Patrick Modiano, Rue des Boutiques Obscures (1978, Eng: Missing Person)

I don’t remember exactly where I read that this book was considered one of Modiano’s best, on par with Dora Bruder. I’m not always in agreement with these ratings but here I totally agree! It also won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the most prestigious book prize in France. I’m at this stage where I enjoy reading more and more by the same authors, to contrast and compare, and Modiano is particularly adapted to this approach, as his favorite themes are the traces of memories.

Contrary to other of his books where we’re not sure if it’s fiction or non-fiction, this book is a story told by his fictional narrator Guy Roland. We follow Roland in search of his own past and his own identity. A victim of amnesia, Roland was employed in a PI agency in Paris but when his boss retires, he turns his investigation skills towards himself.

The beginning is quite vague, as Roland only follows intuitions (for lack of any concrete lead) and ends up following the guests at a Russian wedding in Paris. He stares at names, at faces in old photos, every time wondering: is it me? what if it was me? Or someone who knows me? The approach is puzzling to the reader too, as we get a bit lost among those names and addresses. Roland meets people and gets vague answers that then take him to new people and new hypothesis. At moments it seems to be getting nowhere, but it actually creates a memory landscape by accumulation of details.

About halfway through we start to see people and circumstances emerge from the fog. It has to do with the war (the second world War in France, the Nazi occupation and the persecution of Jews and foreigners). No wonder people might have had several identities, changing addresses and jobs, making dubious answers or ignoring what happened to their friends.

It is probably easier to read than other Modiano books because it’s a mystery of sorts, with a PI, a quest, leads and red herrings, but it opens up on the reconstruction of a certain wartime atmosphere, and at its widest it even interrogates memory itself, what is left behind after a person or a place has disappeared. It has the trademark Modiano melancholy and style, and more of something approaching a resolution than his other books.

A very interesting analysis of the book (in French, but on Youtube) can be found here

Patrick Modiano, Suspended Sentences (1988)

Reading a book by Patrick Modiano is immersing oneself in an atmosphere with a strong sense of place (Paris and its suburbs) and history (the post-war period and the 1950s). I feel that the experience is even better when you can have an uninterrupted immersion, which is why I enjoy his short books like this one.

Suspended sentences is about the childhood memories of a man named Patrick. Whether this is actually Patrick Modiano “for real” is open for debate but I personally don’t care. 10-year-old Patrick and his younger brother have been entrusted by their parents to several women who are… well… out of the ordinary. There’s a former circus horsewoman whose career was stopped short by an accident. There’s her mother and a pale young woman that they’re calling Snow-White. They live on the outskirts of a small suburban village and the villagers shun them, perhaps for good reasons.

The boy’s daily life is simple: school, playing with local boys and with his brother, roaming the countryside and in particular an abandoned palace owned by some aristocracy that fled at the end of the war due to some unsavory dealings with the Nazi occupants. He listens to the adults speaking but he doesn’t understand. He finds them mysterious, and he’s probably right, but some clues he’ll only piece together as an adult.

There’s a lot of “perhaps” in this tale, and if you like to have a neat resolution at the end of a novel you should skip this one. Fragments of memories, fragments of clues, shady people meeting at night in a suburban house, Patrick will never get to the bottom of what he witnessed as a child. As a mother I had to wonder about this weird arrangement found by the parents who could not take care of their two boys for an extended period (several months at minimum, more like a school year).

As a reader and Modiano lover I just saw that some serious people are actually researching if those events took place and what characters are actually real. I find it fascinating (and also a bit weird and obsessional to be honest). But it makes me happy that I’ve planned another Modiano for the summer!

Patrick Modiano, In the Café of Lost Youth (2007)

Now, that’s more like it… After the distasteful / disastrous encounter with Place de l’Etoile, Modiano’s first book, this more recent novel is what most people expect for this author, and it’s a good (albeit melancholy) story.

The focus of the book is Louki, a young woman who used to be a regular patron of a café in Paris, and who died after throwing herself from a window. The book is an attempt to understand her, but also the impossibility to really know who Louki was.

We’re not sure who the narrator is at first, and then once I thought I’d nailed it (a shy young man in the café, probably Modiano’s alter-ego, who many years later will remember Louki), then the voice changes. Sometimes it’s Louki herself, sometimes it’s a private investigator who has been hired by Louki’s husband. Not only does the point of view change, but also the time setting. At some moment we’re in an undefined past (the 1960s maybe?), sometimes we’re in the present and looking back at the past events. One of the good points of this book is the experience of feeling lost (as the title mentions), but it’s probably not for everybody.

