The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano


French writer and 2015 Nobel Prize Laureate, Patrick Moldano.

When you watch a movie it is important to understand, not only that decisions have been made about every thing in every frame: the glare from the wet tarmac, the broken zinnia in the vase of otherwise perfect flowers, or the dreadful yellow hat on the third boy from the right, but that even if something is missed, like the broken flower; if someone has not done his or her job well, or even if simply there was not time or money to re-shoot the scene or re-dress the set – so we will just have to live with the little boy putting his fingers in his ears moments before Eva Marie Saint ‘shoots’ Cary Grant in that now famous blooper from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest – we have to acknowledge that what we see is what is meant, and the person ultimately responsible for this is the director, because he or she has allowed his or her name to be put on it.  Just like a name on the bottom of a painting: the person is taking responsibility for what you see. It says, I did this; what you see is what I want you to see.

What the viewer thinks it ‘means’ is something completely different and has nothing to do with the creator but everything to do with the viewer.

Similarly with a book of fiction: what we read is what the writer wants us to read and the writer employs various techniques – tricks – to make us think – believe – in a particular way. Most writing is about wanting the reader to believe that what is written is true; and just like ‘the suspension of disbelief’ that audiences in the theatre and cinema have to do to become emotionally involved is what they are watching, so too does a reader: a young girl is fleeing her convent school and suffering the dangers of occupied France. This is what the writer wants us to believe is true, but it is only the appearance of truth, and there’s a glorious word for that: verisimilitude; but what is really true is that I’m sitting in a nice chair with good light and a cup of ginger tea.

This particular ability to mentally put ourselves in a description of something (using words, paint, dance, light, stone, sound) made by someone else is a wonderfully human characteristic and is the sole reason we have something called art.

One of the tricks writers use to make us believe that what is written is true is detail, and ironically, unknown detail (“I don’t know what the figures 20998 and 15/24 stand for”) makes that belief stronger: writers, creators, don’t usually use words or numbers that have no known meaning. Why does he tell us this? Because it is true; so goes the logic.

The Search Warrant, or as it was originally published in France, Dora Bruder, is the 1997 novel from this year’s recipient of The Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick Modiano. The story is sparked, so he tells us, from a missing-person ad in the magazine, Paris Soir, dated 31 December 1941, which reads,


Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, height 1.55m, oval-shaped face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes. Address all information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.”

 As a reader, one accepts this. I can comfortably say that no reader is going to spend the time and effort researching copies of Paris Soir, and in particular the issue from New Years Eve 1941, to verify if this ad is true. It does not matter if it is true or not; in the world that Modiano creates between the covers of this fiction, it is true; we believe this, and to assist us in this belief Modiano includes a footnote (footnotes are also very useful in creating verisimilitude), giving the title of the column in which the ad appeared (“D’hier a aujourd’hui” – “From Day to Day”).

Modiano is obsessed with the past, and in particular, the German occupation of France and the French resistance during World War II even though (or because of it) he was born the year the war ended, 1945. “The plot too is the recognisable one [all Modiano’s plots are markably the same] as a search into the past of a first-person narrator.”*. It is a work (some, like Kawakani, say not a novel) that infuses memoir, (auto) biography, detection, and memory. The reader finds out much more about the narrator (the writer?) than he does about Dora Bruder. The narrator knows the address of the parents, 41 Boulevard Ornano; it is next door to a cinema he visited as a child. He, like Dora, and his father, like Dora’s father, Emile, are French jews and subject to the whims and prejudices of the German occupying forces that involve lists, registers, travel documents, curfews, identification badges, suspicion, and intimidation. There are many questions in this book, almost every chapter begins with one; questions about Dora Bruder that Modiano cannot answer, so he answers with details of others; police reports, timetables, journal entries, and memories of writers of the period; and if one of these writers once slept in the same room as he, or Dora, all the more reason for including it. These glimpses of many lives still add up to the shattering truth of Dora’s; at least one which Modiano wants us to believe.

The autobiographic detail is fascinating – what a surreal time and place to be in where what authorities think you are can cause alienation, deportation, imprisonment, death – and the mystery of Dora pulls you along, but memory as we all know can be treacherous.

(I have a friend, let me call her Gillian. Every time I poach tamarillos I have a vivid memory of Gillian showing me how, in the kitchen of someone else, let me call him Harry. Gillian, however, has no recollection of this, not of ever eating poached tamarillos, before I fed her some on a recent visit, or of ever being in Harry’s kitchen. Did this event happen? I believe it did. She believes it did not. What is true?)

