Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano has said that his many fictions are all variations of the same story. Pedigree, his memoir, is the theme. In this rare glimpse into the life of Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano, the author takes up his pen to tell his personal story. He addresses his early years—shadowy times in postwar Paris that haunt his memory and have inspired his world-cherished body of fiction. In the spare, absorbing, and sometimes dreamlike prose that translator Mark Polizzotti captures unerringly, Modiano offers a memoir of his first twenty-one years. Termed one of his “finest books” by the Guardian, Pedigree is both a personal exploration and a luminous portrait of a world gone by. Pedigree sheds light on the childhood and adolescence that Modiano explores in Suspended Sentences,Dora Bruder, and other novels. In this work he re-creates the louche, unstable, colorful world of his parents under the German Occupation; his childhood in a household of circus performers and gangsters; and his formative friendship with the writer Raymond Queneau. While acknowledging that memory is never assured, Modiano recalls with painful clarity the most haunting moments of his early life, such as the death of his ten-year-old brother. Pedigree, Modiano’s only memoir, is a gift to his readers and a master key to the themes that have inspired his writing life.
About the Author
Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature and an internationally beloved novelist, lives in Paris, France. Mark Polizzotti has translated more than forty books from the French and is director of the publications program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Read an Excerpt
By Patrick Modiano, MARK POLIZZOTTI
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2005 Editions Gallimard, Paris
All rights reserved.
I was born on July 30, 1945, at 11 Allée Marguerite in Boulogne-Billancourt, to a Jewish man and a Flemish woman who had met in Paris under the Occupation. I write "Jewish" without really knowing what the word meant to my father, and because at the time it was what appeared on the identity papers. Periods of great turbulence often lead to rash encounters, with the result that I've never felt like a legitimate son, much less an heir.
My mother was born in 1918 in Antwerp. She spent her childhood in a suburb of that city, between Kiel and Hoboken. Her father was a laborer, then assistant surveyor. Her maternal grandfather, Louis Bogaerts, was a dockworker; he posed for the statue of the longshoreman by Constantin Meunier that stands in front of the Antwerp city hall. I've kept his loonboek for the year 1913, in which he recorded the names of all the ships he unloaded: the Michigan, the Elisabethville, the Santa Anna ... He died on the job, at around age sixty-five, from a fall.
As a teenager, my mother joined the Faucons Rouges youth group. She worked for the gas company. In the evenings, she took drama classes. In 1938, she was signed by the filmmaker and producer Jan Vanderheyden to act in his Flemish "comedies." Four films between 1938 and 1941. She was a chorus girl in music hall revues in Antwerp and Brussels; there were many German refugees among the dancers and artists. In Antwerp, she shared a small house on Horenstraat with two friends: a dancer, Joppie Van Allen, and Leon Lemmens, who was more or less the secretary and shill of a rich homosexual, the baron Jean L., and who would be killed in a bombardment in Ostend in May 1940. Her best friend was a young decorator, Lon Landau, whom she'd meet again in Brussels in 1942 wearing the yellow star.
I'm trying to follow chronological order, for want of other reference points. In 1940, once Belgium was occupied, she lived in Brussels. She became engaged to a certain Georges Niels, who at age twenty managed a hotel, the Canterbury. The hotel restaurant was partly commandeered by officers of the Propaganda-Staffel. My mother lived in the Canterbury and met various people there. I know nothing about all those people. She worked in radio, playing in Flemish broadcasts. She was hired by a theater in Ghent. In June 1941, she was in a theatrical tour of the ports along the Atlantic and the English Channel, performing for Flemish workers of the Organisation Todt and, farther north, in Hazebrouck, for German airmen.
She was a pretty girl with an arid heart. Her fiancé had given her a chow-chow, but she didn't take care of it and left it with various people, as she would later do with me. The chow-chow killed itself by leaping from a window. The dog appears in two or three photos, and I have to admit that he touches me deeply and that I feel a great kinship with him.
Georges Niel's parents, rich hotel owners from Brussels, did not want their son to marry her. She decided to leave Belgium. The Germans intended to send her to film school in Berlin, but a young officer from the Propaganda-Staffel whom she'd met in the Canterbury got her out of that predicament by sending her to Paris, to Continental Films, a production company, run by Alfred Greven.
She arrived in Paris in June 1942. Greven gave her a screen test at the Billancourt studios, but it wasn't very convincing. She worked in the "dubbing" department at Continental, writing Dutch subtitles for the French films the company produced. She became the girlfriend of Aurel Bischoff, one of Greven's assistants.
