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Interview: Mark Polizzotti on Translating the Work of Patrick Modiano

Friday, March 06, 2015 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Patrick Modiano, who won the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature, has recently seen a flurry of attention here in the U.S., where he had been relatively unknown until the announcement of his Nobel win. Modiano’s first book, La Place de l'Étoile, was published in May, 1968, the time of the famous student protests in Paris and a year before the seminal 1969 French Holocaust film The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophuls came out and jolted France into consciousness of what had happened during World War II and the extent of the collaboration by the Vichy government. Modiano’s other works involve grappling – directly and indirectly – with the after effects of that time both on individuals and the city of Paris itself.

Modiano's work continues to be an important lens through which we view Paris and French Jewish life and culture. In the aftermath of the murders of Jews both at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris in January, 2015, looking back at what The New Yorker had to say about Modiano in October, 2014 is eerily significant: “It will not have escaped the attention of the Nobel committee that Modiano’s win comes at a time when anti-Semitism in France is on the rise, as is the rate of French Jews’ emigration to Israel. The fear that French Jews are not safe in their own land, that French Jewish culture may vanish, is once again palpable, and real.” 

While a new novel, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, will be published later this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (published in France in 2014), and Modiano's Dora Bruder was recently published by University of California Press, we turn our attention to Suspended Sentences, a volume of novellas published by Yale University Press this past November. Specifically, though, we turn to the translator of the volume, Mark Polizzotti, who is also currently translating Modiano's memoir Pedigree, to learn more about his decision to translate Modiano and his thoughts on Modiano and his work. 

Beth Kissileff: You’ve translated over 40 books - why did you choose to be involved with this?

Mark Polizzotti: I am drawn to writers with a gift for spareness, who say a lot with a little. Modiano’s books are so short, so few words. But one can tell so much in a sentence with these little impressionistic touches. It is like a Monet—if you look too closely it’s just daubs of paint, but when you stand back, you can see a cathedral.

Translating him is a wonderful exercise; one has to bring all of one’s linguistic abilities to bear. There is a real beauty and loveliness to his prose that I tried hard to convey in English. It takes real talent to say something in few words, as he does, to give each word resonance and weight.

I was surprised when he won the Nobel. On the surface, he seems lightweight even – so indirect, such lightness of tone. But in reality he is dealing with some of the weightiest issues of the twentieth century. It’s just that he doesn’t beat his chest about it the way some writers do.

BK: Why did Modiano come to prominence now?

MP: Modiano is part of the first generation to ask questions about what really happened during the war. Despite the national myth promoted by De Gaulle, people in France did collaborate, actively or passively.

When Modiano’s first book [La Place de l'Étoile, not yet in English, the name alluding to both the star Jews had to wear and an actual location in Paris ] came out in 1968, a year before The Sorrow and the Pity, that national myth was beginning to crumble.

The first-person narrator of that book is a self-hating Jew. The whole question about Judaism and anti-Semitism, hatred and self hatred, is pulled into one character. Modiano’s two great influences for La Place de l'Étoile were Proust and Céllne, who between them embody all the contradictions and complexities of France’s relationship to Judaism.

BK: Have you met him? Any anecdotes to share?

MP: I have not met him. I’m told he is very gracious, very shy, retiring. On the one hand, I’m sure he’s delighted by the Nobel Prize, but he probably does not like being a public figure. When I was working on the translation I sent him a query about some personal references, to make sure I translated them correctly. He wrote me a letter – apparently, he doesn’t do email, this was all handwritten - with a vast amount of information, even more than I had asked.

To me, this letter is very much in keeping with the voice that comes out of the books, an indicator of authenticity. There are some writers who are wonderful on the page but are wretched human beings. In Modiano’s case, I felt this was a confirmation, that the generosity I sensed on the page was true to its author.

BK: What is the role of his own personal history in his writing?

MP: In his own personal history, his mother was constantly disappearing, on tour as an actress, and his father always seemed to want to keep him away, by sending him to boarding school, the army, and so on.

He rarely mentions this, but his younger brother died when he was ten, I believe of meningitis. Modiano was not there when it happened, but rather away at boarding school.

One day his father showed up at school to take him home, and on the way back, he told him “Your brother died.” Modiano was twelve at the time and he seems never to have gotten over it.

He talks about it in his memoir, Pedigree, which I’m translating now.

BK: Why is so little of Modiano’s work translated until now? Why is it so hard to get American readers to read in translation?

MP: American publishing has the sense that American readers prefer to read Americans. When a foreign author breaks through, like Bolaño or Knausgaard, it’s considered a fluke. Will the Nobel bring Modiano lasting recognition in this country? We’ll see.

BK: In the novella Flowers of Ruin, Modiano writes, “Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries when life was there in all its simplicity beneath the sun?” Is this also characteristic of him?

MP: There are moments of great lightness in his work, and of great consolation.

BK: The best way to understand this writer is to end with a quote. This is from the novella Afterimage: “And so, feeling helpless, he’d taken those photos so that the place where his friend and his friend’s loved ones had lived would at least be preserved on film. But the courtyard, the square, and the deserted buildings under the sun made their absence even more irremediable.”

Mark Polizzotti is an accomplished author, editor, reviewer, and head of the publications program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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