The Heart of Absence: Patrick Modiano

“My mother blew through Annecy, just long enough to buy me two items for my school outfit: a gray smock and a used pair of shoes with crepe soles that would last me a good ten years and never leak. She left well before evening. It is always painful to see a child return to boarding school, knowing he’ll be a prisoner there. One would like to hold him back. Did that cross her mind? It seems I found no favor in her eyes. And besides, she was about to leave on a long trip to Spain.”

“When she was still small, she had to leave Johannes. Children lose interest in their parents when they are left. They are not sentimental. They are passionate and cold. … Parents are not necessary. Few things are necessary. Some children look after themselves. The heart, incorruptible crystal. They learn to pretend. And pretence becomes the most active, the realest part, alluring as dreams. It takes the place of what we think is real. Perhaps that is all there is to it, some children have the gift of detachment.”

Patrick Modiano meet Fleur Jaeggy.

The first quote is from Pedigree, by Patrick Modiano, published in 2005 by Editions GALLIMARD, Paris, with English translation by Mark Polizzotti in 2015, Yale University Press. The second section quoted is from SS Proleterka, by Fleur Jaeggy, published first in Italian in 2001 by Adelphi Edizione and by New Directions Books, 2003, with English translation by Alastair McEwen.

Fleur Jaeggy is the most accomplished scribe of detachment. In her collections of short stories, I Am the Brother of XX and Last Vanities, and in the novels, SS Proleterka and Sweet Days of Discipline, there is a prevailing sense of isolation—readily recognizable as the epidemic condition of our time—an almost truculent inability to connect, and desperation without surfeit. And here is Patrick Modiano as heartbreakingly accomplished in these unfortunate states as she is, describing the daily coming into being of the abandoned child who builds a person from the sad materials of neglect, lack of regard, of never having been held, or insufficiently—and then overlooked and left behind.

Modiano’s Pedigree is a memoir. So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, translated by Euan Cameron) is identified as a novel, his first publication after winning the Nobel Prize in literature in 2014, but I suggest it, too, is a memoir. The protagonist, a boy maybe approaching adolescence but far from old enough to be on his own, is in the temporary care—the reason never exactly made clear—of a woman too young to be his mother, a woman who finds herself “on the run” but still, probably by default and genuine regard, in charge of the boy. Together they are now “on the run.” He is settled for the night. He sleeps, and in the morning wakes to see the sun beginning to rise, showing on the walls of his bedroom. “To begin with, it is almost nothing, the crunch of tyres on the gravel, the sound of an engine growing fainter, and you need a little more time to realize that there is no-one left in the house apart from you.” The book ends there.

Clearly left behind. The sentence chilling in its replicating the terror of, say, being separated from a parent in a department store or of hearing no cheery response to a tentative “Hello? Hello?” Modiano is calling up the parallel or equivalent desolate feeling of his years at boarding schools—even one time as a full boarder when his parents’ apartment was only some hundred yards from the school. Why would they do that?

Pedigree is carefully constructed, skilfully tempered. A personal history built from the lists of the names of people who were in the circle of his mother—names and brief biographies, people who make a single appearance by way of populating his past; lists of people with whom his father met in hotel lobbies, in cafés, in apartments whose tenants came and went, people whose names slid from the well-tailored shoulders of a postwar Paris population looking for recovery. No one with whom the young Patrick maintained any connections—lists to inhabit a life in the absence of parents, the absence of family, filling a room with strangers. Throughout the memoir these lists appear, ghosts to stuff the gaps to keep out the cold. But none of this is tossed off—that is, not a word is unconsidered. One sentence, for example, presents his entire strategy. “I used to take the bus to Geneva, where sometimes I saw my father.” Memory is there—I used to. Alone on the bus. Why was his father in Geneva? He hasn’t mentioned that anywhere. It’s not something we need to know; maybe he doesn’t know, maybe his father moves around so often, Geneva is just another place, but he was in Geneva long enough for Patrick to visit more than once. The distancing, and the vagueness. The tentative relationship made so clear. Did he sometimes go to Geneva and fail to see his father, his father wasn’t there, or not available when he arrived? One sentence: like a camera pulling back, the subject getting smaller.

The writing is too careful, the sensibility too alert to the danger of easy traps. Wary about nostalgia, we’re counselled not to trust its tendency to lean to the sentimental. “And Jacky Gerin’s gray automobile, with body by Allemano, circled slowly around the lake for all eternity.” He tells us, “I will keep on reciting these moments, without nostalgia but in a rush.” The reporting is factual, a good journalist, but in a rush. “It’s not my fault if the words jumble together. I have to move quickly, before I lose heart.”

It’s not only Fleur Jaeggy’s writing that comes to mind, but WG Sebald’s, too, particularly his book Austerlitz. How not, for the reader, and how not for Modiano as well? Austerlitz published in 2001 and Pedigree in 2005. Time enough to have read it, or maybe just a shared sensibility and the prominent Paris train station.

