Like many other Anglophones, I only learned about Patrick Modiano last year when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and this has prompted me to start reading his Occupation Trilogy beginning with La Place de l’Étoile, his sensational debut novel, published when the writer was only twenty-two! Critics called these first three novels dazzling and angry. This is certainly true of La Place de l’Étoile in which the improbable, but alas not impossible, protagonist is a Jewish collaborator with the occupying Germans during the Second World War.
It is almost impossible for the British to comprehend the mind-set of an occupied nation, betrayed by its own collaborationist Vichy government and to imagine what it might have been like for many French men and woman who had to learn how to survive and to hope for eventual liberation. It took more than a generation for France to begin to accept the truths about what happened and what they, jointly and severally, did to get from one day to the next. I know from French friends of over sixty years standing, who were children during the war, how hard it has been. While active resistance was the often fatal experience for a modest number, for the rest collaboration, which ranged across the full spectrum from toleration to adulation, was a fact of life. Around the time of Les Évenements of 1968, the full story began to be told and discussed. And 1968 was when Modiano’s first novel was published.
It is in many ways a surreal novel in which the tenses and the time frame slip so that within a page the protagonist, Raphael Schlemilovitch (from the Yiddish meaning a stupid, awkward or unlucky person, or, in a looser translation ‘sonovabitch’) is at the same time battling against anti-Semitism and lauding it, a member of the Gestapo, a lover of Eva Braun and a pimp searching for women for the white slave trade. William Boyd’s introduction to the first publication of the trilogy in English sums up the first novel well. “Anti-Semitism, the Gestapo, Dreyfus, Auschwitz, Action Française, collaboration, betrayal and bad faith all contribute to the neurotic picaresque of this episodic and still startling, shocking novel.”
At first, I cast around for English-authored parallels, and certain candidates sprang to mind, but I have rejected them all. Modiano, who was born in 1945 and so has no first-hand wartime experiences, has, in his unique and distinctive way, created in fiction what is a true reflection of life, even if it does not seem that way at first reading. Serious readers of modern European literature should get stuck into this writer’s work and add him to their stockpile of literary experiences.
A word about the translation and the translator: leaden English prose would have prevented this balloon of a book from flying but the task has gone to Frank Wynne who has won several prizes for his translations from French and Spanish. I admired his work in Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised and he seems to capture the spirit of Modiano to perfection. The Occupation Trilogy, with the other two books translated by Caroline Hiller and Patricia Wolf, is published by Bloomsbury. Get yours now!