Patrick Modiano - Biographical
The first sixty-nine years of my life are summed up here, as far as I can remember them. I was born on 30 July 1945 in France, at 11 allée Marguerite, Boulogne-Billancourt, close to Paris. My brother Rudy was born on 5 October 1947. Until the age of four I was brought up by my Flemish maternal grandparents, meaning that at the start of my life I spoke only Flemish. Strange for someone who was to become a French writer.
By 1949, at the age of four, I was living with my brother in a house in Biarritz on the Basque coast, away from our parents who had put us in the care of a "governess." In September 1950, my brother and I were baptised at the Église Saint-Martin in Biarritz, in the absence of our parents. My first day of school was at the Sainte-Marie school in Biarritz.
In 1951 my brother and I were back in Paris in our parents' house at 15 quai de Conti. The next year we were sent to friends of my mother's in Jouy-en-Josas in the outskirts of Paris, at 38 rue du Docteur-Kurzenne, and I was enrolled in the Jeanne-d'Arc school then the Jouy-en-Josas elementary school.
We went back to Paris in 1953, where I attended the elementary school of the rue du Pont-de-Lodi, in the 6th arrondissement, until June 1956. That year, we spent the summer with a friend of my father's, Nathalie E. Puis, and in October I became a boarder at the Ecole du Montcel in Jouy-en-Josas, where I stayed until June 1960.
On 29 January 1957 my brother died.
On 18 January 1960 I ran away from boarding school, but because I was nonetheless such a good student they waited until the end of the school year to expel me. In August that year I stayed with an English family in Bournemouth, from where I ran away to spend a few days in London.
In September I became a boarder in the Collège Saint-Joseph de Thônes, in the mountains of Haute-Savoie, where I would remain for two years until June 1962. During this period I ran away to Geneva, Lausanne and Lyon, and I passed my first baccalaureate in Annecy, Haute-Savoie, in June 1962. In October, back in Paris, I entered the Lycée Henri-IV, first as a boarder then as a day student. In 1963, I failed my second baccalaureate. I got to know the writer Raymond Queneau, who took me to the summer cocktail party in the garden of Éditions Gallimard, but I did not dare tell him I wanted to be a writer.
In 1964, I obtained my second baccalaureate. This would be my only degree.
Without asking my opinion, my father enrolled me in the Lycée Montaigne in Bordeaux, far from Paris, to prepare for competitive entrance to the grandes écoles. I ran away after the very first day and got on a train for Paris. I registered at the Sorbonne until 1967 in order to delay my military service. But I never attended classes and I was what people in those days called a "phantom student."
In July 1965 I left for Vienna, Austria, where I tried and failed to find work. That is where I started my first book. I would always remember Vienna fondly, and that must be why, 35 years later, I wrote about the Austrian writer Joseph Roth.
The next year, to make a living, I worked as a researcher in Carlo Ponti's cinema production company, in particular on plans for a screen adaptation of André Malraux's La condition humaine ("Man's Fate").
In 1967, I wrote songs for a singer of my age, Françoise Hardy. In June of that year, my first book was accepted by Éditions Gallimard. It appeared on 5 April 1968, entitled La place de l'étoile.
In September 1969 my second book appeared, La ronde de nuit ("Night Rounds").
In January 1970, in a restaurant on the Champs-Élysées, I met a very pretty girl called Dominique Zehrfuss, and we married in September. Our witnesses were the writers André Malraux and Raymond Queneau. We had extended trips to Rome and Tunisia, and in Paris we lived in Montmartre.
In September 1972 my third book appeared, Les boulevards de ceinture ("Ring Roads").
In January 1973 I collaborated with film maker Louis Malle on the screenplay for Lacombe Lucien, and the film was released in January 1974. The Swedish actor Holger Löwenadler had an important role in the film and impressed the French public. I was proud to have written his dialogue.
Our first daughter Zina was born on 22 October 1974.
In September 1975 my fourth novel appeared, Villa Triste followed by a fifth in April 1977: Livret de famille.
My daughter Marie was born on 1 September 1978. In November of that year I was awarded the Prix Goncourt for Rue des Boutiques Obscures ("Missing Person").
In 1981, I published Une jeunesse in February, and in August, accompanied by my wife Dominique, I rediscovered London. I had not been back there since the time I ran away in August 1960, left to my own devices at the age of 15.
Books followed one after the other. In October 1982, De si braves garçons; in January 1985, Quartier perdu ("A Trace of Malice"); in September 1986, Dimanches d'août, and Une aventure de Choura, written in collaboration with my wife Dominique.
In 1988, while flicking through some old newspapers, I read in a Paris-Soir from December 1941 a missing person's report about a girl called Dora Bruder. I spent years trying to track her down, and it was not until 1996 that I finally wrote the book dedicated to her.
