I first heard of Patrick Modiano, the French novelist, when he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. What originally grabbed my attention was the prize motivation: From the Nobel Prize website: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” From that moment on I decided that’s it. I’m reading at least a few of his novels.
Working from the bottom up of the image above, you can see that I read my first Modiano in March 2015. Well three novellas actually in the one book and on the 19th December last year, I completed my eighth Modiano – Invisible Ink and this is the novel that has triggered the need to examine what I have discovered so far about this accomplished and intriguing writer.
Some say that he simply writes the same story over and over. This can appear so after reading two or three books but I now realise after reading eight of his novels that there are subtle differences. He never repeats himself in descriptions or evocations. Never. There is always a different turn of phrase, an alternative set of details. I marvel and have decided that he must keep extensive notebooks, echoes of the small notebooks and lists that his characters often find themselves with.
Yes, there is an American convertible in several novels, many late night cafés visited by lost, restless souls; several Guys and Jacquelines. There are tantalising short visits to the Haute-Savoie region of France and one very powerful one in Missing Person. In that novel you think to yourself: “Of course this is where the novel was leading the whole time.” You feel pleased but then discover you have not finished the novel. There is one last exquisite scene told very simply.
Certain novels on this list stand alone for various reasons but still, somehow manage to add to the Modiano oeuvre which to my mind is like a many facetted diamond that we must continually study from different angles to understand how the diamond’s facets interact with the light. For instance in Villa Triste Modiano intriguingly mentions magazines his main character and Yvonne flip through during long, lazy days at her hotel, The Hermitage in the Haute-Savoie region of France. The covers often feature an actress who has recently died, including Marilyn Monroe. These could be old magazines but they add so much to the feel of this stolen time in a beautiful lakeside resort that the whole scene has stayed with me. The ending of Villa Triste is a surprise, or at least it was for this reader.
Here is one of my favourite Modiano descriptions. This simple but evocative paragraph is one of the reasons I keep reading him:
“…I would go back to Carabacel, walking slowly along Avenue d’Albigny. I’ve never known nights so lovely, so crystal clear as those were. The sparkling lights of the lakeside village dazzled me, and I sensed something musical in them like a saxophone or trumpet solo. I could also perceive the very soft, immaterial rustling of the plane trees on the avenue. I’d wait for the last cable car, sitting on the iron bench in the chalet.”
The three short novellas in Suspended Sentences are grounded in Paris and as the translator Mark Polizzotti says: “What becomes clear as we read these books is that the inconclusiveness of the pursuit is central to the story – indeed, is the story.” In one of the novellas the title story the narrator has a brother and the two boys are often left alone with relative strangers, just as readers of Modiano can’t help suspecting Patrick and his brother Rudy often were. In Flowers of Ruin there are tantalising visits to one of those marvellous islands in the centre of Paris and in Afterimage the main character is trying to track down an elusive photographer. There is mention of Haute-Savoie where the photographer flees during World War II – shades of Missing Person.
For me what defines and differentiates each Modiano is the ending and this is particularly true of In the Café of Lost Youth – his bleakest ending of the eight Modiano novels I have read. It also stands apart from the others for having four narrators – all in first person. The first narrator is a student who is fascinated by the elusive Louki, the second is a private detective, the third is Louki herself and the fourth her boyfriend. Binding some of these characters together is the neutral zones that are often mentioned in this novel where “you enjoyed a degree of immunity there.”
It might be simply my imagination or just the title Paris Nocturne but Paris at night does seem to feature more prominently in this novel. A nameless narrator is hit by a car near Place des Pyramides. He is sure he has met the woman driver before – Jacqueline Beausergent. And the search begins.
“I often found myself, sometime later, making the same journey in reverse. At around nine o’clock at night, I would leave the Right Bank, cross the Seine at Pont des Arts, and find myself at the Corona Cafe. But this time, I was alone at one of the tables in the back room and I no longer needed to find something to say to the shifty-looking guy in the navy-blue overcoat. I began to feel a sense of relief. On the other side of the river I left behind a marshy zone where I was starting to flounder. I had set foot on solid ground. The lights were brighter here. I could hear the neon buzz. Soon I would be walking in the open air, through the arcades, up to Place de la Concorde. The night would be clear and still. The future opened out before me.”
So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood is different again. The novel is in the third person with the beginning and end marked by a very inclusive use of the second person. The main character Jean Daragane seems older than a lot of Modiano’s main characters. He is contacted by a very strange couple who have found his address book and in return for the book want some information from Daragane. There is mention of Jean’s mother working in the theatre and his father having an office in Boulevard Hausemann. A mother in the theatre is tantalisingly close to Modiano’s real mother’s history. This time Saint-Leu-la-Foret is a place that becomes very important to the main character. It seems Jean lived there for a year as a child and was then taken by someone called Annie Astrand to a house on the Cote d’Azur. A very unsettling ending. An ah-ha ending. You can’t help asking yourself as a reader, is this the core of it all?
In Little Jewell Modiano effortlessly portrays a female narrator Therese. “One day in the corridors of the Metro, nineteen year old Therese sees a woman in a yellow coat. Could this be her mother? And we are trailing Therese as she searches strange streets and apartment buildings. “Life is completely different when you live near a railway station. It feels as if you’re passing through. Everything is temporary. One day or another, you’ll hop on a train. In those neighbourhoods, the future is at your doorstep.” As in The Café of Lost Youth there is a person who takes advantage of our fragile main character. Be prepared for an ambiguous ending.
Lastly but definitely not least is Invisible Ink with the best opening sentence of the eight: “There are blanks in this life, white spaces you can detect if you open the “case file”: a single sheet in a sky-blue folder that has faded with time.” In Invisible Ink Jean Eyben briefly works for the Hutte Agency which features in Missing Person. One of his assignments is to try and track down a Noelle Lefebvre. Later Jean steals the case file. This is from my review:
“As in a lot of Modiano novels there are several strange, slightly unsettling characters that appear and disappear. There is an American car, this time driven by a youth. There is mention of a mountainous region in France – Haute Savoie which also makes an appearance in Missing Person and briefly in Villa Triste. And unlike most of the Modiano novels I have read, there is a second narrative thread and another city featured.”
I now know why I need to keep reading Patrick Modiano. In some strange way the oft repeated details in slightly different evocations become almost a refrain of your own dimly recalled memories. It’s oddly reassuring. It is as if you will gradually find out more details about your own life if you keep reading him and how enticing is that?” I dare you to fall under his spell.