This is my review of Dora Bruder (Folio (Gallimard)) by Patrick Modiano.
In an example of "autofiction", "fictionalizing a real event in a writer's life", Modiano is obsessed for years by his chance discovery in a Paris newspaper dating from December 1941 of a "missing person's notice" for the fifteen-year-old Dora Bruder. She is the only daughter of Jewish immigrants who have sent her to a local Catholic boarding school perhaps partly in an attempt to protect her. Half-Jewish himself, the author readily identifies with the poignancy of her position in seizing a brief freedom before the largescale "round-up" of Jews, including women and children, the following year.
Modiano embarks on a forensic study of records to find out more about her, made hard by the widespread destruction of documents once it was clear that the Nazis had lost. He fills the gaps with speculation which I often found irritating since it is based on such thin data: did she travel between home and school by metro, with or without her parents, and by which stations? As he traces the streets she must have frequented, repeatedly wandering them himself in a mood of reflective nostalgia, I began to wish he had included a few maps and photographs. With his interest extending to her Jewish neighbours, he notes how large areas of the locality have been demolished as if in an attempt to erase some of the guilt of French involvement in the holocaust. At the same time, he manages to weave in experiences from his own troubled teenage, even drawing parallels with his brief arrest for causing a "breach of the peace" with his father and his running away from home. He is annoyingly vague about these events, for which ironically he has the details.
There is great potential in his approach of trying to piece together the past, exploring half-memories and lingering influences of previous lives conducted in streets which are partly remarkably unchanged, partly derelict, partly superimposed by a new wave of construction and a heedless modern existence. It could be argued that the factual description and heavy reliance on speculation highlight the pathos of the theme: that people could be deported to Auchwitz for omitting to wear a yellow star often enough for mean-spirited neighbours to notice. Yet for me, the banality and most of all the excessive repetition of details were at times intolerable. Modiano's insistence on providing several times over, for instance, precise addresses and information on whether street numbers are odd or even made me wonder if he had OCD. Detractors have criticised the fact that many of Modiano's novels have the same basic approach of gathering information to trace the past of a missing person, and this deters me from reading more of his work, apart from his autobiographical "Un Pedigree" (for another book group) although his straightforward prose is good practice for improving one's French.
Some reviewers have compared Modiano's work to Sebald's "Austerlitz", which for me was a much more striking, impressively original and moving work, more worthy, I would have said, of a Nobel Prize.