Also in 1988, I published Remise de peine ("Suspended Sentences"), then Catherine Certitude in collaboration with the illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé. More books followed in the next 25 years: Vestiaire de l'enfance (1989), Voyage de noces ("Honeymoon") (1990), Fleurs de ruine ("Flowers of Ruin") (1991), Un cirque passe (1992), Chien de printemps ("Afterimage") (1993), Les chiens de la rue du Soleil, in collaboration with my daughter Zina (1994), Du plus loin de l'oubli ("Out of the Dark") (1996), Dora Bruder (1997).
In 1998, I sent Éditions Gallimard the manuscript of the first novel of a young American writer I admired, Tristan Egolf, entitled Lord of the Barnyard. Seven years later he committed suicide. He was doubtless the greatest American writer of his generation.
I wrote more books: Des inconnues (1999), La Petite Bijou (2001), Accident nocturne (2003), Un pedigree (2005), 28 Paradis, in collaboration with my wife Dominique (2005), Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue (2007), L'horizon (2010), L'herbe des nuits (2012), Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (2014). Over these years I spent time in Berlin, Rome and Stockholm.
All these details may seem monotonous but when you think about it, that is often what the life of a writer is.
From The Nobel Prizes 2014. Published on behalf of The Nobel Foundation by Science History Publications/USA, division Watson Publishing International LLC, Sagamore Beach, 2015
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2014
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In his brief, enigmatic account of his first 21 years, Pedigree, Patrick Modiano describes how, in 1959, at the age of 14, when his mother was performing in a play at the Théâtre Fontaine, he began exploring the Pigalle district of Paris. “It was there, on Rue Fontaine, Place Blanche, Rue Frochot, that I first brushed against the mysteries of Paris and, without quite realising it, began dreaming of a life for myself.” Aged 17, he wrote that he was only really happy when he was walking on his own in its streets. Since then, the detailed locations, street names and precise urban geography of the capital have been a feature of virtually everything he has written.
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The haunting, melancholy atmosphere of the old working-class quartiers – their cafes, garages, run-down hotels and seedy nightclubs, the dreamlike labyrinth of boulevards, streets, squares, Métro stations – are combined in his novels with echoes of Modiano’s broken and unhappy childhood. A curious cast of mysterious and frequently sinister characters appear and vanish from the narrative for no obvious reason. It is a Paris that recalls, at times, the mood of films such as Marcel Carné’s Sous les Toits de Paris, and at others, the Saint-Germain-des-Prés of the Sartre or Juliette Gréco years.
I have long been addicted to walking the different quartiers of Paris, and still feel a flâneur’s fascination for street names such as Rue Git-le-Coeur, Rue des Mauvais-Garçons and Rue Abbé-de-l’Epée; this, together with an abiding interest in what life in the city must have been like during and immediately after the occupation has made Modiano my ideal author. When the opportunity arose, therefore, to translate his most recent novel, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, as well as his 2007 work, In the Café of Lost Youth, I jumped at the challenge. Recently, I was invited to meet him.
Modiano is now 70 and, one senses, an intensely private and reserved man. Tall, courteous and with a slightly apologetic manner, he uses extravagant hand gestures and is prone to be hesitant or inconclusive in his answers to questions, always searching for le mot juste, and employing ellipses (his favourite punctuation mark), as many of his characters do. In the book-lined study of his apartment near the Jardin du Luxembourg, where he lives with his wife, Dominique, I decided to focus on the topographical aspects of his novels. Was such specific naming of Paris streets and addresses, I wondered, in a world where fictional characters and events are so often mysterious and only dimly remembered, a way of creating atmosphere?
“I use them to try to obtain reference points. Buildings bring back memories and the more precise the setting the better it suits the imagination. As a child and a teenager I was very impressionable ... So forceful are these impressions that one becomes a prisoner of one’s memories. There are images that pursue you all your life ... As a child, my family life was fairly unsettled and I was often left to my own devices. I began to wander through the streets of the city and would feel a mixture of fear and fascination as I forced myself to go further from home each time.”
In his 2010 novel The Horizon, Modiano writes of his principal character, Bosmans, that “he never forgot the names of streets and the numbers of buildings. It was his private way of resisting the indifference and anonymity of large cities, and perhaps too the uncertainties of life.”
'When I first began to wander the streets of the city I would feel a mixture of fear and fascination'Patrick Modiano
In many of Modiano’s novels there are references to invisible frontiers, to “neutral zones”, to hinterlands and no‑man’s lands, and the reader becomes immersed in the bizarre atmosphere of certain quartiers of Paris, where characters are glimpsed as if in a mist. They change their identities and often use pseudonyms, whereas streets, addresses and old-fashioned phone numbers (eg DANton 5561) are absolutely specific. When characters cross the Seine, for example, moods change; when they walk beneath the overhead Métro bridges between Ségur and Dupleix stations, they enter a neutral zone. It is as if Modiano has created a Parisian geography of the mind that, like a palimpsest, is superimposed with his memories over the neighbourhoods themselves.
