This post was written by Sara Phenix, a Humanities Center faculty fellow.
A recent conversation with a close friend forced me to reconsider the value of what I do as a literature professor. This woman has a house full of young children—five total, the oldest only ten when the youngest was born—and, while she finds immense joy in motherhood, she once lamented to me that her life of babies, bottles, and episodes of Bluey leaves her no time for books. When she can steal a moment to herself, she explained, she dives into a work of nonfiction because she wants to spend those precious moments learning something—not wasting time on entertainment.
Though delivered with no malintent, these words wounded my literature-loving heart. Of course, this statement is only reflective of larger cultural attitudes that assert the primacy of STEM fields over the humanities and fine arts. Those of us who study literature would of course reject the assumption that nonfiction has more inherent instructional value than fiction because it is “true.” Nevertheless, my friend’s words that day rang in my ears as a personal indictment: after dozens of conversations about books we loved, how had I failed to convince my friend of the value of fiction? And how could I articulate the centrality of literature to my own sense of identity, ethics, and spirituality?
While contemplating these questions, my mind wandered to Patrick Modiano’s 1997 novel Dora Bruder. The narrative recounts the author’s efforts to learn the fate of the eponymous subject, a 15-year-old Jewish girl who goes missing in Occupied Paris. The text defies rigid genre boundaries: it is part biography, part autobiography, and part detective novel. The story is generated by the most banal of encounters: Modiano is flipping through the pages of an old magazine one day when a classified ad catches his eye. In it, a certain Monsieur & Madame Bruder enlist the public’s help in finding their runaway daughter—a search complicated by the fact that Paris was occupied by the Nazi regime in 1941.
We eventually learn that, in order to keep her safe, the Bruders placed Dora in a Catholic boarding school under an assumed name to protect her from intensifying anti-Semitic persecution. When Dora goes missing, however, the Bruders find themselves in an excruciating catch-22: they can enlist the authorities in their search—and thereby endanger their daughter by revealing her existence; or they can keep her identity secret, forego the help of the police, and virtually eliminate the possibility that they would ever find Dora. No matter what they choose, they condemn her.
This wrenching conundrum inspires Modiano to discover all that he can about the family. He searches dozens of archives in Paris for traces of the Bruders. With so little to go on, Modiano’s textual recovery of the family is nevertheless virtuosic. However, his labors are stymied by incomplete records that were either redacted or destroyed in the aftermath of the war. While the author is able to plot certain points in the Bruder family’s history, he cannot fill in the vast expanses of time that separate the few verifiable events of their lives.
In his frustration, Modiano turns to fiction—specifically, to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. He ponders a curious moment in the novel in which Jean Valjean and Cosette successfully evade Javert by hiding in a convent garden. Up to this point in the narrative, Modiano notes, Hugo traces the fleeing pair’s itinerary along the streets of a historical Paris. However, at the very moment of their escape, Hugo launches Jean Valjean and Cosette into le Petit Picpus, a neighborhood entirely invented by the author. Why, Modiano wonders, would Hugo go to such lengths to depict a historically accurate Paris only to abruptly thrust his characters into a fictional space?
This perplexing passage inspires Modiano to reflect on his own project. The thematic parallels between his work and Hugo’s are clear: both feature young women separated from their birth parents by tragic circumstances; both depict abuses of political and police power; both are meditations on redemption. The most stunning coincidence of the novels, however, is found at 62, rue du Petit-Picpus—a real road for which Hugo’s fictional neighborhood is named, and the place where Jean Valjean and Cosette escape Javert; and, astonishingly, the exact address of the Catholic boarding school where Ernest and Cécile Bruder had sought to hide their daughter from the Paris police.
It is at this moment that Modiano’s project comes into clearer focus. So few facts remain about Dora Bruder’s life, yet the author still feels compelled to tell her story—perhaps, in part, because his own father, Alberto Modiano, was a Sephardic Jew who somehow survived the same Occupation that would claim the Bruders. At this point, Modiano realizes that, like Jean Valjean and Cosette, he must also traverse the boundary between fact and fiction in order to complete his project. In other words, to tell the truth of Dora’s life, he must use his knowledge of the period to imagine what he does not know. Modiano’s language is rife with uncertainty: adverbs like probably, perhaps, and possibly punctuate his writing; Modiano opts for verbs like imagine, suspect, and believe; he frequently uses the past conditional—Dora must have panicked, or the Bruders must have worried. Modiano can’t know for sure, but he has to try to know. He is compelled by the desperate drive to recover the Bruders from post-war oblivion.
The novel thus confronts us with the reality that fact and truth are not always coterminous. There are some truths that can only be told in fiction because of incomplete knowledge, as is the case with Modiano’s novel. Sometimes trauma exceeds the signifying ability of documentary non-fiction and can only be evoked by fiction’s symbolizing power. Marguerite Duras’ screenplay (as well as Alain Resnais’ cinematic adaptation) Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and Alice Diops’ film Saint Omer (2022) come to mind. These masterpieces suggest that the inventions of our imaginations are central to the truth of empathy and love.
We should similarly consider the role of fiction in our own scriptures. Why does God choose to teach us through parables when He could, as He has often done, give us plainly articulated commandments? In other words, what kind of intellectual and spiritual insights are only possible through fiction’s unique signifying potential? God has not given us these stories just to entertain us. To use my friend’s language, He’s given them so we can learn something. A sustained study of these questions is certainly beyond the purview of this essay (and the ambitions of its author). But I hope that the next time I see my friend, I’ll be better able to make the case for fiction—the space where imagination teaches us truth.