His father notified him by telephone that he had been enrolled in a boarding school in Bordeaux, and he and his father were driven by his stepmother to Gare d’Austerlitz. Say “Austerlitz” and what come immediately to mind is Sebald’s book and his experience of abandonment heavy, too, with elusive memory and loss. From the train station Patrick Modiano and his father departed for Bordeaux. Modiano noted he had no luggage with him, as though being kidnapped. But there would be no ransom note; no one wanted him back. He had referred to himself as a dog who pretends to have a pedigree and just like such a duplicitous animal, as soon as his father had left him at the boarding school, he ran away. In the way that you hear heart-rending tales of dogs driven to an unknown faraway place and left there, who, nonetheless—thin, exhausted, fur matted and paws bleeding from the arduous travel—find their way back and are waiting on the doorstep to be reunited with their family, so Patrick Modiano returned to Paris. He had no choice. It had been when he was 14 or so that he had wandered the streets of the Pigalle waiting for his mother’s performance to conclude—she was an actress who played small roles from time to time—that he had “brushed against the mysteries of Paris, and without realizing it began dreaming of a life for myself.” From the erasure of a sure sense of self to which every child is entitled, and provoked by the emptying, spirit-denying fact of being abandoned, he began to construct an imagined life to inhabit. A life spirit and resilience made manifest through writing, through making something to deny the nothing that was the legacy of deep and bewildering parental negligence. He would dream and then write himself into existence.

When Patrick Modiano was 12 his younger brother, Rudy, died. The closest person to him. He had been home from boarding school for the weekend and they had played together. A few days later his father and uncle had driven to the boarding school to tell him that Rudy had died. Because Modiano writes with simple unadorned clarity and intensity—as he says, he really has no talent for metaphor—everything he writes seems credible. Rarely does he express emotion; sometimes he uses irony, occasionally there is mild sarcasm, but what he recounts needs no embellishment. The language carries the event; the events speak for themselves.

He wrote, “Apart from my brother, Rudy, his death, I don’t believe that anything I relate here truly matters to me.” What he is saying both precludes and negates everything that follows. Or has no significance for him. Is this true? He wrote everything that followed after and what followed after was a life filled with writing. I am arrested and a little confused. He says, “I’m writing these pages the way one compiles a report or résumé, as documentation and to have done with a life that wasn’t my own.” He is speaking in the past tense but he goes on, and is now writing in the present. “It’s just a simple film of deeds and facts. I have nothing to confess or elucidate and I have no interest in soul-searching or self-reflection. On the contrary,” and here he switches again to the past tense, “the more obscure and mysterious things remained, the more interesting I found them.”

Pedigree is a memoir of his years to the age of 21. Then he began writing his first novel. Until that time, he said, he’d looked for mystery even where there was none. He describes the recording of his life to that point “as if against a transparency—like in a cinematic process shot … everything paraded by like a transparency and I could not yet live my life.” Can you discount a life’s first decades, that unquestionably formative and determining time? Difficult to dismiss or cast aside, and I remind myself that his novel, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, 2014, read to me strongly, as much memoir as novel.

Refusing to live in boarding school, and now 17, Patrick Modiano stayed in his mother’s apartment and somehow assumed, or was thrust into, the role of being responsible for her. His mother, who was “a pretty girl with an arid heart,” this same heart also described as being made of stone. He says he sometimes wanted to write about what she had put him through with her heartlessness but, he says, “I keep it to myself. And I forgive her.” The rent would be due and it caused him anxiety. He begs the reader’s forgiveness. “Please don’t hold such details against me: they caused me some anxiety at the time,” and here, irony: “But it soon evaporated, as I believed in miracles and would lose myself in Balzacian dreams of wealth.”

Fleur Jaeggy credits detachment as the survival strategy for abandoned children, those for whom parents have become unnecessary. The absences in Pedigree speak to this. He knows he costs his father little in support—his financial needs are minimal and barely met, but his father’s fortunes are often uncertain, too, or variable, and when Modiano was a young teenager he remembers his father would “borrow” the few francs his grandfather would send him from Belgium, from his small pension. It is only here, in one sentence, that this grandfather is mentioned. “I felt closer to him than to my own parents.” A single, minimal line to represent a closeness stronger than his bond with his parents. Desolation whistles like wind in the spaces. His father’s legacy to him also speaks of absence, which, anomalously, is more evident than his presence. Both as confession and advice given and at once negated, his father told him, “One should never neglect the little details.… Unfortunately, I’ve always neglected the little details.” A rubber chicken of a gift, which Modiano recognizes for its resilience, noting it as “one of the rare instances when he opened up to me.”

What drives a life through such a diminished childhood, which seems to prevail more by nimbly sidestepping the void than by any other gesture? Modiano’s early determination is to recognize and seize what the streets of Paris offered—the possibility of dreaming a life and writing and living in this dream-made space. His is an inextinguishable life force that brings to mind one of Dylan Thomas’s early poems. It begins, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flowers / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer.” In each stanza the irrepressible force cannot be stopped or turned back and is confronted with the refrain, “And I am dumb to tell, And I am dumb to mouth, And I am dumb to tell,” five times over. We are helpless to deny its inevitability.

But can memory be confounded and contained? The figure who was the boy and now a man tempts memory but only so far. The traces that drift through the Gare d’Austerlitz are pursued and finally grasped by Sebald. In Pedigree Modiano remembers but doesn’t interrogate his past. The protagonist in So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood recognizes that, “No, he would not return to places for the sake of recognition. He was too frightened that the grief, buried away until then, might unfurl through the years like a Bickford fuse.” A match could be the ignition but it wouldn’t be Thomas’s green fuse driving the flower into full and glorious bloom.