WHO IS PATRICK MODIANO? And Why Did He Win the Nobel Prize?
Lovers of novels, book clubs across America, literature professors, librarians and booksellers are all asking the same question: Who is this Patrick Modiano who just won the Nobel Prize? Why is an author who wins the highest honor almost unknown in the United States? What have we all been missing?
Very French Patrick Modiano writes very short novels in clear, simple prose. His concerns are time and memory. His stories almost all take place in the past, and consist of the fragments that haven’t been lost to the forgetfulness of time. His melancholy attempt to hold onto his memories is the foundation of his art. We think we know who we are, but according to Modiano we’re all suffering from perpetual amnesia, erasing the very memories that are the foundation of our self-definition. And while the past is fragmenting away behind us, our search for answers only leads us to more questions.
Modiano leaped to international fame for his screenplay to one of the classic French films of the 70’s, Louis Malle’s highly controversial Lacombe, Lucien, about a seventeen-year-old peasant boy in Nazi-occupied France who, when turned down by the Resistance, joins a group of Fascist collaborators until he unintentionally falls in love with a Jewish girl.
Modiano’s works, depending on how you count, consist of almost thirty short novels, his form of choice, of which only half a dozen are currently available in English translation, an oversight sure to quickly change. Among the ones now available are:
Missing Person by Patrick Modiano, trans. by Daniel Weissbort (Verba Mundi/David R. Godine, $16.95 trade paper, 9781567922813, 1980)
His 1978 novel Rue des Boutiques Obscures (literally Street of Dark Shops), translated into English as Missing Person, was awarded France’s highest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. Structured like a detective novel, private investigator Guy Roland finds himself out of a job after eight years in detection, and decides to turn his skills upon himself, to find out what amnesia has taken away from him during the Nazi occupation of France, searching for clues to trigger lost memories of his own identity. Two bartenders remember vaguely that he used to always go around with a tall Russian, which starts him on a journey through Russian emigres, yellowing photos, former addresses, newspaper clippings, and phone directories.
Suspense in Modriano means rushing toward self-knowledge. A man who doesn’t know his own identity is forced to lie and assume false identities trying to figure out who he really is, reviving dead memories through old documents and memorabilia and dusty boxes of forgotten souvenirs. The reader is also a detective, working through a jungle of lies and interrelated characters and plot fragments. As the pages run out, an urgent need for resolution mounts.
The villain is memory. Do we really remember who we are? How much of the past truly remains accessible to us? We’re all like Guy Roland, trying to unearth the defining mystery of our own past selves, the people we used to be.
Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano, trans. by Barbara Wright (Verba Mundi/David R. Godine, $16.95 trade paper, 9781567925388, 1992)
In the same Verba Mundi International Literature Series is Modiano’s 1990 novel Voyages de noces, translated as Honeymoon, which begins in Italy in the blazing heat of mid-August. The narrator, Jean B., is a documentary filmmaker about to escape from his unfaithful wife and unsatisfying career by disappearing on a supposed flight to Brazil to film the villages bordering the Mato Grosso plateau. Jean B. becomes a man who has slipped out of his own life and vanished, returning like a ghost while his wife is having her annual Bastille Day party upstairs on the terrace to secretly walk through the deserted rooms of his former home. Hiding out in Paris, changing hotels every week, he arrives at a hotel two days after a woman has committed suicide there, a woman he once knew. He begins writing, recreating his experience 18 years ago when as a 20-year-old he was picked up hitchhiking by Ingrid when she was sixteen with Rigaud, her new 21-year-old husband. Swept away by the two charming illegal drifters, Jean B. had embarked on a stolen holiday during wartime, in a world where guests have false papers and romantic night swims compete with lights-out curfews. Soon Jean is telling the story from Rigaud’s point of view, reconstructing their lives before they met him, trying to understand what drove Ingrid to take her own life.
Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano, trans. by Mark Polizzotti (Yale University Press, $16 trade paper, 9780300198058, 2014)
The first short novel in Polizzotti’s excellent translation is a relatively later work from 1993, Chien de printemps (literally Dog of Spring, or Goddamn Spring), here translated as Afterimage. It’s a mosaic or montage of memory fragments from his friendship with the photographer Francis Jansen, dating from when Jansen used the narrator and his girlfriend as his models for an article on Paris youth. The 19-year-old narrator offers to catalogue all of Jansen’s photos and the two become friends. Nicknaming him Scribe, skinny, antisocial Jansen mentors the narrator in the realities of life, before leaving for Mexico and dropping out of sight at age forty-four. Married Nicole is obsessed with Jansen and he’s perpetually hiding from her, but he boldly deals with Gil the Mime, her fanatically jealous older husband. Famed for his photos of fences, walls, stairs, garages, and his own shoes, after taking pictures for nearly 25 years he gives his camera to the narrator.
