Patrick Modiano’s first novel, La Place de l’Étoile, published fifty years ago, is a satire of French anti-Semitism as hilarious as it is unsettling. Modiano, who was twenty-two years old at the time, seems not to have known—or, in some moods, to have cared—whether his book was a parody of racism or a sophisticated example of it. The narrator is Raphäel Schlemilovitch, a French Jew turned Nazi collaborator, who boasts to one of his girlfriends—a Polish Holocaust survivor, no less—that he is “the only Jew ever to be awarded the Iron Cross by Hitler himself.” Schlemilovitch’s adventures include stints as a white slave-trader in the Savoie, the lover of Eva Braun, a torture victim of the Israeli police, and finally a patient of Sigmund Freud, who gives him a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew and assures him that Jews do not really exist.
The humor of La Place de l’Étoile combines high-class literary references with defiantly low-class humor (not unlike the fiction of Michel Houellebecq). On the opening page, Schlemilovitch quotes from an attack on him in the right-wing press. The ellipses are a parody of the notorious anti-Semite Céline’s trademark punctuation, but one also senses, somewhat uneasily, Modiano’s glee in inventing insults:
Schlemilovitch?…Ah, the foul-smelling mould of the ghettos!…that shithouse lothario!…runt of a foreskin!…Lebano-ganaque scumbag!…his Sea of Galilee yachts!…his Sinai neckties!…may his Aryan slave girls rip off his prick!…with their perfect French teeth…their delicate little hands…gorge out his eyes!…death to the Caliph!…
The real target of Modiano’s satire was the Gaullist myth of a heroic France—la France résistante—that had risen against the German Occupation instinctively and in unison. Modiano’s novel reminded readers that the Republic could not be so easily exculpated: anti-Semitism was no aberration but a deeply French tradition, of which writers like Céline were the natural if slightly rotten fruit. La vraie France, as de Gaulle called it, had often defined itself by excluding or vilifying Jews. In this sense, those who collaborated with the Nazis during the war were not traitors but—as many collaborators would also have argued—ordinary French patriots.
Modiano’s skepticism toward the Gaullist consensus was of course shared by many of his contemporaries. The carnivalesque energies of his novel, published in April 1968, seem to presage the protests that erupted a month later. But Modiano’s politics have never been easy to define. He felt little solidarity with the student soixante-huitards, whom he suspected of being the coddled scions of a venal bourgeoisie. Modiano’s own parents were not quite respectable. His father was a Jewish black marketer who was twice rounded up and nearly deported by the Vichy government; his mother, originally from Antwerp, wrote subtitles for a Nazi-financed film company. Although Modiano has written harshly of both parents—particularly in his bracingly bleak memoir, Pedigree—they bequeathed to him a sympathy…
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