by Lisa Lieberman
He had told me that he shredded street posters himself to uncover the ones hidden beneath the newer strata. He pulled the strips down layer by layer and photographed them meticulously, stage by stage, down to the last scraps of paper that remained on the billboard or stone wall.
Patrick Modiano, “Afterimage”
I picked up Suspended Sentences after Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature this past fall and was immediately reminded of an Alain Resnais film—not that I'm the first to draw a connection between the two memory-obsessed artists. Modiano himself acknowledged a debt to the late filmmaker when accepting a prize from the Bibliothèque nationale for his body of work in 2011. “During my childhood, I saw Alain Resnais's documentary Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) [All the World's Memories] about the journey of a book arriving at the Bibliothèque nationale,” he said, “and the film made me want to write.”
Resnais made the All the World's Memories after his documentary about the death camps, Night and Fog (1955). In contrast to the brutal manner in which memory is evoked in this film and the accusatory tone of the narration, All the World's Memories is irreverent and light-hearted. I can easily imagine the ten-year-old Modiano being drawn in by Resnais's gently ironic depiction of the great library as a fortress dedicated to preserving memory at any cost. Words are captured and confined, books imprisoned, never to leave. Issued with an identity card, “the prisoner awaits the day it will be filed,” we are told, but lest we worry, Resnais is quick to assure us that this incarceration is entirely beneficial. Books are treated well. Scientific expertise is deployed to stave off the destruction of perishable documents: “An ointment is applied to preserve bindings, the writings of vanished civilizations are restored, books are vaccinated, shrouded, holes made by insects are filled in, loose pages glued back in.” Those of us old enough to remember card catalogues will appreciate hearing them described here as “the brain of the Bibliothèque nationale.” And if you were fortunate enough to conduct research in the vast reading room under the glass dome, as I was, you'll be charmed by the birds-eye view of the rows of readers seated “like paper-crunching insects” at those long tables, “each in front of his own morsels of universal memory.”
You wouldn't know that the director of All the World's Memories was the same person who made Night and Fog, or that he would go on to make Hiroshima mon amour (1959), a fictional story about a short-lived affair between a French woman and a Japanese man, both scarred by their experiences in the Second World War, or the mystifying Last Year at Marienbad (1961). But now I must mention a fascinating series of coincidences. During these very years, while still a student at the prestigious Paris lycée Henri IV, Modiano was the protégé of the avant-garde writer Raymond Queneau, who had just published his famous novel, Zazie dans le métro. Zazie would be made into a film by Louis Malle the following year, and Modiano would write the screenplay for Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Malle's film about a French boy who joins the collaborationist militia during the Occupation. Queneau was a friend of Resnais's. He wrote the text (in rhyming couplets, no less) for Le Chant du styrène (1958), a short documentary celebrating the virtues of plastic, and was one of the founders of OuLiPo (Potential Literature Workshop), an experimental literary collective subsequently joined by Georges Perec. The son of Polish Jews whose mother died in Auschwitz, Perec returned again and again to the ineffable trauma of the Holocaust in his literary works, frequently re-imagining his own past during the era of the German Occupation, as does Modiano in his literary works. Indeed, when Modiano won the Nobel, Perec was inevitably invoked, some critics going so far as to suggest that the prize was actually intended for Perec, a belated tribute to the author who had succumbed to lung cancer in 1982 while only in his forties.
Yes, the world of French arts and letters can feel awfully incestuous, but there's something else at play here. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a formative time for Modiano, but his interests were more esoteric than the average teenager's. In a 2007 interview he gave to the center-left daily, Libération, he identified Léon Bloy as a favorite author—a bizarre choice, as he admitted, for someone of his generation, although the works of the late-nineteenth-century Catholic extremist have been cited by Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, and Pope Francis. I get from Bloy a sense of the author's sacred mission, words like gifts offered up from a pure and open heart, and can only assume that the young Modiano was attracted to this romantic view of writing as a quasi-religious vocation. He later discovered, when reading Queneau's journals, that his mentor had been no less obsessed by Bloy in his younger days. Perhaps the message of All the World's Memories continued to inspire Modiano, but when I said earlier that his work reminds me of a Resnais film, I had a different film in mind.
Muriel, or the Time of Return
The Algerian war officially ended with the signing of the Evian Accords between France and the provisional government of Algeria in March 18, 1962. The bloody colonial conflict caused an estimated one million native Algerian deaths and tens of thousands of deaths on the French and European-Algerian (pied-noir) side, but mortality statistics reveal only part of the war's traumatic legacy. French soldiers sent to “maintain order” in the wake of the terrorist campaign initiated by the FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria in 1954 brought back stories of atrocities they committed. They took part in sweeping roundups of insurgents in the countryside, conducting raids on Algerian villages to root out guerrillas which entailed hostage-taking and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians. Brutal tactics were employed to make the Algerians talk: beatings, rapes, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and electric shocks administered to the suspect's genitals. As early as 1947, Albert Camus had denounced the “Gestapo methods” routinely employed by the French in their colonies of Madagascar and his native Algeria—torture, collective reprisals, executions. “Three years after having felt the effects of a politics of terror, the French take in the news like people who have seen too much,” he charged. “And yet the facts are there, clear and hideous as the truth: we are doing over there the same thing that we reproached the Germans for doing here.”
