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La Place de L’Etoile

by Patrick Modiano

translated from the French by Pepe Karmel


Author's Note:* Raphaël Schlemilovitch is a hallucinating protagonist and narrator. In a troubled phantasmagorie, a thousand existences he might have lived pass and repass through him on delirious trajectories. Exchanging a thousand contradictory identities, he suffers through the wanderings of a verbal folly, in which the Jew is sometimes king, sometimes martyr, and tragedy is concealed beneath a huge and modest farce. Thus we see a promenade of real and imaginary characters belonging to the author's personal mythology: Maurice Sachs and Otto Abetz, Lévy-Vendôme and Doctor Louis-Ferdinand Bardamu, Brasillach and Drieu la Rochelle, Marcel Proust and the killers of the French Gestapo, Captain Dreyfus and the Pétainist admirals, Freud, Rebecca, Hitler, Eva Braun and many others, like figures in a carousel spinning crazily in space and time. But the place of the étoile, of the star, the closed book, is inscribed in the exact center of the "capital of sadness."


In June 1942, a German officer approaches a young man and says: "Excuse me, monsieur, where is the Place de l'Etoile?"

The young man points to the left side of his chest.

A Jewish History


In those days I was using up my Venezuelan inheritance. Some spoke of nothing but my beautiful youth and my black curls, others heaped insults on me. I reread one last time the article Léon Rabatête devoted to me in a special issue of Ici la France: ". . .How long must we put up with the pranks of Raphaël Schlemilovitch? How long will this Jew promenade his neuroses and his epileptic fits from Touquet to Cap d'Antibes, from La Baule to Aix-les-Bains? I ask for the last time: how long will vagabonds of his sort insult the sons of France? How long do we have to go on washing our hands because of the Jewish leech?. . ." In the same journal, Doctor Bardamu belched: "Schlemilovitch?. . .Ah! the stinking mould of the ghettos!. . . the swoon of the shit-house!. . . Little squirt of a foreskin!. . . moronic Lebanese scoundrel!. . . Tarantara. . . Whack!. . . Look at this yiddish gigolo. . . running around sticking it up the ass of little Aryan girls!. . . infinitely negroid abortion!. . . this frenetic young Abyssinian nabob!. . . Help!. . . Montjoie-Saint-Denis!. . . La-di-da-di-da!. . . rip his guts out. . . cut his balls off!. . . Save the doctor from such a sight!. . . crucify him, in the name of God!. . . Upstart with vile cocktails. . . Kike with international palaces!. . . with orgies made in Haifa!. . . Cannes!. . . Davos!. . . Capri and tutti quanti!. . . huge, very hebraic brothels!. . . Save us from the circumcised man about town!. . . his salmon-pink Maseratis!. . . his yachts in the Tiber style!. . . His Sinai ties!. . . his Aryan slave women should tear his balls off!. . . with their beautiful Aryan teeth. . . their sweet little hands. . . bust his eyes!. . . down with the Caliph!. . . Revolt in the Christian harem!. . . Quick!. . . Quick!. . . refuse to lick his testicles!. . . to fondle him for his dollars!. . . Free yourselves!. . . courage, Maud!. . . or else the Doctor will cry!. . . waste away!. . . horrible injustice!. . . A plot by the Sanhedrin!. . . They want the Doctor's life!. . . believe me!. . . the Consistory!. . . the Rothschild Bank!. . . the Cohens of Anvers!. . . Schlemilovitch!. . . help Bardamu, girls!. . . help!. . ."

~

The Doctor would not forgive me my Bardamu Unmasked, which I sent him from Capri. In this study I revealed the astonishment I felt when, as a young Jew of fourteen, I devoured his The Journey of Bardamu and The Childhoods of Louis-Ferdinand. I did not pass over his anti-semitic pamphlets in silence, as did good Christian souls. About them I wrote: "Doctor Bardamu devotes a large part of his work to the Jewish Question. There is nothing surprising about this: Doctor Bardamu is one of us; he is the greatest Jewish writer of all time. That is why he speaks of his Jewish brothers with passion. In his purely fictional works, Doctor Bardamu recalls our brother Charlie Chaplin, with his taste for pitiful little details, his touching portraits of persecuted men. . . The sentences of Doctor Bardamu are even more "Jewish" than the finely filigreed sentences of Marcel Proust: a tender, tearful music, a little clinging, a bit too hammy. . ." I concluded: "Only the Jews can truly understand one of their own, only a Jew can speak knowledgably about Doctor Bardamu." The Doctor's only response was to send me an insulting letter: according to him, I commanded, with my orgies and my millions, the international Jewish conspiracy. I also sent him my Psychoanalysis of Dreyfus, in which I unequivocally affirmed the Captain's guilt: that was original for a Jew. I had developed the following thesis: Alfred Dreyfus passionately loved the France of Saint Louis, of Joan of Arc and the Chouans—all of which explained his military vocation. But she, France, did not want the Jew Alfred Dreyfus. So he betrayed her, as one revenges himself on a scornful woman with spurs in the form of fleurs de lis. Barrès, Zola, and Déroulède understood nothing of this frustrated love.

