Tag Archives: Patrick Modiano

Modiano, Modiano, Modiano

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”!

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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

 

Staying in the fog with Patrick Modiano: Suspended Sentences

[Rating:2.5/5]

Pros: Afterimage

Cons: Flower of Ruins

When the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature going to Patrick Modiano  was announced, I was not aghast (as with awards to Daniel Fo, Mo Yan, and Herta Muller). Admiring two films about the Occupation of France (Lacombe, Lucien; Bon voyage), I gave the Swedish Academy the benefit of the doubt. Having now read four novels by Modiano (Out of the Dark and the three that were originally published separately that were recently bundled by Yale University Press as Suspended Sentences), my doubts have become acute.

It seems (not just from my sample but from what I have read about others) that 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 are not driven at all. They have a protagonist whose age and life experiences match Modiano’s who is curious about people with whom he interacted (I can’t say that “he knew”) or with whom his father interacted at some time in the past. The protagonist is definitely a professional investigator or researcher: he gives an additional meaning to the “private” in “private investigator”!

Not least in that Modiano frequently calls this man haunted by and speculating about the past “Patrick,” I will, too. Patrick turns up some material in old newspapers and magazine, but never attempts to investigate the police records of Paris. When he finds someone who might know something about those about whom he is recollecting and speculating, he is too diffident to talk to them and ask any questions.

Those who interest him, particularly those who were adults during the Occupation, were furtive and elusive, both then and later. Patrick’s father, Albert (1912-77) was a low-level black-market operator who kept his Jewish ancestry secret from the Nazis with whom he got along. He defied the legal requirement to wear the yellow Star of David that marked Jews. Though Albert was, nonetheless, rounded up and stored in Drancy, a transit camp for Jews being shipped to Auschwitz, he was mysteriously sprung by a collaborationist racketeer, Eddy Pagnon, about whom Patrick would like to know more (but not at the cost of having to ask anyone about the man who seemingly saved his father from a Nazi death camp).

The same story, or, rather, the part of the story Patrick/Modiano knows recurs—without elaboration. Author and narrator fail even to try to imagine details to fill in the very sketchy historical record.

Modiano’s fictions are extremely specific about objects in vanished rooms, often in buildings that no longer exist, and Modiano is hyper-specific about place names (mostly, but not only Parisian ones) where he was in the 1960s (or, less often, the previous and the following decades), 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 me, but can that substitute for plots and characterizations, even for native Parisians?

Reading Suspended Sentences (in which the three novellas are not placed in chronological order of publication or in chronological order of the part of the narrator’s past that is the blurry focus of the work), I grew more impatient and critical with each doomed attempt to understand someone from the past. Perhaps my dismay was cumulative, though I liked “Afterimage” (1993, a rendition in English from the untranslatable idiom of its French title Chien de printemps, which means literally “dog of spring”).

Patrick is recalling when he was a 19-year-old university dropout who volunteered to catalog the archive of Francis Jansen, a MAGNUM photographer (and friend of the legendary Robert Capa), who is getting ready to leave Paris for Mexico (disappearing like Ambrose Bierce) and evading a mistress who intrigues Patrick. Jansen was, perhaps, trying to teach Patrick to “train his gaze on something very specific to avoid thinking about anything else,” as Patrick thinks Jansen did.

The second novella, “Suspended Sentences” (from the 1988 Remisse de peine, a phrase with different connotations in French: remission of pain would be a literal and cognate translation) is more obsessive and even more fragmented. Patrick (often called the affectionate/diminutive “Patrice,” but also “blissful idiot) recalls a year or so during which he and his younger brother Rudy (who was to die at the age of ten and has haunted Modiano as much as his father’s nefarious past) were housed with Annie, a possibly lesbian possible prostitute who wore a black leather jacket and jeans when no other women did). Her circle included some swindlers and other sorts of criminals Modiano père probably knew. The fragments of memory and suggestions of romantic malefactors do not add up to anything. At the end the police have arrived at the house where the young Modianos have been staying, but though her car remains parked out front, Annie has vanished forever (at least from Patrick’s view).

In the longest of the three, “Flowers of Ruin” (a literal translation of Fleurs de ruine, 1991), a desultory investigation into what happened before a young couple, Urbain and Gisèle T., committed suicide in 1933, shifts to trying to sort out the trajectory of a waiter who had served the Ts at a night club, seemingly lied that they were there alone, and much later (late-1940) took on the identity of a Peruvian(-father)/Italian(-mother) called Pacheco, a collaborationist, Philippe de Bellune, who disappeared after WWII (the “Liberation”). It is the failure to develop any of the characters (including Patrick’s) or even a tentative solution to the mysteries of the suicides, the disappeared ex-waiter or the ersatz nobleman (and collaborationist sought by the postwar French authorities) that irritated me more than the open-ended other three Modiano novels I’d read.

