Category Archives: Modiano Patrick

So You Don’t get Lost in the Neighborhood: Patrick Modiano

After reading several Modiano novels, I decided to take a break, but a recent foray into the TBR stacks led to me selecting So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood. This is a short novel (my copy runs just over 150 pages) and it’s a typical Modiano novel concerned with memory and identity. The book opens with a strange phone call to the protagonist, Jean Daragane. We are dropped into Jean’s isolated life with no explanation, and the phone call (it’s the first time the phone has rung in months) is from a man who says he’s found an address book that belongs to Jean. The man, Gilles Ottolini, insists on meeting Jean to return the book, and there’s something here that makes Jean uncomfortable. Gilles has a slightly threatening manner, and he’s certainly pushy, but then again perhaps Jean, who isn’t used to human contact, feels that his space and privacy is invaded.

The two men meet and it soon becomes clear that Gilles wants something from Jean. Gilles begins asking about a name in the address book, a “certain” Guy Torsel, but Jean has no memory of the man that belongs to the name, and a glance at the outdated telephone number in the address book “means nothing.” Gradually over the course of a short time, Jean begins to recall, slowly, how he met Guy Torsel and the significance of the man and a circle of other long forgotten people.

Gilles and a young woman begin to penetrate (invade) Jean’s life. There’s a surreal quality here as Gilles hints that Jean knows more than he’s letting on, and Jean seems to have no idea what Gilles is talking about. Of course all the answers lie in the past, and the path to the past is through memory. As Jean’s memory gradually peels back time, details emerge from the forgotten recesses of his mind, and this is where the novel is strongest.

These words had travelled a long way. An insect bite, very slight to begin with, and it causes you an increasingly sharp pain, and very soon a feeling of being torn apart. The present and the past merge together, and that seems quite natural because they were only separated by a cellophane partition. An insect bite was all it took to pierce the cellophane. 

Jean has forgotten chunks of his past and along with those memories, he’s also let slip thoughts of people he once knew, people who inhabited Jean’s life, or perhaps passed through briefly. There’s a point at which Jean tries to search on the internet for people from his past, but he can’t find them.

The rare people whom he would have liked to trace had succeeded in escaping the vigilance of this machine. They had slipped through the net because they belonged to another age.

Modiano’s approach to memory is fascinating. He chews over this subject, noting every nuance, every angle, every sensation. Rather uncannily, I recently came across an old address book, and found a name or two I couldn’t tie to anyone I remembered. For a brief moment, I thought I was living in a Modiano novel. The author certainly nails the descriptions of memory, shards of memory, and how sometimes, in order to remember, we have to burrow into a time and a place that have long since been forgotten. Still at the end of the novel, I was left wanting a bit more plot.

On a final note, remember that Hemingway parody contest? 

Not to denigrate Modiano, but has anyone heard of a Modiano parody contest?

In the end we forget the details of our lives that embarrass us or are too painful. We just lie back and allow ourselves to float along calmly over the deep waters, with our eyes closed.

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The Black Notebook: Patrick Modiano

Once again Patrick Modiano plays with the themes of time and memory in his book The Black Notebook. In this novel, a writer named Jean looks back on his past–partly by wandering over old familiar Paris turf and partly through thumbing through his black notebook and a report handed to him by a former police inspector. Once again there are embedded signs of France’s colonial past, and once again, the narrator recalls a brush with the criminal world.

And of course, there has to be a woman…

The woman in this case is Dannie, well, at least that’s the name she gave Jean. She has disappeared–literally and figuratively, and although the black notebook recalls some details of the narrator’s relationship with Dannie, now, years later, Jean finds himself asking questions he wished he’d asked at the time.

the-black-notebook

The Black Notebook is my fifth Modiano novel to date. Young Once is the story of an ex-soldier who gets mixed up with a criminal crowd, and After the Circus, which has a strange disembodied sense of placement in time, is the tale of an 18-year old who gets mixed up with a nomadic young woman. The words ‘tale’ and ‘story’ are to be used loosely with these Modiano novels, and both Young Once and After the Circus are not so much concerned with concrete plots–although free-floating plots exist in each book, but rather the concerns are memory and time. Through his characters, Modiano continually wrestles with these themes. Here for example is Jean mulling over the past through his notebook:

Among those masses of notes, some have stronger resonance than others. Especially when nothing disturbs the silence. The telephone stopped ringing long ago. And no one will knock at the door. They must think I’m dead. You are alone, concentrating, as if trying to capture Morse signal codes being sent from far away by an unknown correspondent. Naturally many signals are garbled, and no matter how hard you strain your ears they are lost forever. 

