A Detective of the Past

By Brookner, Anita | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Detective of the Past


Brookner, Anita, The Spectator


DORA BRUDER by Patrick Modiano Gallimard, FF95, pp. 147

Patrick Modiano, haunter of vanishing suburbs and old newspapers, writes novels which take place in a hallucinatory but sharply defined time situated somewhere between the end of the last war and the beginning of the Sixties, and brings them to life with uncomfortable clarity. This is a novelist's trick: Modiano was born in 1945 and cannot have known the blackouts, the shortages and the deportations that feature so poignantly in Dora Bruder. His father, a descendant of Jews from Salonica, was also an adventurer, and nimble enough to escape surveillance. His mother was an actress, in whose dressing-room the infant Modiano patiently waited.

In Modiano's sunnier novels strangers meet up and drift through various Parisian hotels, take their chances on the Riviera or in Switzerland, lose sight of each other for many years, are brought together again by chance against a background of cheap rooms, out-of-the-way railway stations, cafes in which they are the first and last customers, and taken up by abrupt and mysterious foreigners and let drop again, and are finally returned to their everpresent solitude, and the reader's growing sense of loss.

The sense of loss is important. If the substance of these narratives is not too far removed from Simenon's hard novels the atmosphere is markedly different. Modiano is an impeccable writer who has internalised his own disquiet so completely that the reader accepts without question that a young man escaping military service should travel with a trunkful of movie magazines (in Villa Trieste) or that a similar unplaceable young man should accompany an unknown couple in their search for a villa to rent (in Voyage de Noces). It will be axiomatic that telephone numbers, always given in the text, will no longer be an adequate guide and that addresses, also given in the text, will be misleading: the peripatetic hero, in search of lost time and place, will discover that cinemas have become transmuted into garages, and the obscure hotels in which he once stayed will either have changed their names or been demolished. All this will be recounted dreamily and with hindsight, and the reader will be persuaded that every word of it is true.

In Dora Bruder, the perspective alters slightly. This time the account, if not true, is all too plausible, and the key to this is Modiano's emotion, breaking through the metafiction of telephone numbers and deceptive addresses to what was, in 1942, a commonplace. …

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