Patrick Modiano Francis Steegmuller - Essay

Francis Steegmuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.