All of this is alluded to in Resnais's unsettling film from 1963, Muriel, ou le temps d'un retour [Muriel, or the Time of Return]. What is returning here are the repressed memories of World War II, an unstable foundation upon which is layered the more recent history of French atrocities in its former colony. The story takes place in the northern port city of Boulogne, which was bombed heavily during the war. It was actually the screenwriter, Jean Cayrol, who chose the setting: “I situated the story in Boulogne, despite Resnais's doubts, because Boulogne is also a town after a drama. There are two towns, the old one spared by the war and the reconstructed town, the topography of which the old inhabitants cannot recognize… As the town plasters over the effects of the war, so do the inhabitants.”
The ruins are still visible, as this still from the film makes clear, new structures looking out of place and poorly anchored, threatening to topple at any moment. A character in the film underscores the point in a scene included in the trailer, “The building is ready. They get the windows in. But it slides,” he says.
Hélène has invited her old lover Alphonse back for a visit, to settle some unfinished business. He arrives with his young mistress and over a period of days, or perhaps weeks, the two express recriminations that apply as much to the situation of France as to their personal relationship.
Alphonse: Let's not dig up the past.
Hélène: That's why you're here.
Alphonse: I resent you Hélène, for all these memories.
Hélène's stepson Bernard has recently returned from military service in Algeria. He is angry at everyone, including himself, for what he did over there. Muriel is the name that he and his fellow conscripts gave to a girl they suspected of being a terrorist, whom they tortured to death. Bernard speaks of her as if she is still alive, as if she is still in his life, and of course we realize that she is present; the memory of what he did will never leave him. But Resnais could not say this outright in 1963, when de Gaulle's government was actively suppressing the memories of the Algerian war and when the French, like Alphonse, were disinclined to dig up painful memories of the German Occupation, notably their complicity with the occupier. And so the story is revealed only partially, and obliquely, forcing the audience to do the work at peeling away the obfuscations that have been plastered over the war's effects.
The Slow Dissolve
I don't know whether Modiano ever saw Muriel, but his fiction addresses the same gaps in memory, locating these lacunae in a place—the Parisian neighborhoods from which Jews were deported in the war, or vaguely remembered buildings he visited or resided in as a child—in much the same way that Boulogne was employed by Cayrol and Resnais to suggest impermanence. Walking these streets some years later, the narrator of Dora Bruder finds “nothing but a wasteland, itself surrounded by half-demolished walls. On these walls, open to the sky,” he continues, “you could still make out the patterned paper of what was once a bedroom . . .” Modiano's lacunae arise from a different source than Resnais's. Too young to remember the Occupation, but aware of the taint it has left on French history and on his family history (Modiano's father dealt in the Black Market and may well have had dealings with the Gestapo), he attempts to fill in the gaps through repeated acts of the imagination. And yet he will not allow these imaginative recreations to endure. Unlike the books in the Bibliothèque nationale, the holes in Modiano's books are not filled in and the missing pages are gone for good.
In my favorite image from Suspended Sentences, the narrator of the last novella, “Flowers of Ruin” attempts to weave a story, gathering together all the threads he has collected, joining seemingly random events and images the way we do in dreamwork, but it always unravels. Tissue-thin, the cloth dissolves like a scrim, lit from behind. In the theater, this device would reveal the characters onstage, who would spring to life. In Modiano's fiction, the characters dissolve as well.
I hadn't moved from the window. Under the pouring rain, he crossed the street and went to lean against the retaining wall of the steps we had walked down shortly before. And he stood there, unmoving, his back against the wall, his head raised toward the building facade. Rainwater poured onto him from the top of the steps, and his jacket was drenched. But he did not move an inch. At that moment a phenomenon occurred for which I'm still trying to find an explanation: had the street lamp at the top of the steps suddenly gone out? 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 hadn'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 notice 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 that these people really had existed.
Patrick Modiano, “Afterimage,” Suspended Sentences, trans. Mark Polizzotti (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 15.
Albert Camus, “La Contagion,” Combat, 10 May 1947.
James Monaco, Alain Resnais (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 90.
Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder, trans Joanna Kilmartin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 111.
Patrick Modiano, “Flowers of Ruin,” Suspended Sentences, 211.