An unlived life

This is my review of Pedigree (Folio) by Patrick Modiano.

The publication of a debut novel in his early twenties set Modiano on course for his unexpected winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature almost half a century later. “A Pedigree” differs from his other novels, often attacked as the same tale retold, in being an autobiography of his first twenty-one years. Yet it could be said it is in the same vein as the others, being in essence part of an ongoing search for identity.

In a postscript, he describes how his first two decades formed a life which did not feel like his own – “tout défilait en transparence and je ne pouvais pas encore vivre ma vie”. He portrays this sense of disengagement with “a simple film of facts and gestures” in which there is nothing to confess or clarify, he has no interest in introspection or examining his conscience. The more things are obscure or inexplicable, the more interest they hold for him, whereas he tends to look for mysteries where there are none. The only event which Modiano admits to having affected him deeply is the death of his brother, aged ten, for which he provides no explanation.

As a result, the prose is often reduced to reeling off lists of his mother’s friends, his father’s business associates, the books he has read, and so on, a tendency also very noticeable in “Dora Bruder”, the only other book of his I have read. The problem with this approach is that it makes for an intolerably boring read.

Modiano’s early life was clearly dysfunctional and in many respects sad. Yet this must also have been very significant in forming him as a person and a writer, and could surely have been presented in a much more moving and gripping way. Estranged from early on, his parents occupied two apartments, one above the other, with a connecting internal staircase which was initially walled in and then destroyed when the animosity grew more intense. Modiano’s mother was a Flemish actress with a maternal love bypass, often so strapped for cash that she begged from friends or encouraged her son to steal goods for sale. She is portrayed as almost cruel in her neglectfulness, yet her friendship with the avant garde writer Queneau may have given Modiano the vital break in his writing career.

By contrast, his Jewish father was insensitive in his control-freakery, dismissing his son’s literary ambitions and bent on giving him a good academic education, yet always in grim boarding schools. Modiano wonders what drove this obsession to get his son out of his life on his own terms, and imagines “une autre vie” in which as adults they could have walked openly arm in arm, the father delighting in his son’s success, the son discovering details of his father’s mysterious path. Yet, the father’s Jewish origins must also have shaped Modiano’s writing. Escaping deportation from Paris in an undercover life selling items on the black market, the father went on to become a financial backer of shady deals, which cannot have been very successful since the bailiffs sometimes came to call.

The book contains some striking passages which break the mould of tedium when least expected, but for me these are pearls in a barren, disjointed series of lists and descriptions which make a short novel seem interminable. The ideas behind Modiano’s work, the attempt to write a different type of novel are interesting, but reaching the end left me with a sense of relief, akin to no longer being poked in the eye.

⭐⭐ 2 Stars

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