Such an interpretation no doubt upset the Doctor. He gave no more signs of life.

The outcries of Rabatête and Bardamu were drowned out by the praises bestowed on me by the critics in the daily papers. Most of them cited Valery Larbaud and Scott Fitzgerald: one of them compared me to Barnabooth, another dubbed me "The Young Gatsby." The photographs in magazines always showed me with my head inclined, my gaze directed toward the horizon. My melancholy was proverbial in the columns of the True Romance magazines. To the journalists who questioned me in front of the Carlton, the Normandy, or the Miramar, I unceasingly declared my Jewishness. Furthermore, my deeds and my gestures contradicted all the virtues cultivated by the French: discretion, economy, work. I have, from my oriental ancestors, black eyes, a taste for exhibitionism and ostentation, an incurable laziness. I am not a child of this country. I never knew the grandmothers who cooked you jams and jellies, nor the family portraits, nor the catechism. I never stop dreaming, however, of provincial childhoods. Mine is peopled with English governesses and it unfolds monotonously on sophisticated beaches: at Deuville Miss Evelyn holds me by the hand. Mama abandons me for polo players. She comes to kiss me at night in my bed, but sometimes she doesn't bother. Then I wait, I no longer listen to Miss Evelyn and the adventures of David Copperfield. Every morning Miss Evelyn takes me to the Pony Club. I have my equitation lessons. To make Mama happy I will be the most famous polo player in the world. French boys know all the soccer teams. Me, I don't think of anything except polo. I repeat these magic words: "Laversine," "Cibao la Pampa," "Silver Leys," "Porfiro Rubirosa." At the Pony Club they take a lot of pictures of me with the young Princess Laïla, my fiancée. In the afternoon, Miss Evelyn buys us chocolate umbrellas at the "Marquise de Sevigné." Laïla prefers the lollipops. Those at the "Marquise de Sevigné" are oblong and have a pretty stick.

I can shake off Miss Evelyn when she takes me to the beach, but she knows where to find me: with the ex-king Firouz or the Baron Truffaldine, two grown-ups who are my friends. The ex-king Firouz offers me pistachio sherberts, exclaiming: "Just as greedy as I am, my little Raphaël!" Baron Truffaldine can always be found alone and sad at the Bar du Soleil. I approach his table and plant myself before him. This old monsieur then tells me interminable stories with characters named Cléo de Merode, Otéro, Émilienne d'Alencon, Liane de Pougy, Odette de Crécy. Fairies, certainly, like in the stories of Hans Christian Anderson.

The other accessories encumbering my childhood are orange beach umbrellas, the Pré-Catalan, the Hattmer Course, David Copperfield, the Countess de Ségur, my mother's apartment on Quai Conti, and three photographs by Lipnitzki where I appear next to a Christmas tree.

~

These are the Swiss boarding schools and my first flirtations at Lausanne. The Duesenberg my Venezuelan Uncle Vidal gave me for my eighteenth birthday glides through the blue evening. I go through a gate, traverse a park which slopes gently down to Leman, and park my car in front of the terrace of a lit-up villa. Several young women in light-colored dresses are waiting for me on the lawn. Scott Fitzgerald has spoken better than I ever could about these "parties" where the twilight is too tender, the bursts of laughter and the scintillations of the lights are too sharp to presage anything good. I advise you to read this writer and you will have an exact idea of the amusements of my adolescence. If you must, read Fermina Marquez by Larbaud.

~

If I shared their pleasures, I still did not wholly resemble my cosmopolitan Lausanne comrades. I often escaped to Geneva. In the silence of the Bergues Hotel, I read the Greek bucolics and struggled at an elegant translation of the Aeneid. During one of these retreats, I made the acquaintance of a young aristocrat from Touraine, Jean-François Des Essarts. We were the same age and I was astonished at how much he knew. At our first meeting, he advised me, pell-mell, to read Maurice Scève's Délie, Cornielle's comedies, the Cardinal de Retz's memoirs. He initiated me into French grace and litotes.

I found precious qualities in him: tact, generosity, a deep sensibility, a mordant irony. I remember that Des Essarts compared our friendship to that which united Robert de Saint-Loup and the narrator in Remembrance of Things Past. "You are a Jew like the narrator," he said to me, "and I am the cousin of the Noailles, the Rochechouart-Mortemarts, and the La Rochefoucaulds, like Robert de Saint-Loup. Don't be scared; for the last hundred years the French aristocracy have had a weakness for Jews. You must read the pages of Drumont where that honorable man reproaches us bitterly for it."

I decided not to go back to Lausanne, and sacrificed my cosmopolitan comrades for Des Essarts without remorse.

I scraped the bottom of my pockets. I still had a hundred dollars. Des Essarts didn't have a cent. Nonetheless I urged him to quit his job as sports writer for the Lausanne Gazette. I had just remembered that during a weekend in England some comrades had taken me to a manor near Bournemouth to show me a collection of old automobiles. I located the name of the collector, Lord Allahabad, and sold him my Duisenberg for fourteen thousand pounds sterling. With that sum we could live decently for a year, without having to ask my Uncle Vidal to wire money.

