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Patrick Modiano: La Place de l’Étoile (La Place de l’Étoile)

This was Patrick Modiano’s first novel, published when he was just twenty-two. Modiano’s father was Jewish, though the two were more or less estranged. This novel caused something of a furore, not least with Modiano’s father, who tried (unsuccessfully) to buy up all copies.

The title is a play on words. While for most French-speaking people and, as the French title has been left in the English translation, presumably for most English-speaking people, La Place de l’Étoile is the square where the Arc de Triomphe is located in Paris, and from which twelve roads radiate, like a star. However, a literal translation of the title would be the location of the star, i.e. the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear in Germany and countries occupied by Germany during the War. Modiano’s father did not wear the star and thus escaped deportation to Auschwitz. Modiano makes specific reference to this in a little story he puts at the beginning of the text.

Modiano serves up a hard-hitting satire about anti-Semitism and the French view of Jews but is also not averse to mocking Jews and Israel as well. Our hero is Raphaël Schlemilovitch, with his surname clearly based on the Yiddish word schlemiel, meaning fool. While, like Modiano, his father is absent, he has a rich Venezuelan uncle and is able to be something of a playboy in Paris, where he is mocked, often with anti-Semitic tropes.

He heads off to Lausanne, nominally to go to a finishing school, where he meets Jean-François Des Essarts. He sells the expensive car his uncle has given him and the two men live together in Lausanne. Raphaël even helps Des Essarts avoid French military service by getting him forged papers. They then invent a fictious Jacob X, who has been, Dreyfus-like, a victim of anti-Semitism in the French army and publish his story in a left-wing French magazine. Even Sartre joins in with support for Jacob.

Numerous real people pop up in this novel and one they meet is the French-Jewish writer Maurics Sachs. Sachs was an anti-Semitic Jew, a collaborator with the Gestapo and a general rogue who, in real life was killed by the Nazis in 1945 (this novel is set some twenty years later). Nevertheless he is now running a bookshop in Geneva. Des Essarts and Raphaël discover a lot of interesting obscure French writers there. As well as giving us real people in the story, Modiano mentions many actual writers, some well-known (Sartre, Proust) and some less so.

Raphaël’s uncle finally dies and he inherits the lot, a very large fortune, which he generously hands over to his parents. He gets to meet his father, who had fled to the United States during the War, after selling Fontainebleau Forest to the Germans. Though their meeting is affable, it is not much more.

We follow the rest of his adventures which tend to be even more outrageous than the earlier part of the book. He attends a university-preparation school, where he supports the very right-wing, pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic teacher; he is involved in the white slave trade; he becomes the Indispensable Jew in wartime Vienna, friends of Heydrich and Eva Braun; he becomes a pimp; when he gets tuberculosis, he goes to Israel for a cure but Israel seems to have a lot in common with wartime occupied France.

As a way of starting a literary career, offending pretty well everyone is undoubtedly a good way to go. The only contemporary French author I can think of who made such an impact with one of his earlier works is Michel Houellebecq. Despite the fact that Modiano does attack and mock both Jews and non-Jews, and Israel as well, as well as mocking many French writers, the book got quite a good reception, winning two prizes and a fair amount of critical acclaim. The publisher had doubts, delaying publication because of the Six-Day War, but this book certainly made Modiano’s name and gave him a reputation which, at least in France, he has never lost. Interestingly, it was not translated into English or other languages before he won the Nobel Prize, except for German, and then only in 2010.

It is difficult to find the words to describe it: grotesque, outrageous but also original, witty and very clever. If we take as its basic theme that it is difficult for the Jew to find the right place in the modern world, coupled with the horrors of anti-Semitism which, sadly, seems to be on rise the fifty years after this book was first published, it certainly gives us an insight into those issues. However, I have no doubt that, for many it will be considered offensive and over the top but then that is certainly one of the roles of literature.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Gallimard
First published in English by Bloomsbury in 2015
Translator: Frank Wynne