A few years back (before winning the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature and the French publication of So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood), Patrick Modiano said “I have the impression of writing the same book for 45 years.” Besides being very repetitious from novella to novella, Modiano’s plots are wispy without any counterweight of character development: that is, his novels are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. Indeed, I’d say they lack narrative drive. They have a protagonist life experiences match Modiano’s, one who is curious about people with whom he interacted (I can’t say that “he knew”) as a child or as a young man or (though not in this case) with whom his petty gangster father interacted at some time in the past. The protagonist, almost always a writer, is definitely not a professional investigator or researcher: he gives an additional meaning to the “private” in “private investigator”!
As usual, in “Lost” the writer (given a name other than Patrick for a change: Jean Daragne) never attempts to investigate the police records involving the adults whose relationships with each other were mysterious to him when he was a child left by his mother with shady friends, one of whom was murdered.
When he finds someone who might know something about those about whom he is recollecting and speculating, Modiano’s investigator is too diffident to talk to them and ask any questions.. This one asks a physician across the street in the Parisian suburb where Jean was stored for a time as a child some questions, but his absurd cover story prevents him from asking much of what he really wants to know. Similarly, though he has a cache of old papers in a suitcase, he has lost the key and is unwilling to break it open to try to ground his feeble memories and extremely limited analytical abilities.
And, as usual in Modiano novels, at the end of the wispy book, the investigator does not know why the subject of his investigation did what they did decades earlier (let alone who the murderer was!). Even what Jean has blocked from his memory is something readers of Modiano’s Prix Goncourt-winning Missing Persons will already know.
The novel begins with someone else, an inveterate gambler, interested in writing about the murder of Colette Laurent and the girlfriend of the gambler. These two characters are MacGuffins (to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s term) and disappear from the book fairly early on.
Modiano is hyper-specific about place names (mostly, but not only Parisian ones), often noting both what once stood at an address and what is there now. Perhaps these details covey more to readers who have lived there whole lives in Paris than they do to me, but can that substitute for plots and characterizations, even for native Parisians?
I don’t know what the writer of the cover cop could mean by “psychological insight” in the novel, and I think the Swedish Academy made another mistake in awarding the Nobel Prize to a very bad mystery writer of very limited scope. (Joseph Kanon, who provides solutions to the murder mysteries in his novels that also have developed characters and diverse settings, seems to me a better choice, though my first choice for the Nobel Prize is Michael Ondaatje.)
(My Amazon Vine review of the forthcoming translation recycles a lot from what I wrote about earlier Modiano novellas earlier this year, I know! And in responding to comments:)
I have read variants of Modiano’s story in multiple volumes and have yet to notice much in the way of gifts, at least any that make it across translation. “Lost purpose since 1945” (not 1940?) is wooly, but Modiano’s picking at the wounds of his youth (especially his gangster Nazi-collaborator father) are far, far, far less grandiose. And in the present instance, keeping the same number of years back to last meetings with childhood caregivers from 2012 makes no sense.
As I wrote, his novels lack character development (his characters are barely even wispy and definitely boneless), plot development, ideas (about anything, macro or micro), or any serious attempt to solve/resolve even the minor mysteries that slightly pique his characters’ (variants of himself) interest. Simenon’s non-Maigret novels (of which there are a great many) don’t provide the “solutions” you demean (Agatha Christie wrap-ups). Moreover, I think Simenon’s Dirty Snow, the Simenon novel focused on occupation/collaboration, is far superior to any Modiano novel.
It seems to me that Modiano (and his autobiographical protagonists) are treading water that is not very deep: if they stretched their legs, they could find they could walk. And to press my analogy, the man flailing in the water has his eyes closed speculating about how far from shore he is and if he opened them could see it is not very far.
©2015, Stephen O. Murray