Walking around Paris, through old familiar locations in which he spent time with Dannie, Jean plays with the idea that he “would slip into a parallel time where no one could ever reach me.” Modiano forms the idea that time isn’t sequential as much as a series of parallel universes:

Yesterday, I was alone in the street and a veil fell away. No more past, no more present–time stood still.

This idea of time is also worked through Jean’s fascination with a handful of historical characters: Tristan Corbière, Jeanne Duval, and Baroness Blanche. At one point, Jean is so convinced that a woman in a bookshop is Jeanne Duval, that he follows her. Interestingly, however, a shady group of people all acquainted with Dannie, known only to Jean through a series of names, remain far less real than these historical characters who people Jean’s mind.

Of the five Modiano novels I’ve read so far, Villa Triste remains my unchallenged favourite, for its solid plot and tarnished glamour while Little Jewel is at the bottom of the pile. After reading 5 novels, there’s the sense that Modiano’s themes–wrestled with in each of those novels–are as much for his puzzlement as for ours. While, with the exception of Villa Triste, I can’t say I love Modiano novels, I am fascinated by his portrayal of time and memory. The events experienced by his characters are secondary to their interpretation–both at the time and now with decades of murky perspective.

Review copy

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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Villa Triste: Patrick Modiano

“I tell myself she was living in that moment of youth when everything’s going to be at the tipping point soon, when it’s going to be a little too late for everything. The boat’s still at the dock, all you have to do is walk up the gangway, you’ve got a few minutes left…”

Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste covers a short period in a man’s life that took place over one summer twelve years earlierAs he narrates the story, he recalls how in the early 60s, at age 18, he fled Paris “convinced the city was becoming dangerous for people” like him. Immediately there’s a sense of mystery which sets the tone for this languid, moody tale. He mentions the Algerian War, dislikes the “police-heavy” atmosphere of Paris, and considers there are “too many round-ups.” He seeks a “place of refuge” in a small French resort town, “just five kilometers from the Swiss border.”

The story opens with the narrator revisiting that long-ago summer when using the name Victor Chmara, he stayed at a third-rate boarding house, avoided any news, went to the cinema, and lingered at the casinos. Then one day, he met a glamorous couple: an auburn haired actress named Yvonne accompanied by her “melancholy” Great Dane Oswald, and a gay friend who squires her to social events, Dr René Meinthe–a flamboyant man with “agitated elegance” who occasionally refers to himself as “the Queen of the Belgians.”

villa triste

Victor becomes Yvonne’s lover, and he’s quickly swept up into the claustrophobic society world of this resort town. He attends dinners, social events and parties, some of which take a decadent turn:

I keep thinking of a colonial country, or one of the Caribbean islands. How else to explain that soft, corroding light, the midnight blue that turned eyes, skin, dresses, and alpaca suits phosphorescent. Those people were all surrounded by some mysterious electricity, and every time they made a move, you braced yourself for a short circuit. Their names-some of them have remained in my memory, and I regret not having written them all down at the time, I could have recited them at night before falling asleep, not knowing who their owners were, the sound of them would have been enough-their names brought to mind the little cosmopolitan societies of free ports and foreign bars.

The novel goes back in time twelve years earlier but also appears to jump to the present with the jump in time marked mainly by Victor’s remarks about the changes in the resort town. He sees a now older rather pathetic Dr Meinthe  and appears to follow him, but after concluding the novel, I don’t think he saw Dr Meinthe at all; he imagined him.

As in Modiano’s Young Once and After the Circus, the story in Villa Triste is concerned with an older man looking back at a time in his youth. All three novels contain Modiano’s favourite themes: youth, disillusionment, time, distance and memory, yet for this reader, Villa Triste is the best of the three. I liked Young Once and After the Circus, but more than anything else, I find myself fascinated by Modiano’s writing and the way he explores his themes. This is a writer who tackles the same themes, working over various plots, honing those themes through a shifting series of characters.  In Villa Triste, the characters of Yvonne and Meinthe are people you can’t forget, and while there’s some blurriness to their stories, it’s the blurriness of Victor’s youth and his inability to ask the right questions. The distance between Modiano and his narrative, apparent in Young Once and After the Circus morphs in Villa Triste to the fogs of time. The characters of Yvonne and Meinthe, with their air of tarnished glamour, are much stronger, and much more interesting.

