Modiano’s Young Once is a cinematic rendering of postwar Paris

Modiano’s Young Once is a cinematic rendering of postwar Paris

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Young Once by Patrick Modiano. NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS

Patrick Modiano has published more than 25 works of fiction, which, since his 2014 Nobel Prize in literature, are being translated into English, with two due out at the end of this summer. The recently translated novel Young Once appeared in its original French in 1981 under the title Une Jeunesse.

Young Once is often referred to as Modiano’s breakthrough, and it is said to be the work that asserted his own way with important themes: a nostalgic, retrospective view of post-war Paris; motifs of missing persons, including lost parents, the pursuit of erased sections of Paris linked to his own past and, as the Nobel Committee put it, the willingness to uncover “the life-world of the occupation.”

A few of Modiano’s books directly highlight the “life-world” of Paris under German occupation. In particular, his masterpiece Dora Bruder pursues this goal. In honour of its success, the real-life victim of German deportations for whom the book is named has a walkway named for her in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, where she lived.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Modiano described what he takes to be the goals of “uncovering the life-world of the occupation”:

“That Paris of the occupation was a strange place. On the surface, life went on ‘as before’ – the theatres, cinemas, music halls and restaurants were open for business. There were songs playing on the radio. Theatre and cinema attendances were, in fact, much higher during the war, as if these places were shelters where people gathered and huddled next to each other for reassurance. But there are bizarre details indicating that Paris was not at all the same as before.

The lack of cars made it a silent city – a silence that revealed the rustling of trees, the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves, the noise of a crowd’s footsteps and the hum of voices. In the silence of the streets and of the blackout imposed at around 5 p.m. in winter, during which the slightest light from windows was forbidden, this city seemed to be absent from itself – the city ‘without eyes’ as the Nazi occupiers used to say. Adults and children could disappear without trace from one moment to the next, and even among friends, nothing was ever really spelled out and conversations were never frank because of the feeling of menace in the air.”

Little of this atmosphere makes its way into Young Once, although the novel carries certain coded messages that convey the burden associated with the city’s wartime past.

Its main characters are a pair of 20-year-olds, Louis and Odile, who meet by chance in a Paris train station café. The pair is aimless, full of yearning, guarded in the way of many of Modiano’s characters. Rather than talk, they observe. Their quiet romance is overshadowed by the unscrupulous activities of older men who take them into their circle.

When we meet Louis, he is just out of the army, in rain-soaked shoes, his life at a point of imminent possibility. His past is entirely unfulfilled, the future unknown. One of the few things he is enthusiastic about is his father’s prewar career as a bicycle racer, which included much-heralded competitions at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, known colloquially as the Vel’ d’Hiv.

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Little beyond this is offered regarding Louis’ father, but his fame is recorded in a collection of sports magazines from which Louis cuts photos, gluing them in an album. Louis’ birth was marked audaciously at one of his father’s races: “after a raucous toot on a horn, the announcer had said that one of the racers, Memling, had just become a father of a baby boy, and they were offering a bonus prize of 30,000 francs in the new baby’s name.”

The Vel’ d’Hiv is recognizable to French readers as a site of inescapable guilt and shame. It was there that the Germans and their French police collaborators interned a large part of the 13,000 Jews rounded up – among them 4,000 children – over five days in July 1942. Those who were not at the velodrome were imprisoned in transit camps at Drancy, Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande before being transported to Auschwitz. Fewer than 1,000 of those transported east are known to have returned at the end of the war.

In 1995, French president Jacques Chirac offered an apology for the role of the Vichy state and French policemen in conducting the roundup. But Young Once predates this public pronouncement by more than a decade, proposing its own quiet memorial for readers willing to read between the lines.

A rare direct reference to the occupation in Young Once is revealed in Odile’s background, when she is picked up by French police and interrogated, leading to a wartime file on her mother: “Father unknown.” Below that, her mother’s first and last name. She reads phrases at random: “The party was living by her wits… affairs… black market… Pacheco’s mistress during the German occupation… Questioned by the department, Quai de Gesvres, September 1944.” Here, a characteristic Modiano set of intimations is at play: at the Quai de Gesvres stood the prefecture of police, which was the site where leaders of the Vichy regime undertook a methodical census of Jews, and from which the 1942 Vel’ d‘Hiv roundup was planned.

Young Once, a short and lyrical novel with the feel of a Nouvelle Vague film, is focused for much of its narrative on other things. It presents a cinematic rendering of postwar Paris, which takes shape as Odile and Louis walk “in the area between avenue de la Grand-Armée and avenue Foch, a hybrid zone where the 16th arrondissement becomes solid and residential but the streets are still under the sway of the garages, stores selling bicycles or ball bearings, old dance halls and the ghost of the old Luna Park.”

Young Once is about youthful escape into an unknown future. Modiano’s breakthrough novel is a mellow, wistful portrait of young people who do not fully understand the impact of a dark past on their lives. In his Nobel speech, Modiano pointed to the influence of this predicament on his work. Faced “with the silence of our parents,” he said, “we worked it all out as if we had lived it ourselves.”


Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.

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