Bottom line: I think the Nobel committee should have chosen Michael Ondaatje, a great writer in diverse media and very varied settings, rather than Modiano. For a French writer, I think they should have chosen Michel Tournier (1924-) (before either Modiano or their previous pick, J[ean]. M[arie]. G[ustave].Le Clézio, and I regret that they did not anoint Modiano’s original patron, Raymond Queneau (1902-76)… or Marcel Proust (1871-1922).

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Honeymoon: Another private and inconclusive investigation from Patrick Modiano [Rating:2/5]

Pros: ? (geographical specificity? but that only highlights lack of specificity about other, more important matters)

Cons: mystery is not even illuminated, let alone resolved; neither character-driven nor plot-driven

Patrick Modiano, who won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, has frequently said “I have the impression of writing the same book for 45 years.” Honeymoon, originally published in French in 1990 as Voyage de noces, is very like the other (four) short Modiano novels I’ve read with characters who disappear themselves (against a background of the roundup by French police of Jews to send to death camps).

The narrator, Jean B., has just disappeared himself, having stayed in Paris when he was scheduled to go to Brazil to work on a documentary film. He is tired of that line of work and is working desultorily on a biography of Ingrid, a woman who once (1950s? 60s?) picked him up hitch-hiking in the South of France (trying to get to Saint-Tropez). With her somewhat older husband, Pigaud, she took him in for a few days (he had been robbed and had no money). Later, she committed suicide in Milan.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read other Modiano novels that by the end of his investigations, Jean has no more idea of why she killed herself than he does at the start of the novel. Modiano’s protagonists give a whole new, additional meaning to “private” in “private investigator.” Jean speaks to the man who has been caretaker of Pigaud’s Paris apartment, where Pigaud has not been in more than a decade (usually the narrator is named Patrick and is too diffident to speak to anyone who knew the person whose life and disappearance intrigues him).

As usual, there is no character development and only wisps of a plot. The honeymoon was in 1942 with Pigaud having whisked the presumably Jewish Ingrid out of occupied Paris. They stay in a villa on the Côte d’azure owned by an American as nominal caretakers (and having at first claimed to be on their honeymoon, actually get married).

As vague as Modiano(‘s narrator) is about what happened both in his own past and in that of persons with whom he briefly interacted, he is typically hyper-specific in unreeling place names: the narrator moves into a hotel or apartment on a specific street in a specific arrondissement , visits bars or nightclubs on other specific streets in another specific arrondissement often with specified Métro lines and stations. That is, readers intimately familiar with Paris will know where the inconclusive narrative is at every point while rarely learning why they (the reader and the narrator) the geography is so specific and what happened to the characters of interest to the narrator remain so wispy. (Pacheco, from Suspended Sentences makes a brief appearance that also clarifies nothing about his character or fate.) And, as usual for Modiano, there is no marking of shifts from one past time to another past time to the present.

 


I hoped, but did not expect, that Missing Person (Rue de Boutiques Obscures), which won the 1978 Prix Goncourt, might be better than the other wispy Patrick Modiano novels I have read, but it is another inconclusive inquiry with hyper-precise Paris geography into the murky late-1930s and the time of the Occupation, culminating in the amnesiac narrator remembering being separated from his female companion trying to sneak into Switzerland. So what? In addition to extensive specification of Parisian street addresses, there are meticulous inventories of objects, as in the nouveau roman and an uninterest in psychology (motivation). As usual, I have difficulty crediting amnesia, and even more the way the detective(‘s assistant) initially called Guy Roland recovers memories (though generally not recognizing himself in the stories he elicits from a large group of interviewees, many of whom give him mementos they have preserved (for? It’s unclear when the novel’s present is). As in my favorite Modiano fiction, “Afterimage,” the character I find most interesting is a mentor/spiritual father who leaves Paris early in the narrative/inquest, in this case the detective who has employed him, Hutte, who relocates to Nice but continues to communicate (unlike the painter Francis Jansen in “Afterimage”) and whose contacts supply the narrator with many a dossier specifying the successions of addresses of persons of interest to him.

 

©2015, Stephen O. Murray

A young, not-very-bright collaborator with the Nazis

Lacombe, Lucien” (1974, written and directed by Louis Malle, cowritten with the typically vague Patrick Modiano) starts slowly and proceeds at a languid, dreamy pace (with bursts of violence). It is a disconcertingly lyrical look at an 17-year-old Frenchman in rural southwestern France (near the Pyrenees and the Spanish border) who joins the Gestapo in 1944 (that is, after Allied forces have landed in Normandy) and develops a very complex relationships with three Jews (a young woman, her father, and his mother) who are in hiding.

