“For me, Paris is littered with ghosts.”
Back to Patrick Modiano for Sleep of Memory. In this novel, our narrator, now in his 70s, recalls people and events from his past. This is familiar Modiano territory with his fascination for disturbing shards of memory which emerge from the past. Sometimes these shards are cocooned in other memories–some blurred and impossible to fully retrieve while others form in a connect-the-dots way.
The book begins in a bookshop when a title, The Time of Encounters, catches the eye of the narrator. It’s one of those dizzying, goosebumps moments when the past suddenly emerges with the flash of memory. He recalls his relationships with a group of people saying “you never knew where some of those people might lead you. It was a slippery slope.”
The narrator recalls when, in the 60s, at age 20, he is acquainted with Martine Hayward, Geneviève Dalame, a secretary at Polydor Studios, and the older, mysterious, Madeleine Péraud. The latter, who is also known as “Doctor Péraud,” “belonged to a ‘group’—a secret society where they practiced ‘magic.’ ” The narrator visits Madeleine Péraud who quizzes him about his life and his acquaintances:
She asked good questions. the way an acupuncturist knows exactly where to place his needles.
The narrator is a “phantom student” enrolling in college to avoid military service in Algeria, and there are nebulous references to the narrator’s father and his knowledge of Black marketeers during WWII. So here are two quagmire moments in French history, and crime, which is a seminal feature in Modiano novels, is also present. The plot is fragmentary but Modiano’s brilliance at describing memory, as always, is impressive and evocative.
Sometimes I seem to recall the cafe was named the Bar Vert; at other times this memory fades, like words you’ve just heard in a dream that eludes you when you are awake.
I am always left wanting more with a Modiano novel, frustrated at the bare bones of the past which are occasionally illuminated by tantalizing memory, but I continue to be fascinated by his representation of memory: how memories submerge, are dormant and seem to disappear, yet certain memories seep back into our lives often unwanted. Modiano novels delve into pasts that can’t be quite fully remembered, pasts that aren’t fully understood–even decades later, and I can’t recall a writer who represents the elusiveness and vagaries of memory so well. Modiano scholars could spend a lifetime working through the mazes constructed in his books. How much is true? How much is fiction? Personally I prefer the languid nature, the dreaminess of his tales and don’t intend to become tangled in such details. I read this at night, before bed, and the book’s hypnotic feel was accentuated by the approach of sleep.
“No doubt, as the years pass, you end up shedding all the weights you dragged behind you, and all the regrets.”
Is that true?
Translated by Mark Polizzotti