“I know the life stories of these shadows is of no great interest to anyone, but if I didn’t write it down, no one else would do it”: three early novels by Nobel Prize–winning French author Modiano (Suspended Sentences, 2014, etc.) that look back to the years of the Nazi occupation.
In terms of storytelling, the first novel in the trilogy, La Place de l’Étoile (originally published in 1968)—the title refers to both the Parisian plaza and the requirement that Jews wear stars of David as identification—is the least conventional. It begins in the middle of things: “This was back when I was frittering away my Venezuelan inheritance.” Who is “I,” and what is this Venezuelan treasure? Working backward into the story, Modiano recounts the histories, invented and real, of an alter ego named Raphäel Schlemilovitch, who, in various guises, is revealed to be a Jew who has nothing but admiration for the German occupiers of France: “My God, how handsome were the youths on the far side of the Rhine!” The homoerotic yearning is widely shared: as the story moves along, Schlemilovitch becomes less and less attractive, even as his collaboration is shown to be commonplace. Yet it's also subtle; the presence of the Germans encourages all sorts of bad behavior, including the pornographic impulses of an aristocrat who wishes no less than “to prostitute French literature in its entirety.” It’s a strange adventure, reminiscent at times of the Céline of Castle to Castle. In the second novella, The Night Watch (1969), announcing a favorite theme, Modiano works a puzzle of unfixed identities, its narrator a double agent of whose sympathies we can never quite be sure. “I hereby authorize my biographer to refer to me simply as 'a man,' and wish him luck,” Modiano writes, meaningfully. The third, Ring Roads (1972), extends that puzzle across generations as it depicts more or less ordinary people simply trying to survive.
Fans of Maurice Chevalier won’t be pleased, but Modiano’s admirers will find this early work fascinating.