Book review: Pedigree

LAST October, the Swedish Academy stunned the world of letters with its announcement that France’s Patrick Modiano had been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Though not an entirely obscure choice — over a four-decade career, he’d already won most of France’s highest honours, including, in 1978, the Prix Goncour — the fact that so little of his output was available in English meant that few had considered him a serious candidate.

According to the academy’s spokesman, Peter Englund, they had chosen to celebrate the author’s remarkable “art of memory” and acclaimed him as “a Marcel Proust of our time”. Pedigree makes sense of, and at the same time challenges, such statements.

To call this an autobiography is almost missing the point. Modiano has attempted something breathtaking: to capture on paper nothing less than the chaos of memory. This book is a collection of shards that the author sifts through and collates in an effort to gain a greater understanding and acceptance of who he is and where he came from.

“Apart from my brother, Rudy, his death, I do not believe that anything I will relate here truly matters to me. I am writing these pages the way one compiles a report or résumé, as documentation and to have done with a life that was not my own. It’s just a simple film of deeds and facts.”

Nothing is avoided, but neither is anything very deeply explored. The tone has a forced coldness, as if keeping to the surfaces is a method of self-preservation. Yet the details do accumulate, to gradually reveal a childhood quite horrific in its neglect and deprivation. It doesn’t make for easy reading. What elevates Pedigree into the realms of the remarkable is its honesty in the face of failure.

Certain flashes of the past live as the barest sentence: a name dropped, a place or event, a grasped moment. Others fit together to form an acceptable chronology if not quite a narrative. The author lets it all come, like tide.

From these glimpses, a world slowly forms, featuring a cast of dozens, ne’er-do-wells and hangers-on that he offers up, counting on the notion that any evidence of their existence will somehow emphasise and maybe justify the reality of his own.

The unwanted baby of a Flemish actress and a part-Jewish black marketeer who’d survived the war on the run from all sides, he is left, virtually from infancy, to fend for himself, abandoned to grandparents, babysitters, the charity of friends, and low-rent boarding schools.

Throughout the 21 years charted here, his mother flits in and out of his life with occasional cruelty. His father, the dubious and always scheming businessman, is slightly more supportive, if only in a meagre financial sense, until a second marriage turns him into a constant adversary.

A ferocious survival instinct sees the young Modiano keep questionable company, steal to eat, and grab comfort where and when he can. And only dreams of a literary career sustain him.

“Sometimes,” he writes, “I would like to go back in time and relive those years better than I lived them then. But how?” For readers new to this astonishing writer, Pedigree is probably not the place to begin. The past year has seen a number of his works translated for English audiences, and his novels are short, dense and, in their best moments, transcendent.

Dora Bruder, Missing Person and Honeymoon all concern themselves, at a basic level, with notions of identity, and all present Modiano at his most essential. Coming to Pedigree after some exposure to his fiction enhances this short, stark and stunning memoir nearly beyond measure and allows for a fuller appreciation of its depths.

* Pedigree, Patrick Modiano, Translated by Mark Polizzotti, MacLehose Press, ebook €8.99


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