Patrick Modiano’s Honeymoon opens in Milan. It is August and insufferably hot. Jean, the protagonist, is on his way home to Paris but between trains. Since he has four hours to kill, he stops in at the bar across from the train station. It is dark and cool and practically empty. He overhears the conversation between the barman and a customer, who are talking about a French woman who committed suicide in the hotel two days earlier. Intrigued, Jean buys a newspaper and reads the obituary once he is on the train. Later we learn that he knew the woman, Ingrid Teyrsen.
Eighteen years later, Jean returns to Milan. As a documentary filmmaker, he has spent most of his adult life making films about explorers who disappeared. Not only is he tired of making films no one cares about, but he’s tired of his life, so he decides to disappear.
Modiano’s novels often engage with this theme. In Dora Bruder, which I read soon after Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014, he investigates the disappearance of Dora, a teenager who ran away from the convent her parents had placed her in during the Occupation in 1941, undoubtedly for her safety. In this work of creative nonfiction, Modiano strives to understand why she would have done such a thing. We soon learn that she and her father were both deported to Auschwitz in September 1942. What happened to her in the interim? Modiano writes:
It seemed to me like I would never find any trace of Dora Bruder.Therefore the yearning that I felt drove me to write a novel, Honeymoon, a way as another for keeping on concentrating my attention on Dora Bruder, and maybe, I said to myself, to elucidate or guess something about her, some place she had been, a detail of her life.
So Honeymoon was written while writing Dora Bruder, as an exercise to help him understand why Dora ran away. The exercise appears to have worked. Once Jean has staged his disappearance, he returns to Paris, to the shabby suburbs where he once lived, and begins writing the biography of Ingrid Teyrsen, who (like Dora Bruder) was sixteen when he first met her. The writing of the biography triggers a series of flashbacks and speculation about what might have happened to her during the war, all interspersed with glimpses of Jean’s life, both past and present. By the end of the novel, Jean understands only too well why Ingrid took her own life.
Although Dora’s running away was in a very real sense suicidal, the ending of Dora Bruder is somewhat different in tone. However vague, we do get a sense of her life. Modiano writes:
I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, History, time–everything that defiles and destroys you–have been able to take away from her. (119)
In writing about Dora’s life, Modiano gave it meaning, at the same time granting a sense of reality to all the others who disappeared and died during the Holocaust. For this, he undoubtedly deserved the Nobel Prize.