Book Reviews

‘Lacombe, Lucien’ and the Early Novels of Patrick Modiano: ‘La Place de l’étoile (The Place of the Star)’

(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of Jaime Grijalba’s four-part series “The Occupation Quadrilogy: ‘Lacombe, Lucien’ and the Early Novels of Patrick Modiano.”

First, an explanation about the title, which is part of a “Jewish joke” that opens the novel: it’s a French wordplay. There’s a park called “La Place de l’étoile” (translated as “Park of the star”), but the French word “place” also translates to the English word “place,” hence the “place of the star” is also the heart, and where the Jewish in France had to wear the Star of David. It’s a dark Jewish joke for sure and comes when a German soldier asks a young Jew about the location of “la place de l’étoile.” The young man points at his chest.

La Place de l’étoile takes place after the occupation, and here Modiano posits a first-person style that is really close to his own persona: a young Jewish man who thinks he can write and study literature with a father that collaborated alongside the Nazi regime during the occupation. While the events in La Place de l’étoile don’t ever take place in that era, the pages reek of it, and by the end, Modiano seems to have been so affected by his family’s shaming that his mind and body were transported to an era where the SS might’ve searched for him, framed him and put him in a concentration camp.

Out of the author’s first three novels, this might be the one that stays far from the themes of Lacombe, Lucien, and surely is the one that feels more juvenile, as La Place de l’étoile was published when Modiano was only 23 years old. Yet, at the same time, this novel was the most awarded in his early career, and if it weren’t for the tics that appear here — used and overused — we wouldn’t have the novels that followed. This doesn’t mean that I believe La Place de l’étoile is bad, quite the contrary, but the fever dream qualities of the final chapters mix themselves (an amoral reality/memories of a past Modiano never truly lived), and thus the guilt of betraying his religion render him victim of paranoid chases by modern versions of the institutions that contracted his father in the past.

Those segments refer to Modiano’s nature as a self-deprecating Jew, and they are similar in tone to the feeling of constant oppression presented in certain scenes of the Louis Malle film, particularly when Lucien visits France Horn, the Jewish daughter that he falls in love with. This scene highlights the constant presence of Lucien in the enemy’s house (as he is a collaborationist), and it’s where his interventions become more feverish and lead to absolute insanity that ends in violence. In a way, Modiano offers a strong twist regarding the minds of the characters, and how their obsessions can change their life perspective, distort them and finally destroy their body and soul.

Whenever La Place de l’étoile receives an English translation, I commend you all to read it, as no matter how French it looks on paper, its qualities reside beyond those elements. There is an annoying need of the writer/protagonist to mention Proust and proclaim himself a new version of him, yet the cockiness of the narrator does justify his own absurd proclamations. Nowadays, critics and the Nobel Jury have said that Modiano and Proust are more connected than ever — but with their own differences, as the former presents most of his novels in the real world. Incidentally, Patrick Modiano is still like a purveyor of childhood memories, ones that never happened in his life, but memories nevertheless.

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).