Patrick Modiano Essay - Critical Essays

Modiano, Patrick


Modiano, Patrick 1945–

Modiano is a French novelist. In his novels he often explores the nature of identity through the experience of a protagonist-narrator involved in a quest for self-knowledge. He coauthored with Louis Malle the screenplay Lacombe Lucien. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

[In Les boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads)] much is mist, a mist not of memory or dream but of the narrator's struggle to create out of a few rags and tatters of experience a comprehensible picture of his father…. [The narrator's] journey into the past brings him very little; it stands rather for an urgent longing to identify himself with his father, and it brings him closer to plotting reasons for his disquiet and his curiosity than to any answers.

The figure of the narrator's father … becomes no clearer. By contrast, the focus becomes stronger to the point of caricature on the father's associates….

These sinister companions, and the murky and dangerous period in which the happenings are set (probably, though this is never stated in so many words, the Occupation), combine to make the narrator's father himself more sinister, more shadowy and in the end more pitiful…. The book's method, in fact, is both delicate and cunning: it is to sidle up to subjects of mystery and horror, indicating them without broaching them….

And in this subtle caution, no doubt, lie both the strength and weakness of Les boulevards de ceinture…. To the extent that its intention is to evoke rather than to explore, it is certainly a success. To approach nearer to the core of the narrator's obsessions would have dispelled the strangeness, and the book's subject is after all his uncertainties.

"Shadow Play," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3693, December 15, 1972, p. 1521.

Peter Prince

Patrick Modiano has a most deft and elegant book in Ring Roads, his third novel. Locating his brief tale of a boy, a Jew, in search of his father in the outskirts of wartime Paris, Mr. Modiano picks fastidiously, and sometimes very funnily, over the twilight society of thieves, forgers, blackmailers and other ruffians who flourished during the Occupation. The book isn't entirely free of those aggressive little thickets of mystification that French writers like to plant at the entrance to their work, as though the reader was expected to pass an IQ exam before being allowed inside. But in this case I think it's well worth sitting it.

Peter Prince, "Euthanasia," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 87, No. 2254, May 31, 1974, p. 776.∗

Francis Steegmuller

Livret de Famille [is] a collection of fifteen first-person episodes from the narrator's life. Is this a work of fiction?… In all [Modiano's previous] novels the first person is largely present, and one finds oneself at times injecting biographical speculation into the fiction, uneasy as to who and what this "I" might be—so young, writing so well about events before his time, portraying with such assurance a host of lurid characters bearing exotic names, and often with a mysterious father in the background. Nevertheless, in the novels events and atmosphere carry one irresistibly forward.

It is not quite the same with the new book. A "livret de famille" is a booklet given to a bridal couple, with spaces for their names, the marriage-date, and the eventual birthdates of their children. One sees how the term can lend itself to a family chronicle, especially when, as in the case of Modiano's—or, at least, the narrator's—parents, the bridegroom gives a false name….

One cannot presume to say that Patrick Modiano has deliberately set out to make himself, in his books, a man of mystery; yet in Livret de famille conjecture constantly takes over. The many dates confuse; the internationalism and the exotic names are kaleidoscopic…. But just as one cannot presume, one cannot complain. So excellently recounted, so vivid, are the great majority of the episodes, that the book as a whole escapes the schematic mould its title and the opening pages had led one to apprehend. The sometimes irritating mysteriousness of it all may well be a key to that success. Modiano is one of the few young novelists writing today in any language to whose new books one looks forward; and whose past work, reread, does not disappoint.

Francis Steegmuller, "Occupational Therapy," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3931, July 15, 1977, p. 872.

Joyce Carleton

Half fact, half fiction, [Livret de famille] is a search for roots, an autobiography in which very precise data of the author's life are fitted like pieces into a patchwork of imaginary memories….

Patrick [the narrator] was born in Paris just as World War II was ending. His Belgian mother and his French Jewish father had survived the Occupation without proper identity papers…. [Most] of the people and places he recalls seem strangely unattached, without much substantial grounding…. [Patrick] lets a certain air of mystery, of the indefinite, pervade his narrative throughout….

Each chapter in this work is a separate story, complete in itself. The book is very enjoyable reading, both funny and sad, and deceptively easy. It is remarkable how Patrick Modiano can anchor his narrative in precise facts, specific dates and places, real people (at least many of them are, one assumes), and yet leave his reader with the haunting feeling of the tenuous, unsubstantial, even dreamlike quality of persons and things….

This book contains echoes of another Modiano work, Les Boulevards de ceinture…. The 1972 novel takes place in wartime Paris, as do parts of Livret de famille, and describes a search through the curfew-dimmed streets of the capital. Thus Patrick Modiano seems to emerge as a young author particularly haunted by the grey years of the nineteen-forties.

Joyce Carleton, "Creative Works: 'Livret de famille'," in The French Review (copyright 1979 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. LII, No. 4, March, 1979, p. 673.

Judith L. Greenberg

In the self-centered seventies the most sacred quest seems to be that of one's real identity, one's inner self. Though he begins his tale with the phrase "I am nothing," the narrator of Rue des Boutiques Obscures shows nothing of the self-indulgence and self-dramatization common to works on this theme. His search is—in all senses of the word—essential; for "Guy Roland," who works with a detective (seeker of lost souls, finder of missing persons), is an amnesiac, in search of his name, his past, his true self. Free of a remembered personal history, he is caught up in the need to know who, where and what he was….

Modiano's latest novel, again treating the search for remembrance, for a past, for a past, for the significance of a life and, by extension, of life itself, has many aspects of a mystery, a detective story.

Judith L. Greenberg, "French: 'Rue des boutiques obscures,'" in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1979, p. 249.


[Rue des Boutiques Obscures] continues the thematics of self-discovery [begun in Modiano's earlier Livret de famille] in a resolutely fictional mode. Guy Roland, the first-person narrator in this story, becomes a detective when, as a victim of amnesia, he consults another one who gives him a name and takes him into the business. Such thematic redundancy suffices to indicate that this is no ordinary "roman policier." In fact, the manner in which the author exploits and explores the conventions of the detective novel to a larger purpose is the singular attraction of this slim volume.

The novel begins as the detective goes out in search of his own past. We are led by the narrator through a labryinthine series of deftly concise conversations, ruminations, documents and inquiries. Through it all we return to the question: how to retrace a life, a personal history, through the palimpsest of reality? (p. 317)

[Modiano's style] tends to be quite straightforward, simple, without luster, as befits the classics in his chosen genre. Yet his narrative technique is skillfully adjusted to the problem he has set for his protagonist and his reader together, and it evokes a problematic experience of ordinary language. The reader is struck by the anomaly of names, the furtiveness of what we call facts, the strange, silent interstices that compose the natural breathing space of routine communication….

Of the conclusion to this novel there is much to be said that cannot be said out of respect for the suspense which is the key to this kind of fiction. Modiano gives that key an interesting new twist which makes his work both more and less than a detective novel. Either way, Modiano's text raises interesting questions about detective fiction in its relation to fiction in general, and still more imposing questions of the sort that narrative fiction directs to life itself. (p. 318)

Andrew J. McKenna, "Reviews: 'Rue des boutiques obscures,'" in The French Review (copyright 1979 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. LIII, No. 2, December, 1979, pp. 317-18.