nolead begins By Patrick Modiano
Translated by Euan Cameron
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 156 pp. $24
nolead ends nolead begins Pedigree
nolead ends nolead begins A Memoir nolead ends nolead begins
By Patrick Modiano
Translated by Mark Polizzotti
Yale University Press. 130 pp. $25 nolead ends
The Occupation Trilogy: La Place de l'Etoile; The Night Watch; Ring Roads
nolead ends nolead begins By Patrick Modiano
Translated by Caroline Hillier, Patricia Wolf, and Frank Wynne nolead ends
nolead begins Bloomsbury. 352 pp. $18
nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed By David L. Ulin
Patrick Modiano, the French writer who won the Nobel Prize last year for work as beautiful as any in postwar European literature, is an excavator of memory - not only his own or those of his characters, but also that of Paris.
Central to that work is the German occupation, which Modiano, born in 1945, refers to in his memoir Pedigree as "the soil - or the dung - from which I emerged." History for him is both personal and collective. Identity depends, at least in part, on circumstance. This can involve family - Modiano's mother, an actress, met his father, a black marketeer, in the morally blank landscape of Vichy Paris. But the past also appears to rise up from the streets around us, mingling with the present until we are no longer sure where (or when) we are.
His recent novel So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood involves Jean Daragane, a writer drawn into an unlikely conspiracy after his lost address book is found and returned. Daragane is a recluse living alone in a Paris apartment, too disconnected even to remember the substance of his own books. That all changes after he meets Gilles Ottolini, who has found the address book and wants to ask Daragane about one of the entries: a single name, Guy Torstel, and a telephone number long obsolete.
"He leafed through the notebook absentmindedly," Modiano writes. "Among these telephone numbers, there was not one that he would have wanted to dial. And then, the two or three missing numbers, those that had mattered to him and which he still knew by heart, would no longer respond."
That's Modiano's method in a nutshell: introduce a narrative and then detour, intentionally, into echoes, longings, the tension among who we are, who we once were, and who we can never be again. Torstel's name leads Daragane to recall the years he lived in the Paris suburbs with a friend of his mother's - a woman with whom he reconnects while writing his first book.
This same scenario forms the substance of his novella Suspended Sentences. References to it also appear in Pedigree, which tells the story of the author's early years. As he recollects, "Between Jouy-en-Josas and Paris, the mystery of those suburbs that weren't yet suburbs. The ruined château and, in front of it, the tall grass in the meadow where we flew our kite. The woods at Les Metz. And the large wheel of the water mill in Marly, which spun with the noise and coolness of a waterfall." The overlap may seem repetitious, but it isn't. Rather, it makes reading any single Modiano book like encountering one installment in a multivolume work. The press of memory becomes more resonant the more one reads.
So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood leads us back through Pedigree to Modiano's first three novels - La Place de l'Etoile, The Night Watch, and Ring Roads - which have just been issued in a single volume called The Occupation Trilogy.
"You try to forget the past," he writes in The Night Watch, "but your footsteps invariably lead you back to difficult crossroads." In these early novels, that means imagining his way to his father's Paris, during the darkest period of the war.
"Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch," he explains in So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood. "It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves."
Literature, in other words, as act of faith, as gesture of connection, no matter how futile or doomed. "It was a fragment of reality that he had smuggled in," Modiano tells us, "one of those private messages that people put in small ads in newspapers and that can only be deciphered by one person."