~

We settled in the Bergues Hotel. I still recall this first period of our friendship with astonishment. In the morning we dawdled in the antique shops of old Geneva. Des Essarts infected me with his passion for turn of the century bronzes. The twenty we bought cluttered our rooms, particularly a greenish allegory of Work and two superb deer. One afternoon Des Essarts announced to me the acquisition of a bronze soccerplayer: "Soon the Parisian snobs will snatch these up at the price of gold. Remember my prediction, my dear Raphaël! If it was up to me, thirties' style would come back into fashion."

I asked him why he had left France.

"Military service," he explained, "didn't suit my delicate constitution. So I deserted."

"We can fix that up," I told him. "I promise to find you a talented engraver here in Geneva who can make you false papers: then you can go back to France without worrying."

The shady printer with whom we entered into an understanding delivered a Swiss birth certificate and passport in the name of Jean-François Levy, born in Geneva July 30th, 194. . .

"Now I'm one of you Jews," Des Essarts said to me. "I was bored with being a goy."

I soon decided to send an anonymous declaration to the leftist newspapers in Paris. I wrote it in these terms: "Since last November, I have been guilty of desertion but the French military authorities have judged it more prudent to remain silent about my case. I declared to them what I today declare publicly: I am a JEW, and the army that disdained the services of Captain Dreyfus can do without mine. They condemn me for not fulfilling my military obligations. Once the same tribunal condemned Alfred Dreyfus because he, a JEW, had dared to choose the career of arms. While waiting for this contradiction to be explained to me, I refuse to serve as a second class soldier in an army which, to this day, has not wanted a Marshal Dreyfus, a General Levy, or an Admiral Cohen. I invite young French Jews to follow my example." I signed: JACOB X.

The French Left had been languishing for some time. As I'd hoped, it passionately took up the case of conscience of Jacob X. This was the third Jewish affair in France after the Dreyfus and Finally affairs. Des Essarts joined in the game, and together we wrote a masterful "Confession of Jacob X" which appeared in a Parisian weekly: Jacob X had been adopted by a French family whose anonymity he was trying to preserve. The family was composed of a Pétainist colonel; his wife, a former canteen attendant; and three sons: the eldest had chosen the Alpine Corps, the second the Navy, and the youngest had just been accepted at Saint-Cyr.

This family lived at Paray-le-Monial and Jacob X had passed his childhood in the shadow of the basilica. Portraits of Gallieni, Foch, Joffre, the military cross of Colonel X and several Vichy blade-and-fasces decorated the living room walls. Under the influence of those around him, the young Jacob X fervently worshipped the French army: he too was preparing for Saint-Cyr and would be a marshal, like Pétain. At school, Monsieur C, the history teacher, explained the Dreyfus affair. Before the war Monsieur C had occupied an important post in the Populist Party. He was not ignorant of the fact that Colonel X had denounced the parents of Jacob X to the Germans and that the adoption of the little Jew had saved his life from justice, at the Liberation. As a good Populist Party member, Monesieur C despised the Saint-Sulpician Pétainism of the X's: he enjoyed the idea of sowing discord in the family. After his course, he motioned Jacob X to approach him and whispered in his ear: "I am sure that the Dreyfus affair causes you a great deal of pain. A young Jew like yourself would feel personally concerned by this injustice." Jacob X learned with fright that he was Jewish. He had identified himself with Marshal Foch, with Marshal Pétain; suddenly he saw that he resembled Captain Dreyfus. He did not, however, choose to revenge himself by committing treason. After receiving his military papers, he saw no other course for himself but to desert.

This confession sowed discord among French Jews. The Zionists counseled him to emigrate to Israel. There he could legitimately aspire to a marshal's baton. The ashamed, assimilated Jews pretended that Jacob X was an agent provocateur in the service of neo-Nazis. The Left defended the young deserter with passion. Sartre's article: "Saint Jacob, Actor and Martyr" started the offensive. The most insightful passage is still memorable: "Henceforth, he wanted to be a Jew, but an abject Jew. Under the severe gaze of Gallieni, or of Joffre, of Foch, whose portraits could be found on the living room walls, he behaved like a vulgar deserter, he who had not ceased, since his childhood, to venerate the French Army, the cap of Father Bugeaud and the blade-and-fasces of Pétain. In short, he experienced the delicious shame of feeling himself the Other, which is to say Evil."

Several manifestos were circulated, clamoring for the triumphal return of Jacob X. A meeting was held at the Mutualité. Sartre begged Jacob X to renounce his anonymity, but the obstinate silence of the deserter discouraged the best intentions.