There are some wonderfully memorable scenes here–a visit to Yvonne’s uncle’s home and a contest to pick the most stylish couple who will win the Houligant Cup for “beauty and elegance.” Through the course of the summer, various celebrity deaths occur: Ali Khan, Belinda Lee and Marilyn Monroe. These events, now moments of history for the modern reader, serve to place the book in its context but also add flavor and historical significance to the times. This is an era that won’t return but it will live as a memory:

Time has shrouded all those things in a mist of changing colors: sometimes a pale green, sometimes a slightly pink blue. A mist? No, an indestructible veil that smothers all sound and through which I can see Yvonne and Meinthe but not hear them. I’m afraid their silhouettes may blur and fade in the end

Villa Triste, in common with the other Modiano novels I’ve read, leaves lingering questions created by very deliberate plot holes: just who is the narrator? What happened to his father? What sort of shady deals is Meinthe, who “more or less” practices medicine, mixed up in, and of course, what happened to Yvonne–yet another beautiful would-be actress who has style but probably not enough talent to launch an international film career. Villa Triste isn’t a place–it’s a state of mind and the lingering sense of loss from one summer long ago.

Review copy

Translated by John Cullen

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Young Once: Patrick Modiano

“Something-he wondered later is it was simply his youth-something that had weighed upon him until that moment broke off him, the way a piece of rock slides slowly into the sea and disappears in a spray of foam.”

Recently I read Patrick Modiano’s After the Circus, the story of a young man whose life in Paris is being uprooted for mysterious, possibly illegal reasons when he meets a driftless young woman. It’s a strange, timeless story, told, obviously, in retrospect by a much older man who is looking back on a brief, yet memorable period in his youth. That same description could apply to Young Once, a story which opens with Odile and Louis living in Switzerland, facing their 35th birthdays, and about to make a career shift–modifying their residence from a children’s camp to a sort of tea shop for tourists. They sound like a young couple who’ve done well for themselves, and then we’re back in the past.

Louis is in the army when he meets Brossier, a much older man in a Saint-Lô bar. There’s something not quite ‘right’ about Brossier who claims he “worked ‘in cars.’ He even ran a garage in Paris.” Is he just a shady salesman or is he a criminal? He takes an extraordinary interest in Louis, and once Louis’s stint in the army is over, Brossier finds him a hotel, foots the bill and even buys him a pair of new civilian shoes. Brossier tell Louis he “would introduce him-as he had promised-to ‘important friend of mine who will give you a job.'”

young once

Odile is just 19 and alone in Paris when she meets Bellune, a fascinating, sophisticated man in his 50s, who says he’ll help her with her recording career. He scouts out amateur talent for a record company, and he’s convinced that Odile can become a singer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he convinces Odile she can become a singer. He funds the making of a flexidisc, but Odile soon finds that becoming a singer isn’t a smooth road.

Of course, Odile and Louis meet and become a couple. Louis has a job as some sort of ‘security guard,’ but just what he’s guarding isn’t clear, but as he becomes increasingly trusted by his strange employer, Roland de Bejardy, Louis assumes much more dangerous work. Meanwhile Odile has a tenuous gig in a nightclub.

There are some commonalties between After the Circus and Young Once. Both stories are about youthful main characters who don’t understand a great deal of the world that swirls around them. In Young Once, Odile doesn’t quite ‘get’ the nuances of her employment, and Louis, although warned increasingly about Roland de Bejardy, doesn’t ‘get’ just how crooked his employment is. Both novels also maintain an overriding disconnect from the characters, so we never know exactly what it going on in their heads–although Modiano conveys a sort of dreary disappointment when Odile collects a paycheck.

Nothing was left of the dream she had chased for so long except for an envelope, in which they had slipped her “the rest of your fee,” as the manager said.

There are several distinct worlds created in this book. Brossier, for example, is attempting to return to his youth by hanging out with his much younger girlfriend on a university campus, and at another point, Odile and Louis assume the roles of students attending a language course in England. We see glimpses of Roland de Bejardy’s world–some through interactions with his disaffected girlfriend and other views from those who know de Bejardy and warn Louis to move on while there’s still time.

I liked Young Once but didn’t love it, and this I think comes from the deliberate distance Modiano creates between us and his characters. Louis and Odile’s naïveté simultaneously makes them vulnerable and yet also acts as a protective seal. This young couple prove useful in the world of the older, the more sophisticated and powerful, and Modiano skillfully creates an atmosphere of imminent chaos while showing how Louis and Odile don’t understand the risks they are exposed to. The sense of emotional distancing is also apparent between the characters and their own lives. At one point, for example, Bellune describes the squashing of his music career “indifferently, as though it had happened to someone else,” and there’s the sense that de Bejardy’s  high-maintenance girlfriend would be with any man who could provide her with the lifestyle she desires.