The title novella in the collection, Suspended Sentences (Remise de peine, 1988), takes place during wartime in a small town just outside Paris. An actress in a touring company leaves her two sons with colorful, eccentric friends for more than a year while she’s on the road. Ten-year-old narrator Patouche, nicknamed “blissful idiot,” is expelled from school while staying in the house with Little Helene, a tiny former circus acrobat, and beautiful 26-year-old Annie, who wears a man’s leather jacket. Patouche’s friendships with village children and their increasing danger from police raids unfold against the coming and going of guests, especially affectionate, motorcycle-riding Jean D. with his fat wristwatch, and Andrée K., wife of a bigshot doctor, who is always getting mysterious phone calls while she’s visiting. The boys soon discover the house has secrets. Annie’s friends have taken political risks that will force her to move the boys into the house across the street in the nick of time.
The collection concludes with Flowers of Ruin (Fleurs de ruine, 1991) which investigates the 1933 double suicide of a happily married young couple in who take their own lives for no apparent reason. They are last seen at nightclubs with two other couples, though one waiter insists they were alone. Who were they? What happened? Twenty-five years later, the narrator tries to find answers. As in other Modiano fiction, his search leads him on an investigation through phone directories and down old forgotten streets of the past, searching for former inhabitants of the world of curfews and blackouts.
But what begins as an investigation into a double suicide becomes an obsessive unearthing of the identity of a man who may have crossed their path that fateful night, the mysterious Pacheco, formerly a tramp in snow boots who looks about fifty, then an Air France employee and university student who looks more like thirty-five, half-Peruvian, pretending to live where he doesn’t live, flinching at the mention of earlier times, wanted for colluding with the enemy. He leaves his suitcase behind and never returns for it. Locked inside that suitcase is a clue to the fate of the doomed couple.
Out of the Dark by Patrick Modiano, trans. by Jordan Stump (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, $16.95 trade paper, 9780803282292, 1998)
Out of the Dark is a translation of his 1996 novel, Du plus loin de l’oubli (literally, From the Far Edge of Forgetfulness). Thirty years after the events in the story, the narrator remembers when he was an underage drifter with a false student ID card who survived by selling used art books and knew every apartment building in Paris with two exits. He meets Gerald Van Bever, who lives for the casinos on weekends, and becomes spellbound by his wife Jacqueline, who begs him to do her a favor and steal a suitcase from a dentist’s office. In classic noir fashion, the smitten narrator is so captivated by the married woman that he commits the crime for her. In classic noir fashion, they run off together and appear briefly to have escaped retribution. That’s where the similarity with classic noirs ends. Where he will take the story, only Modiano knows. Reader expectations become so agitated by his teasing that the suspense comes from sheer anticipation of resolution, from waiting for the pieces to finally fit. The party sequence finale, where the narrator is an uninvited guest, posing as the friend of a friend to avoid detection in his obsessive search for his lost love, is a subtle suspense masterpiece.
The 2014 Nobel Prize cited Modiano “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”
His characters are trying to fit together pieces of the past. Though they may not know themselves, Modiano characters know every street in Paris, and very specifically name whichever one they are wandering down in the fog of memory, trying to find their own pasts, seeking out the locales of a childhood that might have been theirs. These novels of Paris are crowded full of streets, and no street goes unnamed in a Modiano novel. His characters may be awash in amnesia, but they always remember exactly where they are.
Clerks and service personnel are frequent Modiano characters. Porters and concierges, removal men and waiters, hotel managers and nightclub bartenders, black marketeers and housekeepers all move from hotels to cafes, from cafes to hotels, usually at night, usually alone.
Characters recur from one novel to the next: his father Albert, mysteriously released from jail; the love of his youth, Jacqueline; the caring and protective older woman ; and the deadly, metamorphosing, self-reinventing Pacheco. One character after another reveals a piece of the puzzle, though not always the piece you think it will be. Layer by layer, Modiano peels back one memory to reveal another beneath it, all of them scratching the surface of the unknowable, trying to understand decades later an entire life from a few remembered glimpses. But character is not a primary concern for Modiano. Probably the most detailed character of all is Paris.
Little in Modiano’s fiction takes place in the present. His narratives are constantly dredging up long-lost events, searching for answers already fading in time. As these memories disintegrate, his narrators suffer the human fate of forgetfulness, struggling to reassemble what debris remains in search of answers like archaeologists reconstructing lost kingdoms. Trying to solve one mystery in the past, Modiano narrators are frequently sidetracked into tangential stories with interrelated characters, all shards of some Byzantine over-plot of which we glimpse only fragmentary bits and pieces.
Modiano draws his reader so deeply into a sea of facts that nothing seems related. The story appears to wander aimlessly away from its original intention, and then Modiano quietly pulls his noose shut, linking what passed as unimportant and creating inordinate suspense. His novels are so short you can read them easily in one sitting, but told with a brevity that doesn’t prevent them from bursting out of the restrictions of their genres and morphing beyond recognition before the final disturbingly inconclusive pages. Modiano has put his finger on something as creepy as Kafka, the foggy, fluid drift and metamorphosis of personality through time, how we become strangers to our past selves, only to become detectives in search of our own real identities, perpetually trying to solve the mystery of who we really are.