Modiano and the Weight of History

I picked up my first novel by Patrick Modiano in a bookstore in Strasbourg last fall.  He had just won the Nobel Prize and it was obvious that the bookstore had scrambled to find copies of his books: there were new paperbacks with moody photographs on the covers and red paper straps that read “Prix Nobel de Littérature,”  but there were also the old buff-colored Gallimard editions from the 1980s and 90s.  I chose two, mainly for their titles, since I knew nothing about the author: Fleurs de ruine (1991) modiano fleurs de ruineand Rue des boutiques obscures (1978). Like their titles, the novels are written in a style I can only call “existential noir.”  Dark and atmospheric, they remind me of the plain declarative style of Simenon but also the films of Jean-Pierre Melville like Bob le flambeur (1956), although they are not as plot-driven.  I was not surprised to learn that Modiano co-wrote the screenplay for that devastating laconic masterpiece Lacombe Lucien (1974) with Louis Malle.  Some of the novels have now been translated into English, but so far I’ve read them in French.

This summer I bought another Modiano, Dora Bruder (1997), which some have referred to as non-fiction but which is generally billed as a novel.  Like Modiano’s other works, it is a mixture of history, autobiography, and fiction, all of it so intermingled that it is difficult to pull out what is “real” and what is fictional.  In all of the novels I have read, there is a male narrator who appears to be about Modiano’s age (he was born in 1945).  The setting is Paris, and even though I feel I know Paris pretty well, I find it helpful to read with my old maroon-covered Plan de Paris par Arrondissementlec47-01a to figure out where I am.  I did this with Eric Hazan’s passionate history The Invention of Paris too.  And anyway I like maps.Modiano Dora Bruder

My Plan de Paris, purchased in the 1990s, is now out of date, a reminder that cities are constantly changing.  Modiano is above all a historian of Paris, and his novels obsessively return to particular places – the 18th arrondissement in Dora Bruder, the Cité Universitaire in Fleurs du ruine – and note what building has been torn down, what café used to be on that corner, what restaurant he once ate in.  He walks the streets to retrace his own past and that of his characters, exploring memory and forgetting, particularly the memory of World War II, which took place before his birth but which haunts his work.  In Dora Bruder he wrote, “Il faut longtemps pour que resurgisse à la lumière ce qui a été effacé”: “it takes a long time for that which has been erased to reappear to the light.”  But it does reappear: “it takes a little patience.”  In all of these novels he pursues the work of the pre-internet historian (in more recent works he apparently does use the internet), tracking down obscure registers, newspaper clippings, human memories.  The protagonist in Rue des boutiques obscures has lost his own memory and spends the novel trying to find out who he is, and was.  Providentially, he works for a private detective, and mines the office collections of old city directories.  In a very Modiano move, there are lists of addresses and particularly of old phone numbers with their weirdly evocative three-letter prefixes.

Many of his novels begin with an old story in a newspaper.  Fleurs de ruine begins with a story about a murder in the Latin quarter in the 1930s.  Dora Bruder begins with a newspaper notice from December 1941 about a runaway girl, aged 15.  The girl, we soon learn, was Jewish, and we are not entirely surprised to learn, about halfway through the book, that she and her father ended up about six months later in Auschwitz.  But the point of the story is Modiano’s research into Dora’s life and how it intersects with the broader history of France in the 1940s (and the hidden history of collaboration) and how it intersects with his own history and his troubled relationship with his Jewish father.  Like Dora’s father, Modiano’s was swept up in one of the regular rafles or round-ups of Jews but he managed to escape.  Ernest Bruder was not as fortunate.

Paris has long recognized its defenders during the liberation in August 1944: plaques all over the city mark those who died. pont au change It has been slower to acknowledge the occupation.  But in the early 2000s, plaques began to appear on schools in neighborhoods that had large Jewish populations, including the 10th and the 18th, where Dora – who was a real person – lived.