~

We take our meals at the Beurges. In the afternoon, Des Essart works at a book on the Russian Cinema before the Revolution. As for me, I translate Alexandrian poets. We have chosen the bar of the hotel for working at these pretty tasks. A bald man with eyes glowing like coals comes to sit regularly at the table next to ours. One afternoon, he speaks while looking fixedly at us. Suddenly he takes an old passport from his pocket and gives it to us. I read with stupefaction the name of Maurice Sachs. Alcohol makes him voluble. He tell us about his misadventures since 1945, the date of his supposed disappearance. He has been successively a Gestapo agent, a GI, a cattle merchant in Bavaria, a courtier at Anvers, the manager of a brothel in Barcelona, a clown in a Milan circus under the sobriquet of Lola Montes. Finally he settled down in Geneva where he now owns a little bookstore. We drink until three o'clock in the morning to celebrate this encounter. From that day, we scarcely budge an inch from Maurice, and solemnly promise to guard the secret of his survival.

~

We pass our days sitting behind the piles of books in the back of his bookstore, listening to him bring 1925 back to life. In a voice frayed by alcohol, Maurice conjures up Gide, Cocteau, Coco Chanel. The adolescent of those wild years is now just a fat man gesticulating over the memory of Hispano-Suizas and the club Boeuf sur le toit.

"Since 1945 I have outlived myself," he confides to us. "I should have died at the right moment, like Drieu La Rochelle. But there's just one thing: I'm a Jew, I'm tough as a rat."

I take note of this reflection and the next day I bring Maurice my Drieu and Sachs: Where Evil Paths Lead. In this study I show how two young men of 1925 went astray because of their lack of character: Drieu, a tall, languid young man, a petty bourgeois Frenchman fascinated by convertibles, English ties, young Americans, and passing himself off as a hero of the First World War; Sachs, a charming young Jew of dubious morals, product of the post-war corruption. In 1940, tragedy sweeps across Europe. How are our two young blades going to react? Drieu remembers that he was born in the Contentin and sings the Horst-Wessel Song for four years, in a high voice like a squeaky faucet. For Sachs, occupied Paris is an Eden where he can frenetically abandon himself. This Paris offers him even more exciting sensations than the Paris of 1925. One can traffic in gold, rent apartments and sell their furniture, trade ten kilos of butter for a sapphire, convert the sapphire into scrap-iron, etc. The night and the mists make paying up unnecessary. But, above all, what happiness to buy his life on the black market, to steal each beat of his heart, to feel himself the object of a hunt! It is hard to imagine Sachs in the Resistance, fighting alongside petty French bureaucrats for the re-establishment of morality, legality, and daylight. In 1943, when he feels the hounds and the rat-traps closing in, he enrolls in the STO, and after that becomes an active member of the Gestapo. I do not want to displease Maurice: I have him die in 1945, and silently pass over his diverse incarnations between 1945 and our time. I conclude thus: "Who would have thought that this charming young man of 1925 would be devoured by a pack of dogs, twenty years later, on a plain in Pomerania?"

~

After reading my study, Maurice says to me: "It is very pretty, Schlemilovitch, this comparison of me and Drieu, but to tell the truth I'd rather see a comparison of Drieu and Brasillach. I was nothing but a joker compared to those two, you know. Write something for tomorrow morning, and I'll tell you what I think of it."

Maurice is delighted to counsel a young man. No doubt he remembers the first visits he paid, his heart beating, to Gide and Cocteau. My Drieu and Brasillach pleases him very much. I tried to answer the following question: for what reasons did Drieu and Brasillach collaborate?

The first part of this study is called: "Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, or the Eternal Couple of the SS and the Jewess." The figure of the Jewess often appears in Drieu's novels. Gilles Drieu, this fierce Viking, did not hesitate to pimp for Jewesses, a certain Myriam for example. His attraction to them can also be explained in the following manner: ever since Walter Scott, it has been generally understood that Jewesses are pliant courtesans who comply with all the caprices of their Aryan lords and masters. When surrounded by Jewesses Drieu could indulge in the illusion of being a Crusader, a Teutonic knight. Up to this point there was nothing original in my analysis; all Drieu's commentators stress the figure of the Jewess in his work. But Drieu the collaborator? I explain it easily: Drieu was fascinated by Doric virility. In June 1940 the real Aryans, the true warriors, spill into Paris: Drieu quickly abandons the Viking costume he had rented to brutalize young Jewish girls in Passy. His true nature reasserts itself: beneath the steely blue gaze of the SS, he turns soft, he melts, he suddenly feels oriental languors. Soon he swoons in the arms of the conquerors. After their defeat, he sacrifices his own life. Such passivity, such a taste for nirvana, is astonishing in this Norman. Drieu's true calling was to be an odalisque. He was the Jewish courtesan, the Esther Gobseck of the Collaboration.**