As I’ve said before, somewhere**, fiction is all about truth, but to make it clear, one has to lie about it a little.

On his Italian father’s side he is descended from Sephardic Jews from northern Greece; his mother, was a Flemish actress, “a pretty girl with an arid heart“; Flemish is Modiano’s first language as he was raised by his maternal grandparents: his father, a black-marketeer,  was interned, his mother on tour. His younger brother Rudi died at the age of 9. Moldano wrote a memoir about his childhood and called it Un Pedigree: I couldn’t write an autobiography, that’s why I called it a ‘pedigree’: it’s a book less on what I did than on what others, mainly my parents, did to me.” He is married with two daughters.

 He writes about “the pull of the past, the threat of disappearance, the blurring of moral boundaries, the dark side of the soul“*** ; his art “is the art of speculation“****.

Whatever this book is it is a fascinating way (‘postmodern!’ I hear someone screaming) to tell a story. His novels are only now starting to appear in English, spurred on, no doubt, by the Nobel Prize. Search them out and let me know what you think.


*Kawakani, Akane; 2000, A Self-conscious Art: Patrick Modiano’s Postmodern Fictions, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool

**In a soon to be published autobiographical fiction called Johnny William & the Cameraman.

***Schwartz, Alexandra, The New Yorker Oct 9 2014

****Schwartz, Alexandra, The New Yorker Oct 5 2015





The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan

The Scottich writer Andrew O'Hagan
The Scottich writer Andrew O’Hagan
“There’s an art to telling the truth.”

My first instinct was to say that The Illuminations, O’Hagan’s latest novel, is about the past; but then every novel is about the past, even one written in the present since the actual present is only on the page you’re on. It is more accurate to say that The Illuminations is about the little lies of the past that make the present bearable.

The two main characters are Anne, a grandmother sinking slowly into dementia, but once a well known pioneeing documentary photographer with an inner artistic life that her family only vaguely acknowledges, and her grandson Luke, a Captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers fighting the dirty war in Afghanistan. He witnesses a horror that he could’ve prevented if it were not for his weak, and tormented commander. On his return to Britain he takes Anne on a trip to Blackpool to see the famous light show at the end of summer, the Illuminations, hoping she will remember more about the romance she had there with Luke’s grandfather, the photographs she took, and the reason that his family is like it is. He craves enlightenment to make sense of the past which he can only vaguely see: the facts that don’t add up; the questions unanswered.

I first discovered O’Hagan via his 2006 novel Be Near Me which turns on a moral mistake of the protagonist, a Catholic priest, Father Anderton. When he is finally brought to account for his ‘sin’ by his religious  superiors, the answer to the question he is asked only explains half the sin; and he is faced with a truely moral dilemma: should he simply answer the question knowing that the answer will satisfy his superiors and that will be the end of it, or should he, given the vows to his God, confess to ‘all’ the sin, and therefore end his vocation? The ‘action’ of the book is in the mind of Father Anderton, small compared to most novelistic plots, but I remember the feeling of the monumental challenge the man is asked to face; this is a ‘big’ story, or O’Hagan made it seem so.

The Illuminations isn’t quite as successful although the awkward scenes of a family get-together where the past and the present, old ideas and new, clash and bump are handled with insight and cringing recognition. O’Hagan is a master of the minutiae of the undercurrents and whirlpools that swirl beneath a family’s, and any personal, exterior. He also successfully describes that ellusive but sometimes debilitating feeling parents have of loving the family to visit but joyous when they leave.

O’Hagan is a well respected writer and his early novel, Our Fathers (1999) won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and it was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2001) as well as the Man-Booker Prize for Fiction (1999).

However his most intriguing work is a lengthy article in the London Review of Books, Ghosting Julian Assange in March 2014 which tells the fascinating story of the time he spent shadowing the Wikileaks founder with the contracted intention of ghosting an ‘autobiography’ of the man. I should explain that the book, not yet written, had already been bought by Canongate for £600,000 and sold-on to a range of big publishing houses including Knopf of New York. The book never happened but a lot of legal battles did; the article explains why, and at the same time gives a detailed picture of Assange, his behaviour: paranoid and, to some degree, his motivation: selfish. You can find the article at which also includes an audio file of O’Hagan speaking about Assange. 

He is also a playwright and his latest work for the stage is a doco/drama, Enquirer, staged by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2012 that deals with the machinations of the British press.

O’Hagan is a wonderful writer and there is a lot to enjoy in The Illuminations. I recommend it and Be Near Me as well.