption) – one of Modiano’s greatest feats in this novel is his rendering of them as palpable, yet preserving at the same time their ephemeral qualities. It is telling that Dora’s story remains incomplete, but we are left with the impression that it is not so much the story that is important as the fact that it is exhumed at all.
First published on 21 October 2014 at Vintage Books International Writing Blog:

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Reading for pleasure

Recently, French culture minister Fleur Pellerin made the awkward admission that she couldn't name any books by Patrick Modiano, winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature. Despite the fact that a similar reaction to Modiano seemed to come from the international literary community, there has been a bit of a brouhaha directed towards Pellerin, who also admitted she hasn't read a book for pleasure in years. Calls for her to be removed from her post abounded alongside applause for her candour in a world otherwise governed by vote-grasping politicians for whom habitual lying is a part of the job. At first I baulked at her admission, but after giving it some thought I'm inclined to be more charitable. France may be a country which places enormous value in its literary tradition, yet despite - or because of? - this literary snobbery, and against my better judgement, I find myself instinctively siding with Pellerin. Her honesty is certainly nowhere near as galling as Ed Miliband's asinine, image-serving selections on Desert Island Discs. Robbie Williams' Angels and perennial favourite Jerusalem? Either he pandered to his spin doctors, or he's just really boring.

Admittedly, when I first Pellerin's comment I assumed she meant that most of what she reads she does so for work. I can empathise there. Having reached a point in my career where there's no longer any point in buying books because I'll just never get round to reading them (strangely enough, though, this doesn't seem to stop me), it's rare enough that I find the leisure time these days to read something that I don't need to report on or write about. I'm not complaining - I freaking love my job - but Pellerin's comment did make me realise that reading without my business hat on is something I haven't done for quite a while. My almost hour-long commute, previously an hour of escapism by fiction, has become an extension of my working day, and a stressful one at that (concentration is hard when you're stop-starting through clogged arterial bus routes surrounded by rowdy teenagers and toddlers). I do read at home too, but after a long day and a journey like that, who wouldn't prefer, sometimes, to slump in front of something pedestrian like Grantchester with a gratifying fish-finger and ketchup sandwich? And on the frequent occasions when the man in my life seizes control of the remote and switches from sleepy-village-whodunit-telly to high-speed-police-chase-telly, I find it just as hard to switch off as on the bus. Perhaps it's time to invest in a decent pair of headphones. Or blinkers.

I was taken aback, though, when I realised Pellerin meant that she doesn't actually read books at all. If reading has ceased to be a choice of leisure activity for me, then it's become way of life - both a reflexive action and a professional necessity. Before I dusted off my mental pitchfork to join the mob of Pellerin-chiders, however, I had to remind myself that culture encompasses a whole host of things - film, television, journalism, street art, music, performing art, spoken word poetry, theatre. Judge not, lest ye be judged, and all that: while I like to think I'm culturally aware, my knowledge of cultural forms other than the literary is patchy at best (I realised I was past it on the music front long ago when I stopped recognising the names of any of the Mercury Prize nominees and songs from my school days began to be played under 'oldies'). Even in terms of books, which is supposed to be my area of expertise, I'm a damn sight less well-read than lots of people I know, and this will only ever get worse. It's an awful truism that the more you read, the more you realise how much more there is to read. At least Pellerin is comfortable enough to admit her ignorance. After all, it's the first step towards wisdom… or so somebody once said.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Going Home

I had thought that it wouldn't be too much of a loss to anybody when I abandoned all this at some indeterminable point two summers ago, when life's events seemed to overtake the pace I could live them, and any sort of attempt at moulding my disjointed thoughts into sentences and paragraphs seemed to be something I didn't have time to do any more. I'd fallen in love and was gadding about the sunny streets, parks and bridges of London, the city I loved to hate, basking in reflected Olympic glory and generally enjoying life. About time, too, you might say. I was taking a well-earned and much-needed break from a lifetime of working too hard. Having, perhaps foolishly, just left my job to embark upon a major academic undertaking, I would soon be writing seriously, anyway, and for a living, if only for a little while.

I realised, though, that it was a loss to me - I missed that vague and non-committal tendency towards some sort of creativity in the loosest sense of the word, unhampered by external expectations of productivity that plague career author and academic alike, the slow grind of cogs as pen comes to paper (or fingertips to keys), the tentative appearance of a whiskered nose as a Hughesian thought-fox pads into the frame and settles there, twitching. I promised myself I'd take it up again, just as soon as I could mentally exhale, once my life had settled once again into some sort of stability and, dare I say it, the clockwork routine of another nine-to-five (if you're ever feeling disillusioned with your life, there really is nothing like a whip-lash nine-month Masters from Oxford to make you hanker for the days of professional stagnation, I can tell you).