~

The second part of my study is titled: "Robert Brasillach or the Young Lady of Nuremberg." "There were several of us who slept with Germany," he avowed, "and the memory will remain sweet." His spontaneity is reminiscent of the Viennese girls during the Anschluss. The German soldiers marched on the Ring; the girls who went to throw them roses wore their prettiest drindls. Then they strolled with these blond angels in the Prater. And afterwards came the enchanted dusk of the Stadtpark, where you embraced a young SS Totenkopf while murmuring Schubert lied to him. My God, how beautiful the youths from the other side of the Rhine were!. . .How could you not fall in love with the young Hitlerian Quex? At Nuremberg, Brasillach couldn't believe his eyes: the amber muscles, the clear gazes, the quivering lips of the Hitlerjugend, and their rods that you felt stiffen in the embracing night. . .I knew Robert Brasillach at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He called me with affection "his good Moses" or "his good Jew." Together we discovered the Paris of Pierre Corneille and René Clair, sown with agreeable bistros where we knocked back glasses of white wine. Robert spoke maliciously of our fine teacher André Bellesort, and we traded juicy rumors. In the afternoon we baited young, stupid, pretentious Jewish cankers. Evenings we went to the movies or feasted, with our highbrow friends, on the abundant charms of the streetwalkers. All this was our youth, the profound morning we will never recapture. Robert began a brilliant career as a journalist. I remember an article he wrote on Julien Benda. We strolled in the Parc Montsouris, and in his virile voice our Grand Meaulnes sage denounced Benda's intellectualism, his Jewish obscenity, his Talmudist's senility. "Excuse me," he said to me all of a sudden. "No doubt I have hurt you. I had forgotten that you were an Israelite."

I blushed to the roots of my hair. "No, Robert, I am an honorary goy. Don't you know that Jean Lévy, Pierre-Marius Zadoc, Raoul-Charles Leman, Marc Boasson, René Riquieur, Louis Latzarus, René Gross, all of them Jews like me, were warm partisans of Maurras? As for me, Robert, I want to work at I Am Everywhere! Introduce me to your friends, I beg you! I'll take over the anti-semitism column from Lucien Rebatet! Imagine the scandal: Schlemilovitch denouncing Blud as a Yid!" Robert was enchanted by this idea. Soon I was drawn to P.-A. Cousteau, "the dark and virile Bordelais"; Corporal Ralph Soupault; Robert Andriveau, "hardened fascist and the sentimental tenor of our banquets"; jovial Toulousian Alain Laubreaux; Claude Roy, the blond-curled darling of I Am Everywhere; and finally the Alpine Trooper Lucien Rebatet ("There's a man: he handles a pen the way he'll handle a rifle when the time comes"). Right away I gave this peasant from Dauphiné some useful ideas for his anti-Semitism column. After that Rebatet never stopped asking me for advice. I have always thought that hoys aren't sharp enough to understand Jews. Even their anti-semitism is clumsy. That's why the I Am Everywhere gang were indebted to me.

We used the printing press of Action française. I bounced on Maurras' knees and tugged at Pujo's beard. Maxime Real del Sarte wasn't bad either. Wonderful old men! Ever since my childhood I had dreamed of grandfathers like this. Mine, an obscure Odessa Jew, didn't know French.

I found Léon Daudet amusing, but Colonel de la Rocque bored me. Horace de Carbuccia and Béraud occasionally asked me over to discuss the Jewish-English Conspiracy. Maurois envied me my fascist friendships. I gave him my recipe: abandon the exquisite modesty of an ashamed Jew once and for all. Take his true name again. Become, like me, Raphaël Schlemilovitch, an anti-Semitic Jew.

June 1940. I leave the little band of I Am Everywhere, but I miss our meetings at the Place Denfert-Rochereau. I am weary of journalism and have begun to entertain political ambitions. I resolve to be a collaborating Jew, while Maurois and Daniel Halévy, bringing up the rear as usual, content themselves with Pétainism. First I throw myself into high society collaboration: I join the Propaganda-Staffel teas, Jean Luchaire's dinners, the suppers at the Rue Lauriston; I carefully cultivate the friendship of Brinon. I avoid Céline and Drieu la Rochelle; they are too Jewish for my taste. I soon become indispensable; I am the only Jew, the good Jew of the Collabo. Luchaire introduces me to Abetz. We agree on a meeting at the Hotel Majestic. I state my conditions: first, I want to take the place of Darquier de Pellepoix; that ignoble little Frenchman, at the Commissariat for the Jewish Question; second, I want to have complete freedom of action. My aim: to create a Jewish Waffen SS and a voluntary Jewish Legion Against Bolshevism. It seems to me absurd to suppress 500,000 French Jews, when a little brainwashing would make them feel the warmest sentiments toward Germany. Abetz seems very interested, but does not follow up my propositions. Nonetheless I stay on excellent terms with him and Stülpnagel. They tell me to address myself to Doriot or to Déat. Doriot displeases me because of his communist past and his suspenders. In Déat I smell the radical-socialist teacher. A newcomer impresses me with his beret: Jo Darnand. Every anti-Semite has his "good Jew": Jo Darnand is my good Frenchman, in the phrase of Epinal: "with his face of a warrior scrutinizing the plain." I become his right-hand man, and strike up some solid friendships in the militia: those navy-blue boys are OK, believe me.

In the summer of 1944, after various operations in Vercors, we hide at Sigmaringen with the Vichy forces. In December, during von Rundstedt's offensive, I am brought down by a GI named Levy-he looks enough like me to be my brother.

