Patrick Modiano, Des Inconnues (1998)
At the end of the summer I suddenly wanted to read Modiano. I wish I had found Dora Bruder, his bestseller that us now taught in French high schools, but I settled for anything that looked good on the library shelf. I wanted his mellow voice, his lonely walks through Paris, his obsession about places and memories, his dreamlike narratives that refuse to explain everything.
I sure got that, but I also got more than I bargained for. This book is actually three novellas told from the point of view of young women (or older women reminiscing their youth). Only two of those are set in Paris, the third is set in Annecy, and Lyon and London are also mentioned. The common point of these 3 girls is to be nameless, adrift and lonely.
In the first story the narrator dreams of making it in Paris and suddenly, at 18, leaves her family and native Lyon to join some vague acquaintance who lives there. This woman generously welcomes her and lets her stay. She introduces the young woman to her friends and to men. This small world is vague and rather mysterious. The narrator never tries to clarify who these people are and what they’re doing. She just follows along, spends long evenings with them in restaurants, bars, apartments. She becomes the mistress of a mysterious foreigner with a fake name. The story is told years later, but the narrator doesn’t regret or judge any of this. It could have been tragedy, abuse, creepy, but Modiano is not a realist painter, he’s more of an Impressionist.
The second story is about a girl from Annecy who studies in a Catholic boarding school, because her father is dead and her mother, remarried to a stingy, bleak character, rejects her. Boarding school is terribly boring and the girl, with only vague plans for the future, is left to wonder about her mysterious father from just a few objects and clues. One weekend she doesn’t go back to school and rather takes small jobs with the help of some school friend and acquaintance. The ending is rather radical for a Modiano story, but just like the previous story, not all bows are nicely tied up at the end.
In the third story, a young woman fresh out of a breakup comes from London to Paris to house-sit for a friend. The neighborhood where she lives is on the outskirts of Paris, near a slaughterhouse for horses. The narrator develops high anxiety and panic attacks. She hardly can’t bear to stay in the neighborhood, taking refuge in a café. She regains some footing when she takes a typing job for a mysterious teacher who comes to the same café as she. The teacher introduces her to a weird sect.
It’s really hard to pinpoint why Modiano’s books are fascinating. There’s always nostalgia and some mystery. A lot happens, and not much at the same time. The narrators don’t analyze their emotions or what happens to them, they are neither particularly clever nor striking (although each of them takes a life-changing decision in the course of the story). Yet the magic is there, and we do care.
Now that this book has opened up my appetite, I probably won’t stop at just one Modiano for the season.