Nobel Prize–winner Modiano's first three novels, collected in this appealing omnibus, deftly demonstrate how the Parisian upper class functioned during the Nazi occupation of France in WWII. The novels—"La Place de l'Etoile" (appearing in English for the first time), "The Night Watch," and "Ring Roads"—focus on a class of people who often treated the German occupiers as a temporary nuisance and an opportunity to increase their wealth. Aristocratic but scholarly Schlemilovitch, the main character of "La Place de l'Etoile," is kicked out of his lycee, not for being Jewish but because he is a profligate lothario. An older gentleman named Lévy-Vendôme somehow convinces Schlemilovitch to procure young French girls from the countryside to be sold into the white slave trade. Schlemilovitch finds the girls, but can't bring himself to turn them over to Lévy-Vendôme. Schlemilovitch's Jewish identity eventually causes him difficulty when he runs afoul of officers who reach for their truncheons when they hear the word "culture." "Ring Roads" chronicles a son's desperate struggle to locate his father amid the war's chaotic aftermath. In "The Night Watch," Modiano exposes the corrupt and dangerous side of the French auxiliaries who joined the Gestapo, personified by the torturing inquisitors Monsieur Philibert and the Khedive. Modiano's sharp depiction of daily life and characters, both in and out of the patrician social class during the war, justly solidifies his reputation as one of the world's leading chroniclers of the human condition. (Sept.)
“La Place de l'Etoile . . . is arguably his most explosive.” Alan Riding, The New York Times Book Review
"In 1968, Mr. Modiano published his first novel, 'La Place de l’Étoile' ('The Place of the Star'), which appeared in English in September in Bloomsbury’s The Occupation Trilogy. The book’s narrator is a Jewish swindler and pimp. Its vivacious, baroque style . . . contrasts with its sombre title, which refers both to the Paris square and the spot on their chests where Jews were forced to pin yellow stars. The book immediately put Mr. Modiano on the literary map . . . After 'La Place de l’Étoile,' Mr. Modiano’s books develop a different tone, one more mellow and melancholic, somewhere between sepia and film noir . . . Modiano’s books are like mystery novels, in which the search for information only creates more mysteries." Rachel Donadio, The New York Times
“World War II, the Occupation, and the Holocaust cast their massive shadows forward in time, obscuring the events of the narrator's life . . . Like W.G. Sebald, another European writer haunted by memory and by the history that took place just before he was born, Modiano combines a detective's curiosity with an elegist's melancholy.” Adam Kirsch, New Republic, on Suspended Sentences
“[Modiano] pays complicated, elegiac and almost ghostly tribute to his native city . . . He is obsessed with what we take away from our pasts and what we leave behind. And perhaps most important, with what we only think we've left behind . . . [He] frequently seems a flâneur of consciousness, strolling purposefully through Paris's cache of memories as well as his own.” Dwight Garner, The New York Times, on Suspended Sentences
“Mr Modiano's work obsessively revisits the German occupation of France in the second world war, throwing light on some of the conflict's murkier recesses . . . His first novel, La Place de l'Etoile . . . denounced the home-grown brand of anti-semitism that had made it easy for France's Vichy regime to slide into collaboration. The book took aim at the Gaullist myth that dominated the post-war years, according to which France was a nation of resisters. A year later, La Ronde de Nuit explored the nature of the French Gestapo and its role in the spoliation of Jewish property . . . Mr Modiano's novels are pervaded by a sexual and moral ambivalence and by social and political ambiguity . . . And Paris features as a character in her own right, refusing to surrender the secrets of her past.” The Economist on Suspended Sentences
Until he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, Modiano was not widely known here, but American readers can now start catching up. This volume comprises his first three novels, known collectively as the "Occupation Trilogy," which investigate the ongoing impact of Germany's occupation of Paris during World War II. La Place de L'Étoile (1968) features French Jew Raphael Schlemilovitch, who was born just after the war (like Modiano) but in a mad rant confuses chronology and presents himself as "the official Jew of the Third Reich." Thus does Modiano sober us up to deep-rooted French anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred. In The Night Watch (1969), never before published here, though it appeared in Great Britain in 1972, the protagonist informs on the Resistance for the French Gestapo and on the police for the Resistance and explains his amoral shiftings by saying of his putative biographer, "He won't understand the first thing about this story. Neither do I." Neither do we, as Modiano here demonstrates his powerful penchant for endings that (sometimes realistically, if not always satisfactorily) aren't endings. In Ring Roads (1972), a young man who finds his long-vanished, increasingly servile Jewish father, mutters "I'd be better off thinking about the future." VERDICT Though a lot of background drops out here, Modiano's famously spare style is not entirely in evidence, with the writing feeling positively baroque by comparison. Sometimes over-the-top, these aren't perfect novels, but they are refreshingly (and unsettlingly) unheroic, digging under France's postwar skin to reveal venal behavior, and they raise issues that Modiano continues exploring throughout his work.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (BH)
"I know the life stories of these shadows is of no great interest to anyone, but if I didn't write it down, no one else would do it": three early novels by Nobel Prize-winning French author Modiano (Suspended Sentences, 2014, etc.) that look back to the years of the Nazi occupation. In terms of storytelling, the first novel in the trilogy, La Place de l'Étoile (originally published in 1968)—the title refers to both the Parisian plaza and the requirement that Jews wear stars of David as identification—is the least conventional. It begins in the middle of things: "This was back when I was frittering away my Venezuelan inheritance." Who is "I," and what is this Venezuelan treasure? Working backward into the story, Modiano recounts the histories, invented and real, of an alter ego named Raphäel Schlemilovitch, who, in various guises, is revealed to be a Jew who has nothing but admiration for the German occupiers of France: "My God, how handsome were the youths on the far side of the Rhine!" The homoerotic yearning is widely shared: as the story moves along, Schlemilovitch becomes less and less attractive, even as his collaboration is shown to be commonplace. Yet it's also subtle; the presence of the Germans encourages all sorts of bad behavior, including the pornographic impulses of an aristocrat who wishes no less than "to prostitute French literature in its entirety." It's a strange adventure, reminiscent at times of the Céline of Castle to Castle. In the second novella, The Night Watch (1969), announcing a favorite theme, Modiano works a puzzle of unfixed identities, its narrator a double agent of whose sympathies we can never quite be sure. "I hereby authorize my biographer to refer to me simply as 'a man,' and wish him luck," Modiano writes, meaningfully. The third, Ring Roads (1972), extends that puzzle across generations as it depicts more or less ordinary people simply trying to survive. Fans of Maurice Chevalier won't be pleased, but Modiano's admirers will find this early work fascinating.