~

In Maurice's library I have found all the back issues of La Gerbe, Pillory, and I Am Everywhere, and several Pétainist brochures devoted to the training of "leaders." Besides the pro-German literature, Maurice possesses the complete works of various forgotten writers. While I delight in the anti-Semites Montandon and Marques-Rivière, Des Essarts loses himself in the novels of Edouard Rod, Marcel Prévost, Estaunié, Boylesve, Abel Hermant. He composes a little essay called What Is Literature?, which he dedicates to Jean-Paul Sartre. Des Essarts' true calling is to be an antiquarian; he wants to revive the 1880's novelists he has just discovered. He'd also like to take up the cause of the Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III styles. The last chapter of his essay is entitled "How to Enjoy Certain Authors" and is addressed to young people who want to become cultivated: "Edouard Estaunié," he writes, "should be read in a country house around five o'clock in the afternoon, with a glass of armagnac in your hand. The reader must have on a severe suit by O'Rosen or Creed, a club tie, and a pocket-handkerchief of black silk. I would advise reading René Boylesve in the summer-time, at Cannes or Monte-Carlo, around eight o'clock in the evening, in an alpaca suit. The novels of Abel Hermant require savoir-faire: you should read them on board a Panamanian yacht, while smoking mentholated cigarettes."

Maurice himself is working on the third volume of his Memoirs: The Ghost, after The Sabbath and The Hunt. As for me, I have decided to be the greatest French Jewish writer after Montaigne, Marcel Proust, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

~

It is time for me to defend the interests of my people. In Paris, a young man's book about the concentration camp of T. has provoked polemics. The goys reproach the author for describing the "concentration-camp world" in the manner of a mystic and a racist Jew, under the pretext of stating a few truths: the Jews have a specifically Jewish way of living, suffering, and dying; the last World War was nothing but a personal affair between the Jews and the Germans.

A certain David Roussillon-Lauraguais, a very French Frenchman, exclaims his indignation in the glossy weeklies; he, Roussillon-Lauraguais, knew the concentration-camp world very well. Even though he is not a Jew! The Jews don't have a monopoly on martyrdom! There were many from the Auvergne, from Périgord, from Brittany, at Auschwitz and Dachau! Exactly! What right does this young greenhorn have to speak up! Because he's Jewish? Because his father died after being deported? Because he himself barely escaped the gas chambers? Why does he have to fill our ears with the Jews' misery? Has he forgotten the misery of those from Berrie? The pathos of Poitiers? The despair of the Picards? The systematic extermination of five hundred thousand Normans by the SS Totenkopf?

~

I had the angers and passions of a true young man. Today, such naïveté makes me smile. I believed that the future of Jewish Literature rested on my shoulders. I threw a glance backwards and denounced the counterfeits: Captain Dreyfus, Maurois, Daniel Halévy. I found Proust too assimilated because of his provincial childhood, Edmond Fleg too well-mannered, Benda too abstract: one shouldn't hide one's Jewishness, as he did, behind an icy intellectualism and a noble universalism: a Jew is a Jew with Jewish lungs, a Jewish stomach, a Jewish epigastrium. So why play at being a pure spirit, Benda? The arch-angel of geometry? A disembodied hero? An invisible Jew? No doubt you want to avoid the pogroms? Me, I'm waiting for them. When is the next? Don't let them spare me.

There were some beautiful lines in Speyer:

            O warmth, O sadness, O violence, O madness
            I'm devoted to you, invincible genies.
            What would I be without you? Come defend me
            Against the dry Reason of this happy world.

And also:

            You'd like to sing of force, audacity:
            You'll never like anyone but dreamers helpless against life
            You'll try to listen to the happy songs of peasants,
            The brutal marches of soldiers, the girls' sweet rounds:
            You'll only have a ready ear for tears.

In the East there were stronger personalities: Henrich Heine, Franz Kafka. I loved Heine's poem Doña Clara: in Spain, the daughter of the Grand Inquisitor falls in love with a handsome knight who looks like Saint George. "You have nothing in common with those evil Jews," she tells him. Then the handsome knight reveals his identity:

            Ich, Señora, eur Geliebter,
            Bin der Sohn des vielbelobten
            Grossen, schriftgelehrten Rabbi
            Israel von Saragossa.***

~

A lot of noise has been made about Franz Kafka, the older brother of Charlie Chaplin. Some Aryan pedants have confused matters so they could trample on his works: they have promoted Kafka to a professor of philosophy. They confront him with the Prussian Immanuel Kant; with Sören Kierkegaard, the inspired Dane; with the southerner Albert Camus; with J.P. Sartre, the hack writer, half-Alsatian, half Périgordian. I don't know how Kafka, so fragile and so timid, resists this mob.

~

Since being naturalized as a Jew, Des Essarts espoused our cause without reserve. Maurice himself was bothered by my own exacerbated racism.

"You keep harping on old stories," he said to me. "It's not 1942 anymore, my friend! Otherwise I would have strongly advised you to follow my example an join the Gestapo-to change your ideas! You can forget your roots pretty quickly, you know! Be a little flexible. You can change your skin whenever you want! Some color! Hurray for that chameleon! Look, I can make myself Chinese, like that! Apache! Norwegian! Patagonian! Just a wave of the hand! Abracadabra!"

