Modiano’s elusive Paris: what my father never saw

Eiffel Tower

La tour Eiffel. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant–“ Emily Dickinson

If you dislike ambiguity and prefer straightforward plots, you may become impatient with Patrick Modiano’s inconclusive and sometimes maddening quests. In his stories of Paris during and after the Occupation, the “missing” person in question is never found; the mystery of his or her identity is never solved.

Modiano tells the truth–what little of it he knows–but he tells it slant.

Reading is a way for me to immerse myself in other times and places, and on our recent trip to France, I wanted to see the country through the lens of World War II, when my father was a soldier there. So I brought along Irène Némirovsky (I wrote about Suite Française in my last post) and Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant (published as Dora Bruder in Europe). Coincidentally, my son had just read three novellas by Modiano: Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin, so I read them, too. (These are published in one volume entitled Suspended Sentences.)

I was thinking about my father, who passed away five years ago, and musing about events in 1940s Europe that may soon be all but forgotten. Once I became accustomed to Modiano’s method and spirit of storytelling, I could appreciate the author’s preoccupation with identity and memory, and his attempts to reconstruct and understand the past.

Even as I explored the Jewish quarter of Le Marais, where we stayed, and conjured up the WWII Paris I’ve seen in movies, I realized that a new story is playing out in France, making my father’s time seem even more remote. We passed by many military personnel armed with automatic weapons guarding Parisian monuments, temples, churches, and other sites in the wake of January’s Charlie Hebdo attack.

My father never got the chance to explore Europe as he’d hoped. He’d been fascinated by France and Luxembourg (where he spent the weekend in training before he was wounded in the Battle of Metz in 1944), and he’d planned to visit Sicily, where he was born. Instead, he was shipped out to Liverpool after he was injured, and then back to America, where he spent over a year in recovery. Though he did visit Sicily later in life, my father never returned to France. Suspended Sentences book cover

I found myself imagining what he might have thought if he’d seen Notre Dame (he was awed by cathedrals) or tasted Parisian escargot (which he would have relished) or strolled across the many old bridges spanning the Seine.

During our drive to Metz, I looked out over the French countryside and along the Moselle River, thinking that perhaps my father had been injured in one of the passing fields or forest groves.

In The Search Warrant, Modiano is obsessed with reconstructing the life of a young Jewish girl who died at Auschwitz. In a 1941 Parisian newspaper, he’d discovered an ad placed by the parents of Dora Bruder, asking for information about the whereabouts of Dora, who had run away from her convent school. It’s as if Modiano can’t accept that someone–that so many, in fact–could live lives so brief and obscure and die such senseless deaths, as they did in the war.

The Search Warrant fuses nonfiction (the facts he unearths about Dora Bruder) with memoir (Modiano’s autobiographical speculations about his father during the Occupation) and fiction. As I read, sometimes I couldn’t separate truth from fiction.

The Search Warrant book coverInterrupting the narrative flow are lengthy lists of the names and last known addresses of people deported to concentration camps. Modiano seems compelled to show his readers the documentation and proof behind any fact he asserts about Dora. He meticulously describes the Paris neighborhoods that he wanders in, too: the old, timeworn urban landscapes and the bland contemporary ones that have replaced them.

Such lists and geographical minutia also appear in Modiano’s three novellas. Each story portrays a protagonist searching for a person he’s lost touch with long ago or seeking to understand some incident from the past.

Before I started the three novellas, I read the editor’s introduction to see if I could better understand what Modiano was trying to do with his stories. I learned that his mother had been an actress and was often absent during his childhood, while his estranged father paid little attention to Modiano and his younger brother. Modiano surmises that his father was a black market smuggler and somehow aligned with French Nazi collaborators. Another heartbreaking autobiographical fact is that Modiano’s beloved brother, Rudy, died from an illness when they were young. Modiano’s obsessive search for Dora Bruder is emblematic of Modiano’s search for his lost family, and for a pre-war Paris that no longer exists.

Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2014.

From Flowers of Ruin:

“Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later noticed in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed.”

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Cafe in Paris

Where to eat….they all look so good. Can you see the maître d’ beckoning?

Stone carving of two children

Children on a street corner in France.

Spring flowers and Colette, in Paris

Floral shop window

“As noisy as Paris was in those days, it always had its unexpected moments of stillness. At Cours-la-Reine, between one and one-thirty in the afternoon, when the last trucks had reached their canteens, those who loved flowers and silence could savor a strange respite, a solitude in which the flowers seemed to recover from human curiosity.”