Ecole Louise Michel, rue des Vinaigriers, 10th arrondissement
Ecole Louise Michel, rue des Vinaigriers, 10th arrondissement

Historical erasure, one can hope, is never complete.  It just takes patience to undo.  When I took the RER train out to Charles de Gaulle airport on this trip, I thought of Dora Bruder as the train passed through the drab northern suburb of Drancy, where thousands of Jews were detained on their way to concentration camps.

John Evelyn meets Raymond Chandler

800px-Eucalyptus_tereticornis_flowers,_capsules,_buds_and_foliageYou could smell them before you saw them, what Raymond Chandler called “that peculiar tomcat smell,” so evocative of southern California.  I did not expect to smell them in a forest in Galicia, in northwestern Spain, where I spent a week last September walking the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.  But there they were, eucalyptus planted in neat rows.  Trained to worship old growth, I viewed the eucalyptus as an abomination: non-native, highly flammable, unsustainable.  The forests of Galicia are very far from old growth (what would that even mean in Europe?  Neolithic?) .  They have been planted and replanted for generations.   Eucalyptus entered the scene, as it did in north Africa and California, in the nineteenth century.  Imported from Australia, its rapid growth and hard wood made it a favored tree for plantation forestry.  Moreover, the oil obtained from the leaves had medicinal uses.  But that oil also makes the trees easy to burn: they explode when flames come close, as I knew too well after living twenty years in southern California.  The frequent and devastating fires during Galicia’s hot summers are a consequence of a century and more of eucalyptus cultivation.

I recently began working on the history of the H.J. Andrews Forest Long-term Ecological Research site in Oregon.  So when I was asked to give a talk on the “deep history” of ecological restoration for the Society for Ecological Restoration, I decided to look at forests, and started in the era I know best, the seventeenth century, and the inimitable John Evelyn (1620-1706), whose Sylva, first published in 1664, became a bible for foresters in Europe and in the new colonies in North America.  What follows is a shorter version of that talk.JohnEvelyn 1687

Restoration, to Evelyn,implied the return of the monarch to his rightful place as head of state and also had profound implications for the English landscape. Human damage to the land could be reversed and its hills and valleys once more made to bloom. Two widespread beliefs made such restoration possible: that history was cyclic rather than linear, and that an anthropomorphic God had originally made the earth in the image of a garden.

That original garden, Eden, was lost forever, but the garden or park had long been considered a means to approach it on earth.  Evelyn envisioned a multi-pronged project he called the Elysium Britannicum“Elysium” in classical mythology was a place of perfect happiness, the abode of the blessed after death.  It would take the form of a garden, the “place of all terrestriall enjoyments the most resembling Heaven, and the best representation of our lost felicitie.” Evelyn’s idea of restoration as a human and spiritual exercise as well as a scientific one has, I believe, much to teach us.  Caught between a notion of history as eternal cycles and one of inevitable progress, Evelyn employed the profoundly conservative notion of restoration to promote some radical ideas about the human role in nature.  The notion that human actions could undo the malign impacts of earlier humans and bring nature back to a newly sustainable state is therefore neither as new nor as unique as many environmental historians believe.

Although England had been heavily forested in early medieval times – historians estimate that 60% of the land was forested at one time – even before the depredations of the Civil Wars, the forests of Britain had been seriously depleted.  By the early sixteenth century, the only extensive forests in the south of England were those owned by the king: the Forest of Dean and the New Forest.  In tough financial times in the early seventeenth century, kings cut down their trees and sold the timber.  Many more trees were cut down during the Civil Wars to outfit Navies on both sides of the conflict.  In addition, those loyal to the king paid heavy fines to the victorious Parliament in order to retain their estates, and they often paid them in timber.

The newly formed Royal Society considered the restoration of the nation’s trees in the early 1660s.  Evelyn headed a committee on forests that resulted in the publication of Sylva Sylva, or a discourse of forest-trees. He wrote,  “May such Woods as do yet remain intire be carefully Preserv’d, and such as are destroy’d, sedulously Repair’d.”  This was a duty to God, to the state, and to past and future generations.

