Found in Translation: Discovering Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano (born Paris, 1945) seemingly belongs to that rather large group of Nobel laureates very few people have ever heard of until they win the Nobel Prize for literature – very much contrary to the Nobel Peace Prize, which is nearly always awarded to a famous person or institution, this year’s Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai being no exception to the rule.

Being among those who had never heard of Modiano, I set out to discover a little more about the new Nobel laureate. He has, according to the Nobel Prize website, been awarded the prize “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation,” that is, the German occupation of France during the Second World War. According to that same website, 91% of the page’s visitors have not read anything by Modiano. Especially if the reader is not fluent in French, this is an unsurprising result: out of the thirty-nine works Modiano has written, from his debut La Place de l’étoile (1968) to his most recent work Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (2014), only eight have so far been translated into English.

A reader who has access to the Bodleian Library may be fortunate enough to lay their hands on Ring Roads (1974), which I duly sought out. This novella, a hundred pages long, is a translation of Les boulevards de ceinture (1972) which won that year’s Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, perhaps giving it the brief spell of fame that warranted the English translation. Ring Roads tells the story of a young man in Paris who, under an assumed identity, meets his father for the first time in nearly a decade. Written in very brief sentences, the work is highly descriptive. It starts off with scenes that are reminiscent of old photographs; the narrator voices this comparison at various moments, although the scenes themselves are striking enough not to have necessitated such explicit metaphors.

Connecting to the theme for which Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize, the story is set during the years leading up to the Second World War. Modiano, himself of Jewish origin on his father’s side, presents a narrator who witnesses various people’s perspectives on xenophobia and anti-Semitism, without revealing that he himself is the descendant of a foreign man. The narrator’s father, meanwhile, is treated as a disposable object by his companions. His father’s passive behaviour fills the narrator with shock on the one hand and contempt on the other, and only through shared memories do the two men manage to re-establish their family bond. This English translation of Ring Roads, published by Gollancz and translated by Caroline Hillier, is so far the only one in existence. Unfortunately, it has been terribly edited – it contains simple grammatical errors such as “it’s title” instead of “its title”, and “I’m you’re father”. In this light, it is very fortunate indeed that entirely new editions of his translated works will soon be published.

The same publisher and translator also released a translation of Villa Triste (1975) in 1977, under the same French title. Fortunately, this work seemed to have undergone better editing. The topic of this novella is remarkably similar to that of Ring Roads: again, there is a young man who assumes a fake identity and has an absent foreign father. The young man becomes a swindler to keep up appearances, another familiar theme: where in Ring Roads the narrator turned to writing pornography in order to remain on a good footing with the men who were taking advantage of the lowly position of his father, here the narrator becomes a swindler who sells books with forged autographs and dedications from famous writers in them. This work, too, is connected to a war, but in this case it is the Algerian War of the 1960s that is taking place. The novella never loses its permanent connection to the former French colonies, as the narrator and his father seem to have come from Egypt. Here, again, the problem of origins surfaces: the narrator this time pretends he is a count from Russia. The novel ends, however, with the reminder that he is not to forget Egypt, a reconciliation similar to that in Ring Roads.

Modiano’s themes of memory and the connection between family history and world history are compelling, and very well treated in such short novels. The two novels discussed seem to offer a fairly good representation of the work that made Modiano famous in France originally, as they are among the few that have been deemed worthy of translation into English. So far, no British publisher has come forward with a concrete promise of a Modiano translation for this year. Yale University Press, however, will publish Suspended Sentences in November, which is a collection of three Modiano novellas that were originally published separately: Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin. According to the Yale UP website, the themes will likely be similar to the works discussed here:

“Shadowed by the dark period of the Nazi Occupation, these novellas reveal Modiano’s fascination with the lost, obscure, or mysterious: a young person’s confusion over adult behavior; the repercussions of a chance encounter; the search for a missing father; the aftershock of a fatal affair.”

As the two works discussed here are so similar, especially in their presentation of the main character, one does hope Suspended Sentences will offer some broader and more diverse perspectives on Modiano’s core themes.

K. Dihal

For more information about Patrick Modiano, please visit the Nobel Prize page.

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