******************

We’ve been in Paris, where our son has been studying and working in industrial design. I had so much fun walking around this enchanting city which, among other treasures, has secret gardens galore, flower vendors and flower markets, and floral shops offering spring flowers, herbs, and foliage, all beautifully arranged and presented.

Flowers and Fruit book coverA few years ago I was browsing in a local used book shop when I discovered a volume of essays by Colette, Flowers and Fruit, first printed in the US in 1986.

Some of the essays were inspired by a Swiss publisher, who for a time sent Colette a bouquet of flowers once or twice a week so she could write sketches of those that inspired her.

Colette wrote one of the longer essays in this collection, “Flora and Pomona,” during the Nazi occupation. According to the collection’s editor, Colette conceived of the writing project to “keep the coal bin at 9, rue de Beaujolais well filled and pay the black-market prices for rabbit and cheese and chicken and other comestibles otherwise unavailable, even to much-loved novelists living in the Palais-Royal.”

At the time of its publication, some critics said factual errors, weak editing, and a less than adequate translation detracted from Flowers and Fruit. I find Colette’s writing challenging, so this isn’t the kind of book I’d read straight through. It’s a little treasure for floral enthusiasts that’s fun to browse when I want Colette’s unusual take on flowers.

We were lucky to be in Paris on May Day. This holiday’s signature flower is lily of the valley, one of my favorites. They were everywhere.

Here are some of my Paris floral photos paired with Colette’s thoughts on flowers and gardens:

Peonies

“Garnet red, bright pink, sentimental pink, and three or four other carmine reds, they are the colors of good health and will delight me throughout the coming week.” (These peonies have not yet opened, which is when you should buy them.)

Lily of the valley

Lily of the valley is the May Day flower in Paris. “In spring, nearly an entire nation demands lily of the valley like bread.”

Pots of lily of the valley

“More than a flirtation, better than a superstition, almost a religion, the lily of the valley is celebrated on the first of May. Its cult stirs the Paris population to fever pitch…”

Chocolate & lily of the valley

You’ll find lily of the valley everywhere on May Day, even at the chocolatier. I saw these lovely desserts at Sylvain Mussy on Rue Bourg Tibourg.

 

Lily of the valley bouquet

My May Day bouquet. Lily of the valley, gloriosa lily (also known as fire lily or flame lily), and angel hair fern. “The true lily’s favorite soil is the kitchen garden’s, with tarragon, sorrel edgings, and purple garlic for neighbors.”

Flowers

Campanula and Persian violets. “…the sleeve of blue-violet campanula that grows immoderately, framing the windows in a single rush and decking them with flowers all season long.”

Pink and white roses

“Below my window, among the puddles of water, the bathing pigeons….we have old-fashioned, floriferous rosebushes that have survived both war and frost. Never have they failed to flower, and to flower again, and yet again before November.”

Stone figures on garden wall

There are many secret gardens hidden on the side streets of Paris, where the public is welcome.

Garden flowers

This one is Square Georges-Caïn on Rue Payenne. “Creating a garden takes us back to childhood imaginings.”

Paris street with plants, flowers

Some streets, like Rue du Trésor, are gardens, too.

Packing for Paris

Books

I try to make my traveling adventures reading adventures, too. We’re headed to Paris to see our son, with a two-day stop in London, my first visit to both cities.

Then we’ll go to Metz, France for a couple of days, with a road trip to Luxembourg City. In World War II, my father fought in the battle of Metz, and we think we’ve figured out approximately where he was wounded (on November 14, 1944). So we’ll investigate and see what we find.

My father spent a weekend in Luxembourg City just before the battle and had an interesting story to tell about that, which I’ll share in an upcoming post.

Metz

Metz, France (Wikipedia)

Luxembourg City

Luxembourg City (Wikipedia)

Besides Gertrude Stein, Irene Nemirovsky and our trusty travel guides, I’m bringing Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway. (No books related to London because I won’t be able to contain myself in the bookstores.)

Tropic of Cancer book cover

One of the most banned books in history

A Movable Feast Book Cover

I’ll share my impressions, literary and otherwise, in upcoming posts.

Which books or authors would you recommend to a reader visiting France? Please comment!

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