Friday, September 25, 2015

Traces of the Past

The Search Warrant: Dora BruderThe Search Warrant: Dora Bruder 
by Patrick Modiano

"It takes time for what has been erased to surface.  Traces survive in registers, and nobody knows where these registers are hidden, and who has custody of them, and whether or not their custodians are willing to let you see them.  Or perhaps they have simply forgotten that such registers exist." (p 9)

I had not heard of Patrick Modiano before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year. He was born outside Paris in 1945 to a Sephardic Jewish family with roots originally in Italy, although his ancestors, longtime inhabitants of Thessaloniki, Greece, included eminent rabbis. While he is apparently quite popular in France he is not well-known in the United States. Our Thursday evening reading group chose to read his novel, The Search Warrant (also known as Dora Bruder), this month.

At the core of this poignant novel, published in 1997, is Modiano's real-life investigation into the disappearance of a young Jewish girl-Dora Bruder, announced in a newspaper—back in 1941. Struck by this discovery, haunted by the legacy of this mysterious teenager, the author seeks out any tiny scraps of information in an effort to finally come to terms with his own lost adolescence.
What first impressed me was the economical, straightforward, journalistic style of the narrator; basically a stand-in for the author. Yet this was not journalism but rather a sort of fictional historical memoir. The narrative blends both the search for information about Dora with reminiscences of the narrator's own youthful memories. There is so little true information about Dora that the narrator tries to compensate with details about the events and places of the time that Dora was alive.  Searching for documents, he describes those that may still exist, that may be remembered or may yield memories of her life and his own.  The result is the gradual recreation of the world as it was then with fascinating details that bring the narrative to life.

Among the few specifics about Dora the narrator scatters speculation like this moment:
"My father had barely mentioned this young girl when, for the first and only time in his life, one night in June 1863, he told me about his narrow escape as we were dining in a restaurant off the Champs Elysees almost opposite the one where he had been arrested twenty years before. He gave me no details about her looks or clothes, and I had all but forgotten her until the day I learned of Dor Bruder's existence. Then, suddenly remembering the presence of this young girl among the other unknowns with my father in the Black Maria on that February night, it occurred to me that she might have been Dora Bruder, that she too had just been arrested and was about to be sent to Tourelles."(pp 57-8)

This is noted more than one third of the way through the novel following tidbits from documents, gleanings of register entries, and a brief history of her family. One of the pieces of data is the presence of her name on a list of Jews deported to Auschwitz in September 1942.  The book is part meditation on this loss and the greater loss of humans, their stories and their history. There were further moments in the narrative where the subjunctive is suggested with events that could have taken place but about which we do not know anything. Thus we have another theme of this work, the problem of knowledge, that is demonstrated with the blending of bits of historical data with suggestions about what or where Dora fits into the story.

There is also the narrator's own story exemplified by his own youthful episode of running away from boarding school; the intensity about which he writes:
"I remember the intensity of my feelings while I was on the run in January 1960 -- an intensity such as I have seldom known." (p 71).  He goes on to compare this personal episode to Dora's experience suggesting that it must have been harder for her in a world dominated by Nazi occupation and the war. The fate of Dora is thus intertwined with that of French Jews as well. Sometimes a whole chapter is spun out of a speculation on the simple question of what happened to Dora at such and such a time. Somehow the speculation, the bits of data, the mix of authorial reflection with Dora's story all combine to create a fascinating and inexplicably suspenseful novel.

It is short and intense and rewards the reader with the urge to start rereading it almost immediately to see if the intensity of the experience might be heightened by doing so. Alice Kaplan, who teaches Patrick Modiano's work at Yale, said that after her first experience of reading him she "devoured all of his books." (Alice Kaplan on Patrick Modiano) This was my first excursion in the writing of Patrick Modiano. It will not be my last.

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Brian Joseph said...

This sounds very good.

I also had never heard of Patrick Modiano before lat year. One has to wonder how many authors are missed because they almost won a prestigious award but did not.

James said...


You have a good point. There are so many authors and books that it seems likely there are some very good ones that are missed by even ardent readers like ourselves. I rely on recommendations from friends in and out of book groups, on-line searches, reading book reviews, and I even have found myself browsing in the Chicago Public Library for interesting titles.