Book Reviews

The Occupation Quadrilogy: ‘Lacombe, Lucien’ and the Early Novels of Patrick Modiano


When the winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature was announced in 2014, most of the English-speaking world had absolutely no idea who Patrick Modiano was, at least until certain circles (cinephiles) remembered that he was the co-screenwriter of what many consider to be one of the best Post-Nouvelle Vague French films of all time: Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974). The unknowable nature of Modiano’s labor was somewhat understandable; most of his output is still majorly untranslated, and the work towards the publication of his novels has only been seriously considered after he has won this major award.

Fortunately, that’s not the case for Spanish-speaking countries, where the Anagrama editorial has managed to translate and publish most of Modiano’s output (and they’re working on the bits that have remained in obscurity). What we’re graced with is the translation of his first three novels — the first one has never been translated to English, while the other two are just being reissued in 2015 after 40 years since the original translation and publication. All will be published together in one book nicknamed The Trilogy of Occupation, an appropriate yet confusing name, especially considering that practically all of the novels by Modiano surround the theme of occupation. So, the exclusion of the rest is interesting, as if the publisher chose to pack these three together since they are early novels and must be weak.

However, before I delve into a critical approach for these novels (and the film, let’s not forget that), I must take into consideration the issue of occupation. Which occupation? For the French, it’s enough to mention “l’occupation” and just one thing will come to mind: Germany occupying France in the Second World War. It’s among the most traumatic moments in their recent history, as they held some liberties but were completely restricted from publishing anything against the new powers in command. Many have heard about “La Résistance,” but the issue that mostly attracts Modiano, and the one that he focuses on in these three novels is the collaboration: French people betraying neighbors (or just about anyone) in order to maintain their position and the favor of the new government.

But Modiano doesn’t take a simple approach, as inside the books there’s never a direct reference to the Nazis, nor any character like them. He never abandons the experience of the French under German government, and how they lived among themselves with the fear and pressure of maintaining a low status. What is the most fascinating fact about these novels is that Modiano himself was born in 1945, and thus, he never actually lived consciously under the occupation. Even so, this era continues to become a particular obsession, as it has been exuded from interviews, and Modiano’s own books, that his Jewish father maybe had something to do with collaboration, if only to not be taken away to a concentration camp. Obviously, the hatred for what his father did is the main fuel for Modiano’s first novels, but how are those novels a preparation for his work with Louis Malle?

This week on Vague Visages, I’ll be looking at La Place de l’etoile (The Place of the Star), La Ronde de Nuit (The Night Watch) and Les Boulevards de center (Ring Roads).

Jaime Grijalba (@jaimegrijalba) is from Chile and has been writing about film, literature, videogames and culture for the past six years. He’s also preparing his first feature-length film, since he’s a filmmaker too (or wants to be at least).