When I was nineteen I had a huge crush on Katherine Mansfield. I loved her letters and journal and the tragedy of her short life moved me. So when I went to Paris, the city she loved above all others, I decided to try to find her. There was a hotel she always stayed in. She stayed there when she was happy and in love and she also stayed there when she knew she was going to die. It’s called The Select Hotel and I was excited to discover it’s still there, in the Place de la Sorbonne, not far from the Jardin du Luxembourg which she often wrote about in her letters. It’s quite a swanky hotel now but when I sat down by the fountain and looked up at its windows there was a moment of electrifying wonder when the past suddenly fused into the present moment and I wasn’t quite sure who was the ghost – was she a ghost from the past or was I a ghost from the future? At one point I thought there’s no way on earth Katherine Mansfield would ever have imagined that someone, almost a hundred years later, would be trying to picture her in her room (she always took the same room)…
Even less would an ordinary Jewish French girl called Dora Brudner have imagined that one day in the future a Nobel Prize winning novelist would become obsessed with trying to piece together her life after she mysteriously ran away from a convent where we presume she was being sheltered during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Rarely do we get an insight into the first moment of inspiration that compels a writer to write a novel. Here we do. Modiano comes across a notice in an old newspaper asking for information about the missing Dora Brudner. He discovers a deep driving need to know her, or at least to know what happened to her. The book, reminiscent in many ways of the earlier The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography and Austerlitz and the laterHHhH, becomes, on one level, a detective story and on a deeper level an intimate dialogue between the present and the past.
The horrible irony, we quickly learn, is Dora’s parents hadn’t registered their daughter previously meaning she wasn’t on any Jewish list but in their desperation to find her eventually are compelled to document her as missing at the local police station. Thus she finds her way onto the Jewish register.
As much as he is trying to fathom out Dora, Modiano is seeking out his own pre-history. During the novel he lets us know how many parallels exist between Dora and her family and himself and his own family. He is constantly aware of time and timing – how only timing prevented him, as a French Jew, from sharing Dora’s fate.
The most moving achievement of this novel is Modiano’s refusal to turn Dora’s story into a novel. It’s almost an anti-novel in the sense that he rejects imagination as a tool for piecing together Dora’s fate. By giving us Dora exclusively through official documents it somehow made her fate much more heartbreaking than any fictional account of her life would have done. “The girls’ neighbours informed us that she frequently left home without wearing the insignia (the yellow star).” Who were those neighbours? Why did she refuse to wear the yellow star? We will never know. Modiano doesn’t allow us the pleasure of detailing our emotion. The emotion remains raw. There was a telling critique of all historical fiction and especially Holocaust fiction in this book. The sense that we’re always getting a sugared version of facts in fiction. This was raw and without solace and gives an amazingly vivid idea of what anyone searching for a Holocaust victim after the war must have gone through – especially the chilling matter-of-factness of bureaucratic documentation.