Book Reviews

‘Lacombe, Lucien’ and the Early Novels of Patrick Modiano: ‘Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads)’


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

The novel that closes Patrick Modiano’s “Occupation Trilogy” seems to be the most important in terms of preparing him for what would come next in his career. This isn’t because Les Boulevards de ceinture (1972) has a similar story to Lacombe, Lucien (1974), but rather it seems like a formal experimentation on the issue of how people see movies, and how one can almost write in a cinematic manner.

While the two previous novels do have certain passages of continuous enumeration and description, they are mostly constricted to uninteresting details, and thus the novels become more about a state of mind, and what the protagonist sees in the world around him. In La Ronde de Nuit (The Night Watch), there’s an acute description of how the world and people seem to revolve around Modiano in an alcohol-induced haze, and in La Place de l’étoile (The Place of the Star), there’s a precise yet outrageous detailing of the luscious places in which the character visits, as well as the furniture that he either buys or uses.

Modiano might have already been working on the screenplay for Lacombe, Lucien while writing Ring Roads; an extraordinary feat for an under-30 writer that had published only two novels and who was working with a filmmaker (Louis Malle) that had actually lived the resistance. You can see in the first pages of Ring Roads how Modiano writes “as if it were an old photograph.” The protagonist examines the bar in which he is sitting, and the way light hits the characters that he’s watching. He also describes the slight and precise movements of both his father and a potential spy subject. All of this happens as the dialogue between characters becomes either louder or a mutter (depending on the spectator’s distance).

This particular situation speaks volumes about Modiano’s interest in the act of seeing objectively. In Ring Roads, there isn’t a fantasy world created by the narrator, except for the pleasurable life of the immoral collaborators; a lifestyle that seems fake but is chronicled by the protagonist in such a clear way that it becomes the most precise event of the trilogy. Modiano even notes that a photograph “is moving” — much like the moving pictures of a film. He was becoming fascinated by the film world, and how the images could be conveyed through the written word. It feels like Modiano was preparing to write his own screenplay.

Les Boulevards de ceinture is the novel that most easily leads to a formal movie adaptation; a straightforward book about a son looking for his father after they betrayed each other in an unoccupied France. Our protagonist slowly realizes (through his attentive watching) that his father is a collaborator who became rich by helping criminals living with him.

This novel strays from the themes of Lacombe, Lucien, because Modiano knew he had to find another story, and the film clearly has a more bucolic feel without demeaning the inherent brutality. All three novels of the trilogy present a protagonist that suddenly falls under control of powerful figures who make the characters betray undeveloped values due to their young age, and the absence of their fathers. In a way, all four of these early projects have that Modiano imprint, as Lucien doesn’t have a real father, and thus he is in search of authority that could only be found in the Nazis. Hence, he finds himself obliged to do things that he would have never done in a more calmer situation.

Lacombe, Lucien is about the lack of a fatherly figure, but Modiano’s screenplay is also about how love makes you realize that immoral decisions sometimes have to be made. In every novel (and in the movie), there’s a moment in which the deep feeling of love wakes up the protagonist from the slumber of servile conditioning. They have turned into little monsters, but in the end they will find their freedom, even if it kills them or makes them insane.

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).


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