“I had the impression as a boy that if I crossed the Seine to the Right Bank I was entering a fantasy world that was slightly frightening. Les Halles was there in those days, as were all the newspaper offices, and the Champs-Elysées had something of a seaside feeling ... Whereas the Left Bank was more provincial, though not lacking in charm. Of course, none of this means anything today ... ”
In Night Rounds, “drowned men” glide along the Boulevard Haussmann and the boulevards that dissect the old medieval city; the Rue de l’Aude is full of menace in The Black Notebook and evokes the Paris of the post-Algerian war period; the Place du Panthéon becomes “sinister in the moonlight”. From 93 Rue Lauriston, where the French Gestapo once operated and where “tongues are loosened” in La Place de l’Etoile, his first novel, published in 1968, to the Square de Graisivaudan in his latest work, street names evoke a powerful mood of melancholy – or what the French call grisaille.
Like Baudelaire before him, Modiano profoundly regrets the destruction and passing of areas of old Paris. “In Baudelaire’s time the whole Carrousel area was destroyed. He wrote a poem about it ... nowadays Paris is rather aseptic and everything has become more uniform, yet there is still something strange and mysterious about certain quartiers ...
“... I often have a sense of Paris being covered by a layer of cellophane and I feel as though my own memories have become almost imaginary. It’s rather like a favourite pet – a dog or a cat – that has been stuffed and sent to the taxidermist. You recognise it, but it’s no longer alive.”
Unreliable, uncertain memories recall phantoms from Modiano’s own youth, and these characters often reappear in his work, giving the impression to many that he is writing the same novel over again. It is a point of view he does not deny. “I thought I’d written them in continuous fashion, in successive periods of forgetfulness, but often the same faces, the same names, the same places, the same sentences reoccur from one to another, like the patterns in a tapestry one might have woven when half asleep.”
“Like all those born in 1945,” Modiano said in his speech to the Swedish Academy in December 2014 after being awarded the Nobel prize in literature, “I am a child of the war, and more specifically, since I was born in Paris, a child who owed his birth to the Paris of the occupation.” These were years brushed aside and quickly forgotten by many of his parents’ generation, and few French writers have explored the realities of the occupation and immediate postwar years quite so poignantly.
Shades of Modiano’s father, Albert, who was arrested as a Jew (though later released) during the second world war and who associated with racketeers and collaborators, and his Belgian-born mother, Louisa Colpeyn, a vedette of the Flemish cinema who died this year, flit through the pages of most of Modiano’s fiction. But, he writes, “Even the photographs of my parents have become photos of imaginary people. Only my brother [whose death, aged 10, had a devastating effect on the writer], my wife and my daughters are real.”
Characters that may be based on his parents appear in most of Modiano’s novels. He admits to a degree of ambiguity in his memory of them. “In a strange way I would rather have met them before I was born. I prefer to think of them as they might have been before they had children.”
Areas such as the Val‑de-Grâce are portrayed in Modiano’s work with wistfulness rather than nostalgia, as is the “Continent Contrescarpe” in the heart of the fifth arrondissement, which he describes in his preface to Hélène Berr’s Journal as “a sort of oasis in Paris” where no evil could infiltrate. Sections of The Black Notebook read like a street guide to the 14th arrondissement. The Rues d’Ulm, Rataud, Claude Bernard, Pierre-et-Marie-Curie form the “scholastic district”; the street that runs through the Montparnasse cemetery and “seems to go on forever” is the Rue Froidevaux and it features prominently in Paris Nocturne, Afterimage and In the Café of Lost Youth; while the narrator of Flowers of Ruin speaks of Saint-Germain-des-Prés as “my former village which I no longer recognise”, a milieu in which most of the cafés that Modiano knew in his youth have long since vanished.
“When I was a child, Saint-Germain was more of a working-class district ... the Rue Dauphine, for example, was quite run-down. War was still close and the streets were rather dark ... ”
When I was a child, Saint-Germain was more of a working-class district – war was still close and the streets were darkPatrick Modiano
In Modiano’s Paris, characters have difficulty recognising the city they once knew – the building of the Boulevard Périphérique, for example, destroyed many of the humble houses, cafes, small hotels and garages of the 18th arrondissement – and with that destruction went the secrets and lives of the largely working-class population that inhabited the area.
The day after we met, I walked from the Place Blanche, an important intersection in so many of Modiano’s novels, up through Pigalle and across the 18th arrondissement to the newly inaugurated Promenade Dora Bruder, a walkway that runs above the overgrown tracks of the now defunct Petite Ceinture railway line, separating Rue Leibniz from Rue Belliard. In June this year, in the author’s presence, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, unveiled a plaque as a memorial to Dora Bruder – the young girl whose life Modiano researched and who is the subject of what is perhaps his best-loved book (translated into English as The Search Warrant). She lived and went to school in the area before she was deported to Auschwitz in September 1942. However unreliable or fictitious our memories may be, this name, now immortalised on a Paris street sign, has become reality: Bruder and her brief life will never be forgotten and we can remain close to her in time and space.
• Euan Cameron is the translator of Patrick Modiano’s So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood (MacLehose) and In the Café of Lost Youth (to be published in January)
• This article was amended on 2 November as Sous lesToits de Paris was directed by René Clair, and not Marcel Carné as previously stated.