Evelyn recognized that, left to its own devices, nature could repair itself.  If agriculture were abandoned for “some entire Ages” the forests could return.  But what humans destroyed, humans could and should replace.  It was better to plant trees than to wait for them to reappear.   Oaks, the most useful of trees and laden with symbolism in British culture, were the most prominent but not the only trees that Evelyn recommended planting.  Each tree had its particular place in the landscape, and each its particular use.  oak2

Evelyn did not restore for the sake of nature.  The trees he planted would eventually be cut down, or their fruits harvested, or they would contribute to pleasing landscapes.  He encouraged the ancient practice of coppicing – of managing the sprouts, shoots, and regrowth of cut trees – as a way of providing fuel and other wood products without cutting large trees. Yet he recognized that forests were not static, but dynamic; that old trees died and fell and rotted into earth.  In this pre-evolutionary era, everything followed cycles: even stones could disintegrate and new ones formed.

Evelyn advocated a mixed landscape of many kinds of trees.  He paid little attention to the young forest as a habitat for wild or domesticated animals; he saw many if not most of these as destructive to young trees and advised ways to repel mice, deer, and cattle. But a mature forest included these animals as well as pigs that fed on acorns and other nuts.

Evelyn clearly distinguished native from non-native trees, and he planted them alongside each other.  His baseline, if we can call it that, was classical antiquity, which, before the age of exploration, was undoubtedly the era of greatest species dispersal.  Educated in the classics, Evelyn turned to ancient naturalists to discover the variety and range of European trees, but found, as had many of his generation, that the ancients were not always right.  Pliny had found the cypress to be too tender to grow in Britain, and to him, peaches and cherries were exotic delicacies from north Africa.  Evelyn found that all of these grew quite well in Britain, as well as cedars and myrtles and even a cork tree.  He argued, “Methinks it should rather encourage our Country-men to add yet to their Plantations other Forreign and useful Trees, and not in the least deter them, because many of them are not as yet become endenizon’d amongst us.”

Evelyn and his contemporaries did not view foreign species as invasive.  Britain was part of Europe, its island status insufficient for biological isolation.  But Britain was also part of a greater world; Evelyn also wished to “endenizon” the increasing flood of trees from the new world.  He mentioned the acacia and the arbutus in Sylva, and more American trees appeared in subsequent editions.  The distinctiveness of American flora and fauna evidenced the creativity and fecundity of God, and redistributing this evidence acknowledged that fecundity.

According to the cycles of nature and history, trees reached a peak of maturity and then declined and decayed.  Therefore determining the time for harvest was critical.  Oaks, for example,  could take more than a century to mature.  Evelyn devoted several chapters of Sylva to cutting trees down and forest products.  Humans were not separate from this landscape, but integral to it, and cutting down trees was a much a part of the cycle of nature and husbandry as planting them.  By the time Evelyn published the third edition of Sylva in 1679, he could claim that millions of trees had been planted in the intervening 15 years, owing to new laws promulgated by Charles II.

This edition included tables to calculate the board-feet of timber in a given tree as well as a lengthy discourse on sacred groves and the spiritual significance of trees.  Eden, said Evelyn, was a forest, and so too is Paradise.  Tree also had other advantages.  His 1661 pamphlet Fumifugium, about air pollution in London (which he rightly attributed to the fumifugiumburning of coal), noted that trees helped to clean the air, and tree-planting might moderate the evils of the London fog.  Sylva pointed out several other benefits of forests, including preserving rainwater, distributing moisture and nutrients, and mitigating the effects of hot climates.  Jamaica and Barbados, he noted, had become hotter and drier since their trees were cut to make way for tobacco and sugar plantations.

Although forests had a clear economic value, Evelyn acknowledged multiple meanings: aesthetic, spiritual, and even what we might call ecological.  He viewed forest restoration as an expression of the cycles of history and a responsibility to future generations.  The “paradise” of the forest was divinely inspired but made by humans.  They could destroy it but they could also re-create it. If we no longer believe in Eden, we still envisage some pristine past landscape without humans that we can aspire to.  Evelyn gives us another way to look at the history of landscape, one in which humans play an inextricable role.  He would see the eucalyptus of Galicia and Los Angeles as part of a global forest.