“I am nothing,” the narrator of Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person confesses at one point, “nothing but a silhouette.” It’s a typical moment for a Modiano novel: an unnamed protagonist reckoning with the breakdown of his sense of identity. Throughout his work, the figures that recur are blank, thinned-out, flattened. They suffer from memory loss, or from suffusions of nostalgia so intense that basic details of the past are dissolved in pure feeling or mourning. Modiano deploys motifs from detective novels—his characters are always searching for missing persons—but these trails inevitably lead to examinations of their own lost lovers or childhood homes. Written over a period of five decades, his books, which now total over two dozen, often feel like continuations of one extended introspective effort. In Missing Person (1978), the narrator is an amnesiac private investigator who searches for his former self. In Youth (1981) and Out of the Dark (1995), his narrators become preoccupied with recalling and making sense of an old breakup.
These are old preoccupations for French novelists—Alain Robbe-Grillet repurposed the detective novel for explorations of identity half a century ago in The Erasers (1955), a foundational work of the nouveau roman—but for Modiano, physical environments are less abstract than they were for previous generations. His narrators note the streets, buildings, interiors, and objects that appear, one after another, in their purview. They meticulously outline urban maps and day-by-day schedules. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Modiano speaks of looking up old Parisian telephone directories, particularly ones that listed names by street or building number, in order to recover a sense of cities past. “I had the feeling as I turned the pages,” he said, “that I was looking at an X-ray of the city—a submerged city like Atlantis—and breathing in the scent of time.” Within these grids and geometries, Modiano’s narrators test the emotional distances that separate them from these landscapes that were once very familiar. They measure the degree of alienation they feel within these environments that seem at once accommodating of, and entirely oblivious to, these narrators’ efforts to revive their ties to them. These narrators come to terms not only with their loss of a stable sense of self, but also, just as importantly, with the extent to which their communities and environments are indifferent to them. In the face of this indifference, even their existential dread seems insignificant.
Though winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014 granted Modiano an international fame his spare, quiet fiction was never otherwise going to garner, his specific innovations as a novelist have been less noted. In his obsessive return to the streetscapes of Paris, he is an heir to the great urban novelists of the 19th century, like Balzac. But he is someone for whom the city resists memory and exudes transience. Though silted and encrusted with the filth of years, Modiano’s Paris is illegible as a record of the past. The drama of each novel arises from his protagonists attempting to counter this illegibility, to fuse their unstable selves with the fugitive years unrecorded in the facades and tangled network of streets, only extant in the out-of-date phone books where names attached to them.
Here, in Missing Person, the narrator wanders down a street and tries to imagine himself playing there as a child:
There is a woman at one of the ground floor windows on the corner of Rude and Saigon Street. The sun is shining and children are playing ball on the pavement at some distance from her. You ceaselessly hear the children shout “Pedro,” since that’s the name of one of these children and the others keep calling out to him during the game. Projected by these clear voices, “Pedro” echoes strangely through the street.
For Modiano, to reconstruct one’s past is, ideally, to fall back into symbiosis with a previously familiar environment. It is to picture oneself as one among a myriad of pixels that constellate to form the larger image of this place. Modiano’s narrator describes this street with self-conscious precision; he places human bodies within it as carefully as the streets and buildings. In this passage, he tries to imagine a younger version of himself—who he believes might have been named Pedro—playing with other children who live on this block. Pedro, the boy who might be the amnesiac narrator’s former self, might no longer have any living witnesses to his childhood. In place of these witnesses, the narrator tries to give this boy some sense of particularity by imagining how the sound of his childhood games may have been caught and modified by the shape of the street itself.
This effort brings Modiano’s narrator some solace. Yet it also makes him realize how vague and indefinite are such traces of his having, perhaps, inhabited one of these buildings. Instead of conjuring up Pedro’s own voice, the narrator is only able to imagine groups of generic children calling out to him; instead of picturing these children themselves, he can only reconstruct the possible resonances of their voices against the buildings that also echo the sound of his own voice. These environments are so accommodating of his own, and of anybody else’s, self-expression, that in the end they seem wholly unmarked by their inhabitants. Rather than preserve these inhabitants’ particularity, they appear to constantly erase it. “I had already lived my life and now I was a ghost floating in the warm Saturday evening air,” Modiano’s narrator says elsewhere in Missing Person.