In Paris, she lived in a room at 15 Quai de Conti, in an apartment rented by an antiques dealer from Brussels and his friend Jean de B., whom I can picture as a teenager, with a mother and sisters in a chateau in the heart of Poitou, writing fervent letters to Jean Cocteau in secret. Through Jean de B., my mother met a young German, Klaus Valentiner, who had secured a cushy administrative post. He lived in a studio on the Quai Voltaire and, in his leisure time, read the latest novels by Evelyn Waugh. He was later sent to the Russian Front and was killed.
Other visitors to the Quai de Conti apartment included a young Russian, Georges d'Ismailoff, who was tubercular but always went out into the frozen winters of the Occupation without an overcoat. A Greek, Christos Bellos: he had missed the last ship leaving for America, where he was supposed to join a friend. A girl of the same age, Geneviève Vaudoyer. All that remains of them are their names. Geneviève Vaudoyer and her father, Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, were the first French bourgeois family to invite my mother to their home. Geneviève Vaudoyer introduced my mother to Arletty, who also lived on the Quai de Conti, in the building next door to number 15. Arletty took my mother under her wing.
I hope I can be forgiven all these names, and others to follow. I'm a dog who pretends to have a pedigree. My mother and father didn't belong to any particular milieu. So aimless were they, so unsettled, that I'm straining to find a few markers, a few beacons in this quicksand, as one might attempt to fill in with half-smudged letters a census form or administrative questionnaire.
My father was born in 1912, in Square Pétrelle in Paris, on the border of the 9th and 10th arrondissements. His father was originally from Thessaloniki and belonged to a Jewish family from Tuscany established under the Ottoman Empire. Cousins in London, Alexandria, Milan, Budapest. Four of my father's cousins, Carlo, Grazia, Giacomo, and his wife, Mary, would be murdered by the SS in Italy, in Arona, on Lake Maggiore, in September 1943. My grandfather left Thessaloniki when he was a child and went to Alexandria. But after several years, he left for Venezuela. I believe he had cut all ties with his family and background. He became involved in the pearl trade in Margarita Island, then ran a thrift shop in Caracas. After Venezuela, he settled in Paris in 1903. He ran an antiques shop at 5 Rue de Châteaudun, where he sold objets d'art from China and Japan. He held a Spanish passport, and until the day he died he would be registered at the Spanish consulate in Paris, whereas his forebears, as "Tuscan subjects," had been under the protection of the French, English, and then Austrian consulates. I've kept several of his passports, one of which was issued by the Spanish consulate in Alexandria. And a certificate, drawn up in Caracas in 1894, attesting that he was a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. My grandmother was born in the Pas-de-Calais. In 1916, her father lived in a suburb of Nottingham. But after her marriage, she adopted Spanish citizenship.
My father lost his father when he was four. Childhood in the 10th arrondissement, Cité d'Hauteville. Collège Chaptal, where he was a boarder — even on weekends, he told me. And from his dormitory he could hear the music of the street carnival, on the median strip along Boulevard des Batignolles. He never took his baccalaureate exam. As a teenager and young adult, he was left to his own devices. By age sixteen, he and his friends were hanging out at the Hôtel Bohy-Lafayette, the bars of Faubourg Montmartre, the Cadet, the Luna Park. His name was Alberto, but they called him Aldo. At age eighteen, he began smuggling petroleum, sneaking drums of it into Paris undetected by the authorities. At nineteen, he asked a manager of the Saint-Phalle bank to underwrite his "financial" operations, so persuasively that the latter agreed to back him. But the affair went sour, as my father was a minor, and the law stepped in. At age twenty-four, he rented a room at 33 Avenue Montaigne and, according to certain documents I've preserved, he often traveled to London to help form a company called Bravisco Ltd. His mother died in 1937 in a boardinghouse on Rue Roquépine, where he had lived for a time with his brother Ralph. Then he had taken a room in the Hôtel Terminus, near the Gare Saint-Lazare, which he'd left without settling his bill. Just before the war, he took over management of a shop selling stockings and perfume at 71 Boulevard Malesherbes. It seems he was then residing on Rue Frédéric-Bastiat, in the 8th.
