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.