So, after a silence which has lasted over two years, and for which I really have no excuse, here we are: prompted and cajoled by a sobering event that has banished my writers' block to the periphery. Before my extended leave of absence, I wrote about home: both your proper, comforting home-home, and the places you just call home that always seem transient or temporary in comparison with the real thing. My own home-home is an isolated rural hamlet on the west coast of Scotland, where nothing ever really happens and the only thing that makes much of a noise is the weather. My mum and I, sitting out one warm April morning with coffees by the front steps, were disturbed by as many as two or three passing cars in the space of an hour or so: we wondered grumpily where all these people were coming from, what they were up to in our village. A village, over the years, that has been the stage set for all manner of scenes: a ludicrously happy childhood, the claustrophobic prison of my prickly formative years, and now the admittedly romanticised yet truly cherished haven I retreat to when everything in the real world gets too much. A drive away from any vestige of civilisation, it can be a place of contradictions: it feels like it's at the end of the world yet miraculously is only two hours from the centre of Glasgow; it can rain and shine at the same time, and frequently does. Given the circumstances, I've been thinking an awful lot about it recently - about 'war' and cricket in the front garden; long afternoons swinging on that massive tyre suspended from a tree at the back of the house and shrouded by rhododendrons; making dens out of duvets stretched like sails between desk and cupboard in my bedroom; stealing up to the post office to spend 10p on highland toffee without parental permission; climbing the sinewy birch tree down on the shore in front of Fiona's house. We played football on the green with the rest of the village kids until ten o'clock - ten o'clock! - one summer, we ambled along the shore on what seems like endless afternoons, collecting starfish and crabs and sea anemones to keep in a bucket of salt water until, when we'd finished, we carefully placed them back where they belonged. In recent years, it has simply been the perfect place to hide from the world, to do absolutely nothing, where there's nothing much to do except perhaps pootle down to the shop to get some milk, where phones have no reception so you just leave them alone all weekend and simply enjoy the unhurried breakfasts, lunches, the catching up with mum and dad, endless pots of tea, and listening to that lovely, lovely silence.

When my mum announced matter-of-factly over breakfast during a visit about two years ago that "one day we'll definitely sell the house," I promptly burst into tears on the spot, something I can't remember doing since real toddlerhood. Even then, though, I didn't believe it, thought we had a good few years at least, in fact I probably thought it wouldn't ever really happen. I never imagined that six months after going on the market we'd be staring down the moment of being cut adrift. Our lovely, lived-in bastion of peculiar family values reduced to floor plans and prospects; condemned to the lonely fate of the holiday home. 

Over the years I've become more and more aware of a preoccupation - intellectual as well as philosophical - with places and their importance. Me, I get attached to places - not quickly, and not easily, but irreversibly. There's a permanent hole in my heart for the smoky rooftops, the narrow closes and wynds, the bookshops and meadows of Edinburgh, and some part of me, I fear, will always long to return there for good. You only have to look back through my blog and you'll see how many of my scribblings are concerned with how I feel about various parts of the world. My Masters dissertation delved into representations of  spaces, both in the literal, geographical sense and the metaphorical: the 'non-places' (the departure lounge waiting areas, the border crossings, the holding stations) where transience is the only constant, but where it may be possible to fashion a sort of makeshift home, a temporary space of belonging by attaching importance and ascribing meaning where we are otherwise cut adrift. (In Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald writes with astonishing imagery and masterful insight about the chasms and dark spaces hidden behind locked doors in the life of a Holocaust survivor; the memories, suppressed for a whole lifetime, which only drift into consciousness via a physical revisiting of places and their architecture). I don't mean to come over all Oxford, but I find this stuff fascinating - how we feel about the myriad locations in which and through which we pass our lives. Unsurprisingly, the novels I connect with and which resonate most are ones which are firmly rooted in a peculiar and particular setting, beautifully evoked and skilfully re-imagined. There's Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, where Agnes, the last woman in Iceland to be executed for murder, spends her final months as a condemned woman in a peasant village where the cold bites, the work is hard and the land unforgiving. Dark Matter by Michelle Paver is the most chilling ghost story I've ever read - it left me positively paralysed with fear with its tale of a lone explorer overwintering in a haunted cove: the perpetual Arctic gloom, waves lapping ominously at the shore and - just there - a solitary, dark, and altogether unwelcome figure on the periphery of your vision (don't look). In non-fiction, as well, I've fallen head-over-heels in love with Kathleen Jamie's Findings and her warm, observant and infinitely generous offerings on Scottish land- and cityscapes (she's also written Sightlines which is in the same vein and next on my list).

If I were feeling dramatic and Freudian at all, I would attribute all of this - this ridiculous obsession with place, to coin a phrase - to my displacement at an early age from suburban Oxfordshire to a rural village in Argyll. Perhaps it's a form of compensation for my lost belonging - the inherent sense that most people have without even knowing it of being able to say "I'm from here" and have nobody doubt it. I always felt a little bit of an outsider in the village (my parents would say this was because I was just a strange child) but I was desperate to fit in amongst the local kids. If truth be told, I overdid it, and of course the irony of assimilation is that the more you want it the harder it is to attain. I suppose I grew to take a sort of pride in being the odd one out, fancying myself as aloof and mysterious, probably ascribing the role to myself - and it's been so long by now that I'm just perpetuating the myth. In Scotland you're always "from England" and in England they don't believe you when you say you're Scottish ("Really? But you don't have an accent at all"). I was nearly eight when we moved up but I always say I was seven to maximise it as much as possible, to make me feel less of a fraud, and I have to admit to a slight tug of conflict where my absolutely innate sense of home should be. But I still grew up with irn bru bars, and midges, and west coast patter, and all those things you forget when you've been south for too long. I'm adamant about my roots - even if the branches have now spread further afield. I get attached to places.

I battled with myself for several weeks before I made the decision about whether to come back for one last visit before the sale goes through. The moment approaches thunderously that I've anticipated with dread ever since that throwaway breakfast comment, the moment when the car will turn out of the drive and I'll look back at the house - the house I always thought I'd live in again one day - and I'll know it's for good, and I'll never come back. Tomorrow I'm going home for the last time.