And war broke out at a time when he had no capital whatsoever and was already living by his wits. In 1940, he had his mail sent to the Hôtel Victor-Emmanuel III at 24 Rue de Ponthieu. In a letter of that year to his brother Ralph, sent from Angoulême where he was stationed in an artillery regiment, he mentioned a chandelier that they'd pawned. In another letter, he asked to have the Courier des pétroles forwarded to him in Angoulême. In 1937–39, he was in "business" with a certain Enriquez, the Société Royalieu, dealing in Romanian petroleum.
The fall of France in June 1940 caught him in his barracks in Angoulême. He was not taken away in the mass of prisoners, as the Germans didn't arrive in Angoulême until after the armistice was signed. He took refuge in Les Sablesd'Olonne, where he stayed until September. There he ran into his friend Henri Lagroua and two girls they knew, one called Suzanne and the other Gysèle Hollerich, a dancer at the Tabarin.
Back in Paris, he did not register with the authorities as a Jew. He lived with his brother Ralph, at the home of Ralph's girlfriend, a Mauritian with a British passport. The apartment was at 5 Rue des Saussaies, right next to the Gestapo. Because of her British passport, the Mauritian had to appear at police headquarters every week; she would be detained for several months in Besançon and Vittel as an "Englishwoman." My father had a girlfriend, Hela H., a German Jew who had been engaged to Billy Wilder back in Berlin. They were picked up during a raid one evening in February 1942, in a restaurant on Rue de Marignan, during an identity check — which were frequent that month because of the new regulations forbidding Jews from being out on the street or in public after 8 P.M. My father and his girlfriend were not carrying any papers. They were carted off in a Black Maria by police inspectors, who brought them to Rue Greffulhe for "verification," before a certain Superintendent Schweblin. My father had to state his identity. He got separated from his girlfriend and managed to escape as they were about to transfer him to the "Depot," the holding tank, taking advantage of a moment when the hall light went out. Hela H. would be released from the Depot the next day, probably on a word from a friend of her father's. Who? I've often wondered. After his escape, my father hid under the staircase of a building on Rue des Mathurins, trying not to attract the notice of the concierge. He spent the night there because of the curfew. In the morning, he went home to 5 Rue des Saussaies. Then he hid out with the Mauritian and his brother Ralph in a hotel, the Alcyon de Breteuil, whose manageress was the mother of a friend of theirs. Later, he lived with Hela H. in a furnished room on Square Villaret-de-Joyeuse and at the Marronniers on Rue de Chazelles.
Among the people he knew at the time, the ones I've managed to identify are Henri Lagroua; Sacha Gordine; Freddie McEvoy, an Australian bobsled champion and racing driver with whom he shared an "office" on the Champs-Elysées right after the war (I've never been able to determine the name of the company); a certain Jean Koporindé, 189 Rue de la Pompe; Geza Pellmont; Toddie Werner (who called herself "Mme Sahuque") and her friend Hessien (Liselotte); and a Russian girl, Kissa Kuprin, daughter of the writer Aleksandr Kuprin. She had acted in a few films and in one of Roger Vitrac's plays, Les Demoiselles du large. Flory Francken, aka Nardus, whom my father called Flo, was the daughter of a Dutch painter. She had spent her childhood and adolescence in Tunisia, then had come to Paris and hung out in Montparnasse. In 1938, she'd been implicated in a minor incident that had landed her in criminal court, and in 1940 she had married the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa. During the Occupation, she was close to the actress Dita Parlo, who had starred in L'Atalante, and her lover Dr. Fuchs, one of the directors of the so-called Otto Bureau, the most important of the black market "purchasing services," located at 6 Rue Adolphe-Yvon in the 16th arrondissement.
This was more or less the world in which my father circulated. Demimonde? Underworld? Before she is lost in the cold night of oblivion, I'll mention another Russian, who was his girlfriend at the time: Galina "Gay" Orloff. She had immigrated to the United States when very young. At twenty, she was dancing in a burlesque club in Florida, where she met a small, dark man, very sentimental and courteous, whose mistress she became: a certain Lucky Luciano. Back in Paris, she had worked as a model and married to obtain French citizenship. At the start of the Occupation, she lived with a Chilean "secretary of legation," Pedro Eyzaguirre, then on her own at the Hôtel Chateaubriand on Rue du Cirque, where my father often went to see her. A few months after I was born she gave me a teddy bear that I long held onto as a talisman and my only souvenir of an absent mother. She took her life on February 12, 1948, at age thirty-four. She is buried in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois.