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The title character is devoid of ideology. He is rejected by the Resistance and then, being out after curfew because a tire on his bicycle went flat as he was returning to town, he is taken up by collaborators who are attempting to root out and destroy the Resistance. He does not decide to join the other side. They get him drunk and he provides useful information (so that he can’t go home again), and they keep him around. (Similarly, he did not decide to betray his village’s resistance leader, but did so nonetheless.)

Lucien seems to find an outlet for his sadism, an opportunity to swagger like the young collaborator in Georges Dirty Snow. I think that Malle was influenced by the “banality of evil” thesis that Hannah Arendt advanced in Eichman in Jerusalem a decade earlier (and that was illustrated in “The Sorrow and the Pity” in the French context, a few years before “Lacombe, Lucien.”

The surly Lacombe is easily manipulated by those who enroll him in the Gestapo and make him feel important. He is very immature, which makes him dangerous to everyone (including those on the side he has drifted onto more than joined). He lacks the methodical organization of the Germans in the Gestapo, the greed of other French collaborators, and the anti-Semitic ideology of both. None of which make him a nice guy, but, as the cultivated Jewish tailor Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler ) says, it is difficult to despise him. And it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Lucien being way over his head and almost endearingly gauche in courting France Horn (the beautiful and sophisticated Parisian played by Aurore Clément). Lucien is something of a bully (indeed a sociopathic sadist) but unsure of himself, a good son, and in many ways close to being an innocent. He is armed and dangerous, but his dangerousness is unpredictable. To be somewhat of an innocent within the Gestapo is still complicity with great evil, which is not mitigated by seeing that Lucien does not understand what he is doing and how what he does affects others beyond making them cower. He does not like being talked down to, but does not notice being tolerated in silence by the vulnerable (Jewish) family he forces himself into.

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Pierre Blaise was killed in an auto accident a year after the movie justifiably brought him international acclaim (and augments the aura of doom surrounding Lucien). Löwenadler, Clément , and Therese Giehse the surly grandmother forever playing solitaire are all fascinating to observe, as are the supporting players. (Blaise, Löwenadler, Clément had not acted in films before (Blaise was a country boy who had only seen a few movies, Giehse had appeared in German films dating back to 1928, Löwenadler, was a Swedish stage actor).

Despite running 140 minutes, the film has a frustratingly perfunctory ending that leaves the viewer in doubt about some important matters (typical Modiano…). As Pauline Kael wrote, “There’s no special magic involved in the moviemaking technique—it’s simple, head-on, unforced.” She says that “the movie is in the boy’s face,” though I think it in the faces of the three Horns as much as in Lucien’s. (And I think that what we see through Blais’s “open face” is a blank mind rather than a dark one.) The almost upbeat musical score by Django Reinhardt seems to me to indicate how Lucien would like to see himself and what he is doing. The cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli, particularly of the French countryside, is almost jarringly beautiful (though the interiors are neo-noirish).

“Lacombe, Lucien” was Malle’s favorite of his films film, though his other portrayal of complex French-Jewish relations during the German Occupation, “Aux revoir, les enfants” (1987) garnered the best notices and most rewards and “Le Souffle Au Coeur” (Murmur of the Heart, 1971) and “Viva, María!” (1965) are my own favorite Malle films. The image of the Criterion DVD is excellent with clear monaural sound and easily legible subtitles (though dialogue is fairly sparse).

The single DVD’s extras are only a two-and-a-half minute trailer (that includes some shots not used in the final cut of the film) and Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review from 1974 (also available in her collection Reeling—which should have a “plot spoiler” warning attached to it. (I rarely agree completely with Kael—but also rarely disagree with her completely. I think she is right that Malle lost interest in some of the scripted scenes, particularly the scenes of Lucien and the maid in the Gestapo HQ/hotel where they live and torture. It is also plausible to me that working with nonprofessionals in the leads and adapting the script to Lucien’s emerging character, Malle probably had to cut scenes he needed to tell the story but that didn’t pan out. I did not dare to read what she wrote until after writing my own take, BTW.) The DVD is also available in a four-volume boxed set with “Aux revoir, les enfants” and “Le Souffle Au Coeur” and a whole disc of extras (which I have yet to see), including an interview with Malle’s widow, Candice Bergen.

On the willing collusion with evil, beyond Simenon’s already mentioned Dirty Snow and Arendt’s Eichman in Jerusalem, I would recommend Uwe Timm’s In My Brother’s Shadow. I find these reflection of too much contemporary relevance, even though I realized that “Lacombe, Lucien” was made closer to the time in which the film was set than today. (It is also disconcerting in that I remember the theatrical release of “Lacombe, Lucien” and was already an adult when I saw it the first time.

©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray