Book Review: Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano / The Search Warrant trans Joanna Kilmartin

Patrick Modiano was not particularly well known in what the French call ‘ Anglo-Saxon’ literary circles until he won the 2014 Nobel Prize for LIterature. In fact much of the coverage in the British press made me chuckle as the suggestion seemed to be that as very few of his works have been translated into English, he was a less than worthy winner.

Following his win , almost every bookshop in France has a table displaying his works and during a recent visit I picked up and read Dora Bruder, one of the few already translated into English, although re titled The Search Warrant for reasons I don’t really understand.

Modiano’s own father was Jewish and led a precarious existence during the Occupation, living clandestinely ( refusing to wear the star) and trading on the Black Market. Modiano’s early work La Place de l’Etoile told the story of a Jewish collaborator and led to a final rupture between the pair.

Dora Bruder covers much of Modiano’s familiar territory – the Occupation and the moral dilemmas it posed; memory and forgetting ; what is lost and what is saved. The Nobel Prize committee announced that Modiano had won the prize  for

.. the art of memory with which he has evoked the most unspeakable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.

His starting point for the book was  a missing persons advert he came across in a 1941 copy of Paris Soir seeking the whereabouts of a 15 year old girl, Dora Bruder, who had run away from home. He seeks to fill in Dora’s story and whilst doing so he recounts much of the sad story of the Jews of Paris and their struggle to survive. He revisits his own relationship with his father and walks the streets of the city looking for traces of the life Dora lived.

,Dora comes to life again during this short novella. His prose is simple and understated yet beautiful, especially in French.He recalls a quote from Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose  which evoke’s Dora’s speaking voice for him.

“What the child taught me was that the true roots of Parisian slang lie in its sad tenderness”. This phrase evokes Dora Bruder so well for me that I feel I knew her. The children with Polish or Russian or Romanian names who were forced to wear the yellow star were so Parisian that they merged effortlessly into the façades, the apartment blocks, the pavements, the infinite shades of grey which belong to Paris alone. Like Dora Bruder, they all spoke with the Parisian accent, using a slang whose sad tenderness Jean Genet had recognised.

In the course of his research it becomes clear that Dora ran away from home several times. She did return to her mother’s care following the advert but by then her father was already detained in Drancy, a holding camp on the outskirts of Paris, awaiting transportation to Auschwitz.

Dora ran away one final time before being re-arrested and taken to Drancy where she left on the same transport for Auschwitz as her father. Modiano is unable to discover what impelled her to run away and what she did in her months of hiding.

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 for a second time. Thi is her secret. A poor and precious secret which not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Dêpôt, the barracks, the camps, history, time – everything that corrupts and destroys you- have been able to take away from her.

After reading the book, I visited the Mémorial de la Shoah, the Holocaust museum in the Marais district of Paris.. As you leave the museum there is a Wall of Remembrance on which there is engraved for each year of the Occupation the name of every Jew deported from France. A moving visit was made even more emotional by seeing Dora’s name carved next to that of her father Ernest for 1942.

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Book Review : A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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Regular readers of this blog will know that to mark the centenary of the start of WW1 I decided to do some ‘themed’ reading.

I have already blogged the memoirs of Robert Graves here and also reviewed two recent novels that deal with the war, Wake and The Lie, here. A Farewell To Arms, which I first read aged about 15 ,was definitely on my list.

This is a fictionalised account of Hemingway’s own First World War experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. It is also a love story ,again based on Hemingway’s experiences when there. The bones of the love story had stayed in my memory , not least because of the wonderful film starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, but what hadn’t struck me as a 15 year old reader was the sheer beauty of Hemingway’s prose.

‘ At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.’

Just like Graves, Hemingway is sickened by the senselessness of the mass slaughter caused by the war and the jingoism of its leaders :

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.’

Frederick Henry is an American who has joined the ambulance service as a driver, just like Hemingway himself. The book opens in Udine , northern Italy, where Frederick is posted and where he meets Catherine Barclay a young English, or rather Scottish, voluntary nurse sent to the hospital there.

Frederick initially goes to meet Catherine together with his friend Rinaldi, an Italian army surgeon, who has heard about the arrival of the new nurses and is determined to court them.Catherine and Frederick immediately fall in love and Chapter 4 in which they first meet must truly be some of the most beautiful prose ever written  in the English language. It isn’t really possibly to quote an extract from it, you really do have to read the whole thing.

This is not a long book , only 293 pp in the edition I read, and divided into five short parts. Part 1 gives us Frederick and Catherine’s meeting and Frederick, just like Hemingway himself, is then badly injured whist on duty on the frontline ; in Part 2 he is evacuated and hospitalised in Milan, where Catherine has also been posted. During his time as a patient and after during his convalescence ,their relationship grows ; Part 3 sees Frederick back at the front and subsequently  caught up in a shambolic retreat with the Italian army which leads to a trumped up charge of deserting his post ; Parts 4 and 5 deal with Frederick’s transformation into a fugitive and the resolution of his relationship with Catherine.