I don't listen. I have just met Tania Arcisewska, a Polish Jewess. This young woman is destroying herself slowly, without convulsions, without cries, as if it were happening naturally. She shoots up, with a Pravaz syringe, in her left arm. "Tania is a bad influence on you," Maurice tells me. "Find some nice little Aryan girl instead, who'll sing you country lullabies."

~

Tania sings me the Prayer for the Auschwitz Dead. She wakes me up in the middle of the night and shows me the indelible registration number she bears on her shoulder: "Look what they did to me, Raphaël, look!" She stumbles over to the window. On the quais of the Rhône, black battalions are marching and forming ranks with admirable discipline. "Look at all those SS, Raphaël! There are three policemen in leather coats, there, on the left! The Gestapo, Raphaël! They're heading for the door of the hotel! They're looking for us! They're going to drag us back to the flock!"

I hurry to reassure her. I have friends in high places. I'm not satisfied with the little jokers of the Parisian Collabo. I'm on first name terms with Goering; Hess, Goebbels, and Heydrich think highly of me. With me, she has nothing to fear. The police won't touch a single strand of her hair. If they are obstinate, I will show them my decorations: I am the only Jew to have received the Merit Cross from Hitler's own hands.

~

One morning, Tania makes use of my absence to slit her wrists. Even though I had carefully hidden my razor blades. In fact I experience a strange vertigo myself whenever I see these small metallic objects: I want to swallow them.

The next day an inspector sent specially from Paris interrogates me. Inspector La Clayette, if I'm not mistaken. A mustachioed Burgundian. "The person named Tania Ancisewska," he tells me, "was being sought by the French Police. Traffic in and use of narcotics. You have to watch out for these foreigners. These Jews. These Mittel-Europa delinquents. Anyway, she's dead, and all the better." Inspector La Clayette's zeal and his interest in my friend astonish me: a former Gestapo man, no doubt.

~

As a memento of Tania I kept her collection of marionettes: the characters of the commedia dell'arte-Karagheuz, Pinocchio, Guignol, the Wandering Jew, the Sleepwalker. She had arranged them around her before killing herself. I believe they were her only companions. Of all these marionettes, I like the Sleepwalker best, with his arms extended and his eyes shut. Tania, lost in a nightmare of barbed wire and look-out towers, resembled him.

~

Then it was Maurice's turn to leave. For a long time her had been dreaming of the Orient. I imagine him, retired, in Macao or Hong Kong. Perhaps he is renewing his experience of the STO in a kibbutz. This hypothesis seems the most likely to me.

For a week Des Essarts and I are at a loss. We no longer have the strength to interest ourselves in intellectual matters, and we look fearfully toward the future: we only have sixty Swiss francs left. An airplane accident off the Azores makes our spirits rise: Des Essarts' grandfather and my Venezuelan Uncle Vidal were on board the Pan American plane. Des Essarts inherits the title of a duke and peer; I have to be satisfied with a colossal fortune in bolivars. My Uncle Vidal's will astonishes me, but no doubt bouncing on an old man's knee at age five is enough to make him name you his sole heir.

We decide to return to France. I reassure Des Essarts: the French police are looking for a duke and peer who deserted, but not for the person named Jean-François Lévy, citizen of Geneva. After crossing the frontier, we break the bank at the casino in Aix-les-Bains. I give my first press conference at the Hotel Splendid. They ask me what I'm going to do with my bolivars: keep a harem? Build a palace of pink marble? Protect the arts and letters? Busy myself with philanthropic works? Am I a romantic, a cynic? Will I become this year's playboy? Will I place Rubirosa? Farouk? Ali Khan?

I will play the role of young millionaire in my own manner. Certainly, I've read Larbaud and Scott Fitzgerald, but I will imitate neither the spiritual torments of A.W. Olson Barnabooth nor the infantile romanticism of Gatsby. I want people to love me for my money.

I'm shocked to find I have tuberculosis. I must hide this ill-timed malady, which would earn me a new outburst of popularity in all the cottages of Europe. Aryan girls would discover a calling, like Sainte Blandine, at the sight of this young man, rich, despairing, handsome, and tubercular. To discourage well-wishers , I repeat to the journalists that I am a JEW. Therefore only money and luxury interest me. They find me very photogenic: I make ugly grimaces, I wear orangutan masks; I propose to become the archetype of the Jew that Aryans came to observe in the 1941 Zöological Exposition at the Berlitz Palace. I awaken memories in Rabatête and Bardamu. Their insulting articles reward my efforts. Unfortunately, no one reads these two authors anymore. The daily papers and the True Romance magazines obstinately shower me with praises: I am a charming and original young heir. Jewish? Like Jesus Christ and Albert Einstein. And then? Despairing of my cause, I buy a yacht, The Sanhedrin, which I transform into a luxurious brothel. I anchor it at Monte-Carlo, Cannes, La Baule, Deauville. Three loudspeakers mounted on each mast blare the texts of Doctor Bardamu and Rabatête, my favorite public-relations material: yes, I command the international Jewish Conspiracy with my orgies and my millions. Yes, it is my fault that war broke out in 1939. Yes, I am Bluebeard, a cannibal who devours Aryan girls after raping them. Yes, I dream of ruining the entire French peasantry and making the Auvergne Jewish.

