- So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood by Patrick Modiano, translated by Euan Cameron
MacLehose, 160 pp, £8.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 85705 499 9
In 1966, a young writer named Patrick Modiano published his first short story, a satire set in a summer concentration camp called ‘Saint-Tropez-Ravensbrück’. Surrounded by ‘charming Kapos’, the inmates – ‘children of Himmler and Coca-Cola’ – are lulled into submission by LSD and hedonism. Paris’s leading artists and intellectuals praise the camp; Jean-Luc Godard offers to shoot a collaborationist film. The title of the story, ‘I Am a Young Man Alone’, expressed its author’s predicament. Two decades after the end of the war, at the height of its trente glorieuses, France had moved on, but Modiano, the son of a Jewish businessman who had made his living on the black market during the Occupation and a Flemish actress who worked in the Nazi film industry, could not. He was so consumed by the history of Occupied Paris, the city where his parents had met, that he felt as if he had memories of it, although he was born in 1945, just after the war ended. As one of his characters would put it: ‘I was only 20 years old, but my memory preceded my birth.’
Since the late 1960s, Modiano has explored the struggles of a ‘young man alone’, orphaned by history, rejected or abandoned by his parents; a man who feels obscurely that he can never know himself, or even establish a fixed identity, without an understanding of a past that doesn’t quite belong to him. He has published more than two dozen novels on these themes; nearly half of them are now available in excellent English translations. They are slender books: few run to more than 150 pages, most are considerably shorter. In France they used to be known as ‘Modianos’, as if they were supermarket novels, but they are now celebrated as one of the most cohesive bodies of work in contemporary fiction, and in 2014 they earned him a Nobel Prize.
His most recent novel, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, tells the story of an elderly writer and recluse, much like Modiano, who loses an address book. A stranger returns it, but wants to know more about one of the names in the book, which was also the name of a character in the writer’s first novel. The stranger introduces the writer to an alluring young woman who triggers a rich but troubling set of associations with his past. She shows him a police file about a murder – it’s not unusual for a Modiano character to be handed a police file, or a briefcase filled with cash – in which he stumbles on the name of a woman who, he vaguely recalls, helped smuggle him across the border into Italy when he was a little boy. Much later, while he was trying to uncover the complicated story of his childhood, he’d had an affair with her. He remembers that she described herself as a friend of the murder victim. But although the people and places in this frustrating puzzle – rue de l’Arcade, rue de Charonne, square du Graisivaudan – promise to throw light on his own life, they don’t seem to add up to anything. Driving through the neighbourhood where he wrote his first novel, he feels ‘as though he had been struck with amnesia and was merely a stranger in his own city’.
So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood will be familiar to anyone who has read a Modiano: intrigue and exasperation, the incantatory repetition of street names and addresses, the implication that all of this has happened before in another life that the passage of time has rendered nearly invisible. Written in classical French, Modiano’s novels are easy to read, but not so easy to follow, because of their sudden, unannounced slippages in tense. He is fascinated by Nietzsche’s notion of ‘eternal recurrence’, and portrays Paris as a place where time constantly circles back on itself, a palimpsest where different moments of history have overlapped into phantasmagorical, often confounding shapes. His characters tend to interpret events in the present through the scrim of some half-remembered event in their past. Neither present nor past but some shifting and vertiginous blend of the two, this ‘inner landscape’ gives Modiano’s novels their hallucinatory power: the term ‘psychogeography’ might have been invented with him in mind. His characters are ‘nothing but bubbles, iridescent with the city’s colours’, as he remarks of the couple in his 1981 novel Young Once. Functionally, they are ‘actants’ rather than ‘actors’, to use the language of narratology, leading us through a world of seedy nightclubs, desolate warehouses and dark garages, a city cloaked in criminality and moral corruption. The topography of this underworld is described with a fanatical attention to detail.
Modiano, a collector of old Paris maps and telephone directories, revealed in a 2007 interview that for decades he has kept an immense stack of notebooks filled with ‘precise things, dates, names, places, about people who really existed’. His books, he added, ‘are only a contraction of this mass of information that I’ve piled up’. This sort of aide-mémoire features in another recent Modiano, The Black Notebook (2012), in which an old man dimly recalls an affair with a woman who may have been a conspirator in the 1965 kidnapping and murder in Paris of the left-wing Moroccan leader Mehdi Ben Barka. Modiano has increasingly returned in his work to the early 1960s, a ‘bizarre and chaotic period’. But the long moment that underlies all his novels, the primary layer of sedimentation, is the Occupation, to which, he said in his 2014 Nobel lecture, ‘I owe my life.’ Occupied Paris was ‘a kind of primordial darkness’, and ‘my books are sometimes bathed in its veiled light.’
In his investigation of Modiano’s sources, Dans la peau de Patrick Modiano (2011), the journalist Denis Cosnard has shown that many of the names that recur in the novels refer to Occupation-era personalities: diplomats, gangsters, nightclub performers, collaborators and Gestapo thugs. To read Modiano’s novels is to experience the bewildering disparity between the precision of their settings and the disorientation that afflicts his characters. ‘Topographical details have a strange effect on me,’ the narrator of After the Circus (1992) confesses. ‘Instead of clarifying and sharpening images from the past, they give me a harrowing sensation of emptiness and severed relationships.’
The Nobel committee described Modiano as a ‘Marcel Proust for our time’, and praised him for his exploration of ‘the art of memory’. But forgetting, not memory, is the real engine of his novels. His novels are usually told in the form of investigations, with touches of noir that led his early critics to mistake him for a detective novelist, but for all the tantalising clues left by telephone directories and faits divers, the doors to the past remain closed to his characters, leaving them susceptible to paralysing anguish.
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