This is not , however, romantic fiction. The searing realism of Hemingway’s writing truly captures the pointless horrors of war. Frederick meets a British major in the officers’ club in Milan :

‘He said the offensive in Flanders was going to the bad. If they killed men as they did this fall  the Allies would be cooked in another year. He said we were all cooked but we were all right as long as we did not know it. We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognise it . The last country to realise they were cooked would win the war. We had another drink.’

During the chaos of the Italian retreat many officers become separated from their men. When stopped this leads to a charge of desertion and summary execution. Hemingway describes the process :

‘Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabiniere on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots. They were questioning some one else. This officer too was separated from his troops. He was not allowed to make an explanation. He cried when they read the sentence from the pad of paper, and they were questioning another man when they shot him.’

There is a poetic quality to the writing too. Throughout ,the rain appears as a harbinger of tragedy…..as can be seen in the first extract I quoted,which appears at the very beginning of the book, and again in the shooting of the officers. Catherine explains it to Frederick like this :

All right. I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it.’

‘No.’

‘And sometimes I see you dead in it.’

‘That’s more likely’

‘ No, it’s not, darling. Because I can keep you safe. I know I can. But nobody can help themselves.’

Later in the book, Frederick’s friend and colleague, Aymo, is killed by what we would now call ‘ friendly-fire’ :

‘ Aymo lay in the mud with the angle of the embankment. He was quite small and his arms were by his side, his puttee-wrapped legs and muddy boots together, his cap over his face. He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew. I had his papers in my pocket and would write to his family.’

At one point the ‘rain’ is transformed to blood, as the wounded Frederick is transported on a stretcher in an ambulance with a man haemorrhaging above him :

‘The drops fell very slowly, as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone.It was cold in the car in the night as the road climbed. At the post on the top they took the stretcher out and put another in and we went on.’

This is book is truly a masterpiece. Heartbreaking in it’s realism ,it is indeed a testament to lost youth and gives a lie to Michael Gove’s claims that ‘leftie’ comedy writers at the BBC have distorted the history of the first world war.

My next WW1 read will be The Wars by Tim Findlay ,recommended by a reader of this blog and which tells the story of Canadian volunteers . Before August I also hope to write about a book I first encountered in our local public library when I was aged about 14 or 15. This tells the story of a woman’s lost love and struggle to come to terms with her life after WW1. Long out of print, I happily managed to find a second hand copy last year.

Before then, I have some very exciting new releases that have been sent to me to introduce here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Top Five Books of 2013

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These are my recommended reads from this year…….five , in no particular order , and then 3 more I really enjoyed but Top Eight didn’t seem a catchy enough title!

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1.The Goldfinch  by Donna Tartt

I have already reviewed it here on my blog . We follow the adventures of Theo Decker from childhood to adulthood accompanied by The Goldfinch, a painting recovered from a bomb attack , his talisman and his curse.

2. The Luminaries   by Eleanor Catton

Another slab of a book that I have already reviewed here.

Deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize,  this is a murder mystery with a Victorian feel and an astrological structure.

3. Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

A searingly honest account of the search for identity of two young people. Told in narrative style but also through blog posts, Ifem and Obinze journey from Nigeria to the US and London . Both have experiences that cause them to confront their  perceptions of  themselves as well as other people’s preconceptions of them as Africans. Whilst they are away, Nigeria is changing and they both return to a country very different to the one they left. Above all, however, this is a love story.

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4, A Tale For The Time Being  by Ruth Ozeki

This was on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. It tells the stories of Ruth,a Canadian writer,  and a teenage Japanese girl, Nao ,whose diary Ruth finds washed up on the shores near her home in the aftermath of the Tsunami. Nao’s diary recounts her own struggle against bullying as well as the story of her grandmother, a buddhist priest, and her uncle, a reluctant pilot in World War 2. Ozeki plays with time, place and memory to create a magical tidal wave of a story.

5. The Infatuations by Javier Marias

A metaphysical crime thriller. Marias uses the voice of a female narrator, something he said he would never do, to examine the nature of love, loss, time and storytelling.There is a playful poke at the publishing industry and the ‘conceit’ of being a novelist.

It’s a novel and once you have finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novels imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with,a plot we recall far more vividly than real events….

A masterpiece.

And now the honourable mentions…..

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1. The Night Rainbow  by Claire King

Meet Pea, who’s struggling to make sense of why her mother is so sad and what she can do to help.Quirky and evocative, this is a real page turner with a big surprise.

2. Nothing Holds Back The Night   by Delphine de Vigan

A blend of autobiography and fiction, this is a woman’s struggle to understand her mother …..and her family. Outwardly gifted, successful and privileged, privately they are torn by violence and dark secrets. Beautifully written.

3. Dear Life  by Alice Munro

The latest collection of short stories from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Thought provoking and moving, she makes every word count. Train will hit you like an express at full speed. 

So that is my round up of the year’s best……..I would love to know your top reads of 2013.