Soon I abandon these gestures. In the company of my faithful Des Essarts I retire to the Hotel Trianon at Versailles to read Saint-Simon. My mother is worried about my sickly appearance. I promise to write her a tragicomedy in which she can play the leading role. Then, my tuberculosis will gently consume me. Or perhaps I could commit suicide. After some thought, I decide not to die beautiful. They could compare me to Aiglon or Werther.

~

That evening, Des Essarts wanted to take me to a masked ball. "Above all, don't dress as Shylock or that Jew Süss, like you always do. I've rented a superb Henri III nobleman's outfit for you, and a Spahi uniform for myself." I refuse his invitation, on the pretext that I have to finish my play as fast as possible. He leaves me with a sad smile. When his car had vanished through the hotel gate, I felt a vague remorse. A little later, my friend was killed on the western autoroute. An incomprehensible accident. He was wearing his Spahi uniform. He was not disfigured.

~

I soon finished my play. A tragicomedy. A torrent of abuse against the goys. I was sure it would upset the Parisian public; they would not forgive me for putting my neuroses and my racism on stage in such an aggressive fashion. I counted on the last bit of bravado: in a room with white walls, father and son confront each other: the son is wearing a patched-up SS uniform and an old Gestapo raincoat, the father a yarmulka, side-curls, and a rabbinic beard. The parody an interrogation, the son playing the role of the torturer, the father the role of the victim. The mother bursts onto the stage and comes toward them with her arms extended, her eyes wild. She howls the ballad of the Jewish Whore Marie Sanders. The son chokes his father while singing the Horst-Wessel Song, but can't drown out his mother's voice. The father, half-smothered, moans the Kol Nidre, the prayer of Grand Forgiveness. The door at the rear opens suddenly: four male nurses encircle the protagonists and subdue them with great difficulty. The curtain falls. No one applauds. I am stared at with scornful eyes. They expected better manners from a Jew. I am truly an ingrate. I am a real cad. I have stolen their clear, distinct language to transform it into hysterical stomach rumblings.

They had hoped for a new Marcel Proust, a yid polished by contact with their culture, a sweet music; but they had been deafened by menacing tom-toms. Now they know what to expect from me. I can die happy.

~

The reviews the next morning were a great disappointment. They were condescending. I had to give in to the evidence. I would not encounter any hostility, except from some patronesses and old gentlemen resembling Colonel de la Rocque. The press took a very sympathetic interest in my moods. The French had an unlimited affection for whores who wrote their memoirs, homosexual poets, Arab pimps, cocaine-sniffing Negroes, and Jewish provocateurs. Decidedly, morality had vanished. The Jew was a prized bit of merchandise; we were too respected. I could have gone to Saint-Cyr and become Marshal Schlemilovitch: the Dreyfus affair will not start up again.

~

After this defeat, there was nothing left to do but disappear like Maurich Sachs. To leave Paris definitively. I willed my mother part of my fortune. I remembered that I had a father in America. I asked him to come visit me if he wanted to inherit three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. I didn't have to wait long for an answer: he set a rendezvous with me in Paris, at the Hotel Continental. I wanted to cure my tuberculosis. To become a wise and circumspect young man. A real little Aryan. Only I didn't like sanatoriums. I preferred travelling. My vagabond soul wanted to feel beautifully uprooted.

It seemed to me that I'd feel more out of place in the French provinces than in Mexico or the isles of Indonesia. I therefore renounced my cosmopolitan past. I was eager to know the farms, the gaslamps, the songs of the groves and forests.

Then I thought how my mother often toured in the provinces. For Carinthy Tours: the Boulevard Theater guaranteed. Since she spoke French with a Balkan accent, she played the roles of Russian princesses, of Polish Countesses and Hungarian amazons. Princess Berezovo at Aurillac. Countess Tomazoff at Béziers. Baroness Gevatchaldy at Saint-Brieuc. The Carinthy Tours covered all of France.


* What follows is Part One of La Place de L’Etoile. We would like to thank Editions Gallimard for permission to reprint in translation. [return]

** Service Travail Obligatoire, the German program in which Frenchmen were obliged to work in Germany. [return]

*** “I, your lover, Señora, I am the son of the learned and glorious Don Isaac Ben Israël, grand rabbi of the Saragossa synagogue.” (author’s note) [return]

 

Patrick Modiano is a French novelist and 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Among his most recent English publications are Missing Person (David R. Godine, 2004) and The Search Warrant (Random House, 2000). He was also a 2010 Prix mondial Cino Del Duca honoree. We believe that with this 1979 novel excerpt, AGNI was the first to publish Modiano in the United States. (10/2014)

Pepe Karmel studied at Harvard and has also translated French poetry and film criticism. He recently completed a novel of his own, in English. (1979)


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