I was recently reminded that one of my goals for 2022 was to read more books by Patrick Modiano (and also, randomly, by Emily St John Mandel, Claire Keegan, Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Townsend Warner). Modiano seemed appropriate for a mellow mood, and I borrowed several from the library, to read together during the same period. But I was in for a shock: this book is nothing like typical Modiano, and in fact, I checked several times that he was the author on the cover, instead of controversial writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
This novel is the first Modiano published. I have no idea how young he was (I checked and he was 22), but he must have been one troubled young man. Having read several of his later works I can now trace in this chaos some of his obsessions: World War II, French Nazi collaborators, Jewish identity, Paris locations… But it’s also bizarre, utterly unlikeable, made to shock readers with strong Antisemitic language (coming from a self-loathing Jew). I really struggled to finish it (more like, get rid of it as fast as possible) and I wouldn’t recommend it, especially as a first taste for Modiano.
I understand that it’s the first book of his Occupation Trilogy for which I had already unwittingly read the second, The Night Watch, which was published a year later. The Night Watch is better in my opinion, because both are chaotic, but where the second seem the result of an increasing frenzy, the first only seems random, neurotic and outrageous. I’m not sure what kind of reaction Modiano expected from the reader, but it didn’t make me laugh.
As I researched Modiano’s age, I found an interesting analysis in the New Yorker by Alexandra Schwartz in 2015 (when several of his books were translated):
Modiano never wrote another book like “La Place de l’Étoile.” That’s a good thing. The novel burns out on the high heat of its own aspiration; its frenetic, syncopated style is as deafening as that of Schlemilovitch’s play. (You want to applaud the translator, Frank Wynne, for sheer endurance.)
I’m glad that I’d already decided to read several books in parallel by Modiano and that I had two others on my nightstand ready to use as a palate cleanser, so I wouldn’t stay for long on a bad impression. I wonder what the reception of the book was and what the Nobel prize team thought of this one.