Debarati Sanyal at Public Books:
Patrick Modiano’s reputation as a writer of wartime Paris was sealed last fall by the Nobel Prize, which recognized him “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”1 This is in keeping with Modiano’s own claim that the Nazi occupation and its aftermath form the matrix of his literary imaginings, from La Place de L’Étoile (1968), which catapulted him into literary fame, to his most famous translated novel, Dora Bruder (1997), about a Jewish runaway deported to Auschwitz.2
There is, however, a much longer history to Modiano’s melancholy fiction, with its distinct blend of personal rumination and precarious historical retrieval. Its roots lie in 19th-century Paris, a city so swiftly transformed by modernization that only an “art of memory” could recollect what had been and was no longer there. Charles Baudelaire’s “The Swan” famously recalls those disappeared by modernization:
Paris changes! but nothing in my melancholy
Has stirred! New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone,
Old neighborhoods, all for me become allegory,
And my cherished memories are heavier than rocks.3
For Baudelaire, the modern poet was a symbolic ragpicker, less an idle flaneur than an anxious prowler who collected modernity’s debris and stored it in poetic memory.