The tone of the book is nostalgic but it’s not to say that the past is all rosy. Louki grew up with a single mother who worked at night at the Moulin Rouge and in her absence she took to walking alone in the streets, being arrested for vagrancy. Louki later belongs to a group of friends, but this is very vague, and there’s also some drug addiction involved, contributing to her general despair and loneliness.

The Café of Lost Youth is to me a reference to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. Modiano could actually borrow Proust’s title in its entirety. Louki is lost to the now adult narrator, as is the group of people she was with and many buildings and streets of Paris. As the song goes “Paris sera toujours Paris” with its Moulin rouge, landmarks, streets and cafés, but it’s also never the same.

One could also say that Modiano is always telling the same story about the past, but it’s also never the same. And I love it!

Modiano, La place de l’étoile (1968)

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.

The One with the Traitor’s Turmoil

Patrick Modiano, La Ronde de Nuit (The night watch, 1969)

I’m not sure it was the best decision to read this book so soon after Dora Bruder, which I had totally loved. This one pales in comparison, but really, it’s not bad at all. It is fiction, and it is unsettling because it’s not linear and it’s hard to find your bearing at first. It’s short (150 pages), but the first third of the book is a whirlwind of people and scenes and snippets of conversation, that seem to make no sense at all. I understand that some readers might be put off by this, especially as characters are not of the likeable kind. They are shady characters, thugs, corrupt ex-policemen, prostitutes, con men, and all have a very unpleasant common point: they’re friendly with the Nazi forces occupying France, because they are the real winners of the French debacle. They steal, they live in rich villas whose owners have fled, they do black-market and gorge themselves with high class alcohol or food that aren’t accessible legally. This book is really the mirror view of Dora Bruder, and what it shows is not pretty.

I had indeed chosen this book at the library because it is set in the same historical period (the war is one of the common themes of many of Modiano’s books anyway), but it surprised me to see that it was published in 1969, almost two decades before Dora Bruder. It is very clearly fiction, but as in other Modiano’s works real places in Paris are very important. I learnt in between that this is the second book published by Modiano and that he later worked as co-writer for the movie “Lacombe Lucien”, which has a similar story of a traitor during Second world war.

I have been watching a few classic movies lately about the Second world war: Mr. Klein (1976) by Joseph Losey, about a shady art dealer who is mistaken for a hunted Jew, and L’Armée des ombres (1969) by Jean-Pierre Melville, about ordinary French members of the Resistance, and how traitors and doubts were with them every step of the way. Modiano’s book, which is highly atmospheric and almost like a trance, was a good complement to those movies, and I intend to continue with this theme, as I bought Pierre Bayard’s book: Would I have been a résistant or an executioner?

The French title “La Ronde de nuit” has many meanings. The English title chose “The Night watch”, just like the famous Dutch painting by Rembrandt, and it’s true that the thugs that help the Gestapo and hunt Resistance members are mostly active by night, cruising the dark and empty streets of Paris to make suspects “disappear”. (There are haunting scenes in Mr. Klein about this). But “Ronde” in French is also a round dance, like the kind small kids play and sing in the courtyards with nursery rhymes. The first part of the book replicates the whirlwind of a waltz, and the repetitive, obsessive rhythm of a merry-go-round, one that would be anything but childish and innocent. The narrator is like in a nightmare, and the writing is particularly effective, but also dizzying to the reader who is suddenly thrown among dangerous strangers and in shady situations one doesn’t quite understand.

The narrator might be fictional, but among his bleak friends I recognized one name at the end of the book: Léon Sadorski, which I’d discovered in an eponymous noir thriller. Sadorski, for one, was a real corrupt and collaborator police inspector during the war, so it gave me second thoughts about everything I’d thought as fictional in the rest of the book. I normally enjoy when books speak to one another, but this coincidence is rather chilling!

The One with the Disappeared Girl’s Secrets

Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder (French 1997, English 1999)

It’s not the first Modiano I get to read, but I can safely say that it’s the best one (so far?). I’m glad that I started with some other of his books to get used to his very peculiar writing style, the slowness, the melancholy, the meandering, repetitive walks through Paris. All these elements are present in Dora Bruder, but they take it to a higher level and take a whole new meaning.