The oscillation between the charged history of the buildings and their chilled impersonality owes something to the historical backdrop of his novels. The Holocaust is the founding trauma of Modiano’s novels. In each of them, its aftereffects loom somewhere right beyond the narrator’s field of vision. In Out of the Dark, one of the narrator’s friends survived the war by fleeing from “somewhere in the middle of the tangled borders of Austria-Hungary, Poland, and Russia.” “His life would have made a good subject for a novel,” Modiano’s narrator comments. But that isn’t a novel this narrator can write, or even readily imagine: having been born, as he later remarks, “during the summer of 1945.” In Missing Person, Modiano’s amnesiac protagonist gradually realizes that he probably lost his memory during the forties while trying to escape from France to Switzerland under an assumed name during the war.
Modiano turns the urban environment into something charged with vague and indistinct memories of the European catastrophe. If there is something overly portentous in his repeated invocation, throughout the fifty-odd years of his career, of the Holocaust as an absent cause for this sense of transience, there is nothing mawkish about it, and Modiano never indulges in the theatrics that plague American novelists writing about the same issues, like Foer or Krauss. His singular talent lies in the fact that the Holocaust is, for him, an increasingly distant and obscure event—the tragedy at once enhanced and canceled by its gradual disappearance from the frivolous cities it once haunted. The architecture at once registers and is impervious to its part in the past. It seems to drive its inhabitants to dredge up moments from this past in order to resist their dissolution into the empty flux of history, without giving them much hope of satisfaction or redemption. These novels’ narrators struggle to resist their surroundings’ and their own detachment from the past events they managed to survive. La Place de l’Etoile (1968), Modiano’s first novel, sends its narrator traveling around German-occupied France—and then all the way to Israel—in a sardonic search for some community with which he could still identify. The narrator of Dora Bruder (1997) reconstructs the life of a Jewish adolescent killed in the Holocaust who used to inhabit his apartment building. Dora died in a concentration camp after she ran away, twice, from the local Catholic boarding school where she was hiding under an assumed identity. The narrator (nameless, as usual) comes across Dora’s name in a missing persons ad from the forties. He is moved both by the ad itself—published in the midst of the war, all but breaking the illusion that Dora was Christian—and by the fact that he now lives near her old home. He begins to imagine Dora’s presence in Paris, mulling over the mixture of despair and teenage rebellion that, he imagines, would have led to her flight from the convent. He tries to reconstruct Dora’s itinerary during the weeks between her successive escapes and recaptures. He also fantasizes about how, even before he knew about Dora, their lives were already mingling together:
In 1965 I knew nothing about Dora Bruder. But today, thirty years later, it seems to me that all these times when I waited in the cafes of Ornano Square, or when I followed the same path—down Mont-Cenis toward the hotels of Montmartre: the Roma, the Alsina or the Terrasse on Caulaincourt street—or when I captured those fleeting impressions that have stayed with me: a spring night when one could hear someone shouting under the trees of Clignancourt square, and that winter when one heard voices while walking down toward Simplon and the boulevard Ornano—it seems to me that all that was not accidental. Perhaps, without yet being fully conscious of it, I was following Dora Bruder and her parents. They were still there, like latticework.
He is led back to her because, without knowing who she was, he has been reenacting her habits. Yet this narrator also highlights the effort that he needs to make to imagine Dora’s past itineraries as possible expressions of who she was. Reenacting a version of her everyday life for weeks and months, he dimly intuited her presence but never quite articulated it to himself. By the time he encounters these traces of her, they have been almost completely blurred out of existence, despite the ties this woman must have had to these streets and buildings. These surroundings make it possible for him to envision her, in some fashion, but they also remind him of how readily her particular presence is exchanged for the presence of others.