I’m interested, very interested in Modiano’s characters, but we never get inside them. They remain remote. Perhaps this distance mirrors the distance all of us have between our youthful selves and our middle aged selves. This is a story about youthful dreams, innocence and naiveté and once those things are lost, it’s hard to recall how we used to see the world. If it’s Modiano’s goal to recreate that haunting sensation of lost youth, then that is achieved.

Review copy

Translated by Damion Searls

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After the Circus: Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s moody novel, After the Circus is narrated by a much older man who recalls a mysterious time in Paris when he was eighteen years old. Many authors would have turned this tale into a predictable coming of age story, but Modiano’s novel remains a sad elegy to an all too brief, haunting time.

The novel begins with the narrator being questioned at police headquarters about his life and activities. Right away an air of confusion enters the narrative. The man who asks the questions names a café that the narrator is supposed to frequent, but he’s never been there. Does the interrogator have the wrong man?

Then he mentioned the names of a man and a woman and asked if I knew them. I answered no. He told me to think very carefully. If I didn’t tell the truth, there could be serious consequences. The threat was delivered in a calm, indifferent voice. No, really, I didn’t know those two individuals. He typed my answer, then handed me the sheet, at the bottom of which was written: “Seen and agreed to.” I didn’t bother looking over my deposition and signed with a ballpoint pen that was lying on the desk.

This sense of indifference and disconnection which begins immediately with this interview continues throughout the novel and permeates the story. The narrator asks why he’s been questioned and he’s told that “your name was in someone’s address book.” Again that vagueness which nonetheless determines the narrator’s fate–a randomness which, as it turns out, becomes a major incident in his life.

after the circusOn the way out of the office, the narrator spies a young woman in her twenties. She’s next to be interrogated, and the narrator makes the snap decision to wait for her in a nearby café. They meet and chat, and then she asks a “favor.”

At Place du Châtelet, she wanted to take the metro. It was rush hour. We stood squeezed together near the doors. At every station, the riders getting off pushed us onto the platform. Then we got back on with the new passengers. She leaned her head on my shoulder and said with a smile that “no one could find us in this crowd.”

At the Gare du Nord metro stop, we were carried along in the flood of travelers heading for the commuter trains. We crossed through the train station lobby, and in the checkroom she opened a  locker and pulled out a black leather suitcase.

I carried the suitcase, which was rather heavy. It occurred to me that it contained more than just clothes.

And so begins the mystery of Gisèle who soon moves into the narrator’s apartment. She proceeds to introduce the narrator to a stream of new acquaintances, and she begins gathering up a range of belongings which are scattered in various locations. As she takes the narrator through her circle, more questions emerge about Gisèle, and it becomes clear that she’s mixed up with some shady characters. But Gisèle isn’t the only mystery here. The narrator’s father has moved to Switzerland “to live out his days,” while the narrator’s father’s mysterious business associate, Grabley, is busy destroying papers relating to some peculiar shady business dealings. Grabley is considering dumping these files “down a manhole he’d spotted on Rue de l’Arcade.” All these trappings of mystery, disorientation, and flight yield the sense of flux, that time is running out.

After the Circus (and the meaning of the title is finally revealed) is a wonderfully atmospheric book. Don’t expect all the answers here, for the book mirrors life–everything is not tied off neatly. Instead this tale, which is told years later by a now middle-aged man, effectively recreates how things sometimes don’t make sense when we’re young. We don’t know the right questions to ask; our naiveté hobbles us. Now the narrator looks back at this period of his life, it’s too late to ask the questions that emerge in retrospect. Those with the answers are dead. The narrator doesn’t offer explanations to fill in the gaps. We can only speculate.

I was the traveler who boards a departing train and finds himself in the company of four strangers. And he wonders whether he hasn’t got on the wrong train. But no matter … In his compartment, the others start making conversation with him.

With its interrogations and hints that the narrator’s father lived a life that “in certain periods resembled a hunt in which he was the prey,” at first the story could seem to be set in WWII France and yet it’s not; it’s the sixties. This lack of firm grounding in time just adds to the mystery of Gisèle and her relationship with the young, impressionable and naïve narrator who is forever shaped by this brief time.

What I had lived through in my childhood and the few years following, up to my meeting Gisèle, gently peeled off of me in strips, dissolved; now and then, I even made a small efforts to retain a few scraps before they vanished into thin air.

This won’t be my last Modiano novel. Suggestions for another are welcome.

Review copy. Translated by Mark Polizzotti.

 

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