The more I draw up this list of names and call the roll in an empty garrison, the more my head spins and my breath grows short. Curious individuals. Curious times, neither fish nor fowl. And my parents came to know each other during that period, among those people who were like them. Two lost, heedless butterflies in the midst of an indifferent city. Die Stadt ohne Blick. But there's nothing I can do about it: that's the soil — or the dung — from which I emerged. Most of the scraps of their lives that I've been able to gather, I get from my mother. But there was much she didn't know about the murky, clandestine world of the black market in which my father traveled by force of circumstance. She was unaware of most of it. And he took his secrets to the grave.
They met one evening in October 1942, at the home of Toddie Werner, aka Mme Sahuque, at 28 Rue Scheffer, 16th arrondissement. My father was carrying an identity card in the name of his friend Henri Lagroua. On the glass door of the concierge's lodge at 15 Quai de Conti, the name "Henri Lagroua" had been listed among the tenants since the Occupation, next to the words "fourth floor." When I was a child, I asked the concierge who this "Henri Lagroua" was. He answered, "Your father." This dual identity had impressed me at the time. Much later, I learned that during that period he'd used other names by which certain people still knew him well after the war. But names end up becoming detached from the poor mortals who bore them and they glimmer in our imaginations like distant stars. My mother introduced my father to Jean de B. and her friends. They thought there was something "weird and South American" about him and gently cautioned my mother to "be careful." She repeated this to my father, who joked that the next time he would "look even weirder" and "scare them even worse."
He was not South American, but having no legal existence, he lived off the black market. My mother would pick him up at one of the tiny offices reached via the multitude of elevators along the arcades of the Lido. He was always there with several others whose names I don't know. He was mainly in touch with a "purchasing service" at 53 Avenue Hoche, the office of two Armenian brothers he'd known before the war: Alexandre and Ivan S. Among the goods he delivered to them were entire truckloads of old ball bearings lifted from expired stock of the SKF company, which would sit uselessly in a warehouse in Saint-Ouen, gathering rust. In the course of my research, I came across the names of a few individuals who worked at 53 Avenue Hoche — Baron Wolff, Dante Vannuchi, Doctor Patt, "Alberto" — and wondered whether these weren't just more of my father's pseudonyms. It was in this purchasing service on Avenue Hoche that he met a certain André Gabison, the manager of the establishment, whom he often mentioned to my mother. I once got hold of a list of German Special Forces agents dating from 1945, which contained a note about this man: Gabison, André. Italian national, born 1907. Merchant. Passport no. 13755, issued in Paris on 11/18/42, listing him as a Tunisian businessman. Since 1940, associate of Richir (purchasing service, 53 Avenue Hoche). In 1942, in St. Sebastian as Richir's contact. In April 1944, worked under the command of a certain Rados of the SD; traveled frequently between Hendaye and Paris. In August 1944, reported as belonging to the sixth section of the Madrid SD under the command of Martin Maywald. Address: Calle Jorge Juan 17, Madrid (tel.: 50-222).
Excerpted from Pedigree by Patrick Modiano, MARK POLIZZOTTI. Copyright © 2005 Editions Gallimard, Paris. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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A conversation with translator Mark Polizzotti
Pedigree is a late work for Patrick Modiano that deals with his youth. What do we learn about him?
Several things that I believe are essential to understanding Modiano’s fictions. First, just how closely certain key recurring episodes in his novels are patterned on real events from his early life, and how profoundly they have shaped his sensibility. But also we learn about the context in which he grew up. For instance, certain areas of Paris—the Bois de Boulogne, or particular streets in the 6th or 16th arrondissement—show up frequently in his works; this memoir gives the backstory. More significantly, Modiano alludes in various novels to his problematic relations with his absentee mother and distant but controlling father; only after reading Pedigree did I truly grasp that complicated and heartbreaking dynamic.
Winning the Nobel Prize in 2014 certainly changed the fortune of Modiano’s literary career. How do you see his work in the tradition of Nobel laureates?
One of the things that most appeals to me about Modiano’s writing is its apparent modesty—or rather, its ability to treat some of the great issues of the twentieth century, such as human responsibility in times of crisis or the vicissitudes of identity, without grandstanding or self-conscious profundity. Unlike many Nobel winners, his work does not proclaim its importance, but instead remains on a personal, human scale; the more universal significance of his writings is read, as it were, between the lines. This deceptively simple, “local” quality makes his work, to my mind, much more accessible and enjoyable to read than the works of many recent laureates—but no less deserving of the honor.