Alice Kaplan on Patrick Modiano

January 7, 2015
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Below follows, in full, an interview with Alice Kaplan on the career of recent Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano. The interview was originally published online via the French-language journal Libérationshortly after the Nobel announcement.

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The American academic Alice Kaplan, author of the outstanding The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, and more recently, Dreaming in French, teaches Modiano at Yale University, where she chairs the Department of French. She evokes for us the particular aura of the French Nobel Laureate in the United States.

Is Patrick Modiano well known in American universities?

There have been sixteen PhD dissertations on Modiano in American universities since 1987, a significant number, given that he is a both foreigner and a contemporary novelist. Yale University Press has just published a trilogy of novels originally published by the Editions du Seuil under the title Suspended Sentences. Modiano’s attraction comes from his style, which is laconic and beautiful but also quite accessible, in English as well as in French. Then there is the particular genre he invented, inspired by detective fiction, familiar to American readers. The obstacle is obviously the number of references to specific places in Paris that are everywhere in his books—all those street names and addresses that capture so well the atmosphere of different neighborhood, so that it’s probably necessary to have visited Paris at least once to really get him. At the same time, he knows exactly how to create an atmosphere. I always think about Edward Hopper when I read Modiano, there is a sense in his books that something horrible has happened; a crime is floating in the air, and a sense of someone or something missing. Modiano could write stories that take place in Brooklyn or in New Jersey. He’s invented such a specific a notion of place that you can think of certain places as being “Modianesque.”

Does he have many American readers?

It is difficult to say. He is published by David R. Godine, an editor of fine literary fiction, not a mass market publisher. My sense is that he is appreciated by the kind of reader who appreciates James Salter, for example, or by the kind of American reader who might have read Hélène Berr’s wartime diary in translation—which Modiano prefaced in the original French edition. His novel Dora Bruder has been widely read in the U.S. by intellectuals interested in the memory of the Holocaust—precisely because it is a book about forgetting. Historians find Modiano especially interesting because he offers a challenge to a certain kind of positivism with respect to memory. In the United States, people are always hunting for their identities. Genealogical search engines like ancestry.com, and television shows like Finding your roots are phenomenally successful. And here comes a writer who understands the mixed nature of ancestry, the racial and cultural mix fundamental to American identity and who describes the desire to understand where we come from, but also—and this is important—the impossibility of knowing everything, the confusion. I teach Dora Bruder in a class on the archives and the relationship of history to literature, because it is a book that tells us that we must also respect what we can’t know. In Modiano’s books, the person who knows the answer has just died, or else the narrator is so tired of searching that he stops before he gets to the last garage on his list. Modiano is often compared to Proust and even considered a kind of modern day Proust, and there is something to this, except that Proust is never tired of searching for lost time! The fact that Modiano’s fiction seems to slip through our fingers is an integral part of his literary project. He helps us understanding forgetting, the same way Proust helps us understand jealousy, or Stendhal ambition.

What does research on Modiano look like?

The last thesis I directed on Modiano investigated his use of the first person, the fact that he doesn’t engage in what the French call “autofiction”—i.e., fictional autobiography—but in something much more subtle. You can’t read Modiano for the identity politics that have become so fundamental in the American academy, where we read systematically through the grid of race and gender. Modiano is always questioning those categories, by showing the error of simplistic shortcuts. You cannot, for example, categorize him as a “Jewish writer.”

How did you discover his books?

I read La Place de L’Etoile while I was working on Céline’s anti-Semitic writing. I find it astonishing that Modiano published that book (a parody of anti-semitic prose) in 1968, well before the great wave of consciousness about the French collaboration with the Nazis that came in the wake of Robert Paxton’s groundbreaking research. Think about it: Modiano was alone, not part of any literary school, and he wrote about French anti-Semitism with incredible intuition. He was especially attuned to the anti-Semitic rhetoric around Jewish names. After La Place de l’Etoile, I devoured all of his books.

To read more by Alice Kaplan, click here.

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