The implacable serenity of the city itself comes to be freighted with a history it superficially refuses. In a fugue of thought, the narrator imagines Dora, and other “children with Polish, Russian, Romanian names” killed by the Nazis, as “so Parisian that they blended into the facades of these buildings and pavements, into these infinite gradations of gray that only exist in Paris.” As he faces the paucity of the emotional and intellectual means by which he commemorates Dora, and the many children like her, it leads him to an increasing awareness of his own limited long-term creative or expressive agency. Imagining his own eventual erasure from the city, and the idea that someone in the future, too, might become haunted by this erasure, solidifies his bond to Dora.
The climaxes of Modiano’s novels often consist in accepting this sense of contingency and abandonment. They also consist in transposing what is at first merely a frustration with unresponsive material objects and environments into acknowledgements of the similar indifference of human beings. In the final sequence of Out of the Dark, Modiano’s narrator is walking around Paris and does a double take. Across the street, he sees someone who looks like a woman he knew fifteen years earlier. Years ago, he helped this woman steal her boyfriend’s money and run away to London. They had a brief affair until one day he woke up on his own, guessing she’d left him for one of their new British friends. The unnamed narrator has spent the whole past course of this novel painstakingly trying to reconstruct who this woman was, and how much she might have meant to him. Now she, or someone like her, appears before him, embodying all the questions and worries he was not sure how to express.
Modiano’s narrator follows this passer-by—maybe his former lover, and maybe a stranger—to an apartment building. Later that night, he crashes a party in one of these apartments. Eventually the person he saw in the street shows up. He talks to her, making allusions to which his old lover would respond. At first his guest claims not to recognize him. Finally, she admits that she does. They walk outside, kiss in a car, and part again. The climax of the novel—and its sense of revelation—comes from the rapidity with which he and this woman let go of each other after this brief meeting, admitting to each other how unlikely it is to recur. “If we see each other every fifteen years,” she tells him, “you might not recognize me next time”—and he agrees. This face-to-face encounter reminds him of the casual way in which they came together and left each other in the first place; a casualness that his prior narrative could not fully admit to or capture. He had never been an important presence in her life. The degree to which she may have thrown his existence out of joint—or, indeed, the sensitivity with which he tried to recall her—cannot change that. Walking around her old neighborhood some time later, Modiano’s narrator sees that it, too, is now forgotten and deserted. “Once there was a succession of cafes, movie theaters, and garages along here. You can still make out their signs. One of them is still lit, like a night-light, for nothing.” Recognizing himself in this futile night-light seems to give him relief.
These partly self-mocking, partly sincere struggles with nostalgia make Modiano sound like W. G. Sebald. The resemblance is more than superficial. Like Sebald, Modiano represents nostalgia as an oceanic environment within which his narrators fight for some autonomy and clarity. The intensity with which Modiano’s characters fall into the past that still surrounds them is the same one that gives Sebald’s narrator in Austerlitz recurrent headaches. In another sense, one could also describe Modiano’s narrators as complements to Sebald’s. Sebald focuses on the ease with which we accept imprecisions in our relations to the past for the sake of experiencing some emotional response to it. For example, we might be willing to accept a random period photograph as an affective substitute for the image of a particular, lost person. Modiano seeks to capture the mirror experience of being the object of such random or stock memories: a person whose particularity is continually blurred and effaced amidst the environments he inhabited and the people he knew, and whose continued presence in these environments seems ever more contingent, even arbitrary. Slowly erased from sight while still surrounded by everything they cared about, his narrators come to terms with their erasability as a quality that is not simply due to the mortality of their bodies. It is not merely death that makes us forgettable to others, these novels show: even when living, we are never as memorable, or as deeply bound to others, as we might hope. Modiano manages to stage such discoveries, and to make them seem credible, without letting his novels lose a certain tenderness both toward their narrators and toward the larger world into which they are fading.