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Book Review: Pedigree

By (August 14, 2015) No Comment

Pedigree: A Memoir pedigree cover

by Patrick Modiano

translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti

Yale University Press, 2015

The slim volume Pedigree from Yale University Press, one of the latest salvos in the Patrick Modiano onslaught that’s been steadily gearing up since he was handed the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014, comes positively festooned with accolades from some of the highest-profile book critics of the day, names like Michael Dirda, Sam Sacks, Adam Kirsch, and Dwight Garner, all slathering on reviewery adjectives like “compelling,” “elegant,” “absorbing,” and “mesmerizing.” The Modiano Nobel win had all the standard earmarks of the hanging-spitball freakshows occasionally inflicted on the Republic of Letters by the Nobel committee: a literary figure 95 percent of all Western critics have never heard of is chosen, suddenly catapulted into the very front rank of the kind of authors outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, The New Republic, etc., feel duty-bound not only to praise but also to act as if they’ve been praising all along. Critics scurry to figure out who the hell the mystery recipient is, cram frantically in the Rose Reading Room, once again curse the fact that they’re all monoglot Americans, come up with some choice adjectives with which to praise the English-language translations through which they hurriedly read the recipient’s works (“clear” is a nice non-committal example, incontestable by the translator and vague enough to give your readers the impression that you’ve got the translation and the original open side-by-side in front of you, but “confident” or even “pellucid” are popular too, especially if the reviewer is on deadline and a couple of highballs into the evening), and roll out the heavy rhetorical artillery: Imre Kertesz? “Engrossing!” Elfriede Jelinek? “Our foremost sage!” Wislawa Szymborska? (doggedly repeated in the breakfast nook, “Veet-is-slaw-wa …”) “Not for an age, but for all time!”

You’ve got to spare a moment of sympathy for the poor recipients of these occasional psychotic breakdowns; they know perfectly well the incongruity of it all, which is why they invariably look stunned and rumpled when they answer the doorbell the morning after and find a dozen news teams jostling on the sidewalk. Seamus Heaney? Nadine Gordimer? Mario Vargas Llosa? They’re accustomed to awards, and to the gaze of the literary world. For a writer like Patrick Modiano, it’s got to be a very strange new journey.

In this case, it’s every bit as strange for the unsuspecting reader. A big part of the whole annual Nobel phenomenon – the biggest part and the most unjust – is that it transforms the standing of an author without reference to that author’s actual work. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal … they will now not only notice but praise every future work Patrick Modiano publishes. He can no longer go back to a world in which he had to earn anything, even though that’s a world no author should ever under any circumstances leave. And readers thinking, “well, he won the Nobel for literature – he must be really good” as they open Pedigree are going to find themselves mighty puzzled, mighty fast.

In the book’s defense, it’s a memoir, not the fiction the Nobel people clearly had in mind when they gave Modiano the award. And the English-language translation here, by Mark Polizzotti, really is nice and clear. The book (published in French ten years ago with a title that literally translates to “A Pedigree” – and since that reflects the indeterminacy at the heart of the book, this is one of those rare instances where the dropping of a mere article really does make a difference) is Modiano looking back fifty years to his boyhood and rambling through his formative years up until about the age of 20, and the author’s well-practiced ability to dice up his narratives into small, seemingly unrelated bits is on full display throughout. In his novels, this has the effect of making you feel like your sitting in a car with no driver as it slowly rolls down the street. In this memoir, it has the effect of making you feel like you’re dreaming that you’re sitting in a car with no driver as it slowly rolls down the street. There’s no structure; there’s no goal; there’s nobody at the wheel.

Modiano mostly admits it himself. Apart from his brother Rudy’s life and tragically early death (he dies in February 1957 while still a boy), he doesn’t really have much in mind as he moves his pen across the pages of his rough draft:

Apart from my brother, Rudy, his death, I don’t believe that anything I’ll relate here truly matters to me. I’m writing these pages the way one compiles a report or resume, as documentation and to have done with a life that wasn’t my own. It’s just a simple film of deeds and facts. I have nothing to confess or elucidate and I have no interest in soul-searching or self-reflection.

And if you’re expecting that no author would make such claims unless he intended to subvert them in the bulk of his story, you have misjudged your laureate. Instead of cannily looping back to self-reflection, Modiano simply monotones out one thing after another, never examining, never pausing, and, as promised, never reflecting. At one point he’s out with his father when his father stops in front of a private hotel in the Rue Adolphe-Yvon and asks “I wonder who’s living here now.” And for the space of a paragraph, it seems ready to become about something:

I saw him in his office that evening, combing through the street directory. I was intrigued. A decade or so later, I learned that during the Occupation, 6 Rue Adolphe-Yvon, a private hotel that is no longer standing (I returned to that street in 1967 to verify the spot at which we’d stopped: it corresponded to number 6), was the address of the black market “Otto Bureau.” And suddenly the stench of rot blends in with the smells of the riding clubs and dead leaves in the Bois.

But the following line? “I also recall that sometimes on those afternoons my brother, my father, and I would hop a random bus and ride it to the end of the line. Saint-Mande. Porte de Gentilly …” The point of the story? The vague possibility that the building in the Rue Adolphe-Yvon meant something to his father? Non.

And after his father informs him that his brother has died unexpectedly (no details, no aftermath, no reactions from anybody), the two survivors begin spending a bit more time together – the perfect grounds for a father-son story of either heartwarming or infuriating dimensions. Instead, we get nothing of the kind, and not only that, but we get told that we’ll be getting nothing of the kind:

Often my father and I were alone on Saturday evenings. We saw movies at the Champs-Elysees and the Gaumont Palace. One afternoon in June, we were walking – I don’t remember why – on Boulevard Rochechouart. The sun was very strong and we retreated into the darkness of a small movie house, the Delta. At the George V cinema, there was a documentary on the Nuremberg Trials, Hitler’s Executioners: at age thirteen, I discovered images of the extermination camps. Something changed for me that day. And what did my father think? We never talked about it, not even as we left the theater.

As some of those fawning johnny-come-lately reviewers (not one of whom had so much as spoken the words “Patrick Modiano” prior to 2014) correctly pointed out, Modiano specializes in creating a dreamy kind of light fog on the page, a fuzzing-over of precision in favor of a slightly humid atmosphere. He can be effective at it, and he’s effective at it several times during Pedigree:

Nineteen sixty-three. Nineteen sixty-four. The years blend together. Days of indolence, days of rain … Still, I sometimes entered a trancelike state in which I escaped the drabness, a mixture of giddiness and lethargy, like when you walk in the streets in springtime after being up all night.

But that fog lifts so seldom that all but the most ardent Gallophiles will be longing for the sight of dry land. This slim book has a parade of pretty young women, most of whom wander on-stage, dally with our very pretty young narrator, then wander off-stage again without so much as speaking, let alone displaying any complexity of character. Modiano and his father are constantly before us, and the tension between them sometimes surfaces sufficiently to be interesting. But such moments never last, and they’re very nearly swallowed whole by infinite repetitions along the lines of that “Saint Mande … Port de Gentilly …”

In other words, had it not been for the Nobel hoopla, nobody in the world would have contemplated for a moment translating Pedigree into English, let alone printing thousands of copies in the confident expectation of turning a profit. It’s a boring, incredibly distracted sketch of a draft of a memoir, a trifle gleaned half-heartedly from the author’s personal journals. Which will make things all the more awkward when some A-list organ – Harper’s? The New Republic? – rolls out the only-once-a-year term “harrowingly honest.”

And in only three more months? Another lucky winner!