Other books were more clearly fictions, interwoven with the narrator’s voice which may – or may not be – Modiano’s himself. So whenever we readers were made to walk through Paris and reflect about the past of a particular address, it sometimes felt artificial, as the whole genealogy of a building, or the anecdotes about a street or a neighborhood in Paris might all be fictional. But in Dora Bruder, Modiano is looking for a real young girl who lived in Paris. And his quest for information all across town, so difficult and fragmented, fully justifies the meandering and repetitive pace of the book.

Modiano discovers Dora Bruder while reading an old newspaper from 1941. Dora Bruder’s parents have put a classified ad in the newspaper to inquire about their daughter’s disappearance. She is 15 (as described in the ad) and Jewish (which is not apparent). Dora is totally unknown to Modiano but his curiosity is awakened and he investigates. He sees parallels between Dora’s life and his own father’s, who also survived as a Jew in Paris by hiding and doing illegal activities. Dora’s parents, both from Eastern Europe, live in a room in a poor Paris neighborhood and work small jobs. They are not in hiding and must wear the infamous yellow star. They have sent their daughter to a Catholic boarding school, but Dora runs away several times (which is when her desperate parents put the ad), and at one point, she is arrested by the police who will identify her as Jewish and send her to the Nazi camps where she is killed, in Auschwitz in 1942.

Modiano is on a quest to know all there is to know about Dora’s life (which is not much), and he also wonders about what she saw and felt, if only by citing how cold or rainy one particular day was, but she remains a ghost. He doesn’t put words in her mouth and doesn’t speculate about psychological reasons why she ran away. It is a mix between a biography and an autobiography, as he tells us about his emotions during his investigations and his memories linked to his childhood in the 1960s and his father.

It is a richly layered book set on bare-bones facts (what could be smaller than a few lines of a classified ad in a newspaper?), and it can move you to tears with melancholy and tragedy. It’s not surprising that this book has been assigned to all high-school students in France. They must write essays about it and some even have exams on it, but I hope they can still perceive the full emotional and historical value of this wonderful book.

The One with the Loners in the City

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.

The One to Get Lost in Paris

Patrick Modiano, Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (2014) / So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood (English 2015)

This draft of mine has been lingering for more than one month somewhere in a dusty WordPress drawer waiting for the right moment, or maybe waiting for the revelation?

It’s been years since I wanted to try a Modiano, but I’m afraid I’ve started with the wrong one.

An old man, Mr. Daragane, spurred by a vague but uncomfortable phone by a stranger, suddenly remembers old memories of his childhood, names that don’t really ring a bell in an old address book, places he might have been to, people who might have taken care of him as a child. Everything is quite fuzzy, his memory is vague at best, and it’s not even clear why he (let alone I) should care.

I appreciated the reflection on memory and false souvenirs (which is exactly why I picked this one in the first place) and I liked the tone but I felt as if I was missing the point of the story. Perhaps there’s no point altogether, but this was a frustrating experience nonetheless. It’s even harder when it’s a national treasure and a Nobel Prize for literature and you feel you should a. be awed or b. just shut up about your own ignorance. I therefore choose c. try another Modiano asap.

The weirdest experience was perhaps when I visited the Goodreads page for this book (in the English version), which called the book a “haunting novel of suspense from the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature”:

In the stillness of his Paris apartment, Jean Daragane has built a life of total solitude. Then a surprising phone call shatters the silence of an unusually hot September, and the threatening voice on the other end of the line leaves Daragane wary but irresistibly curious. Almost at once, he finds himself entangled with a shady gambler and a beautiful, fragile young woman, who draw Daragane into the mystery of a decades-old murder. The investigation will force him to confront the memory of a trauma he had all but buried.

I had to pinch myself to be sure we were talking about the same book. “Threatening voice” and “shady gambler”, I got them, but the mystery of a decades-old murder? I have completely missed that one. People called the book a “noir”, and I get that the book is totally atmospheric like a 1950s movie. Paris streets and buildings are right there on the page. I could almost see the grainy cliché of a beautiful woman with impeccable lipstick who would spend hours in a café staring into the void and playing with her cigarette in her (perfectly manicured) hand. But if “noir” has some components of sadness, inevitability, slow pace that are in the book, “noir” also normally has a plot and some truth to discover at the end.

Strangely, despite its title, I felt completely lost in the neighborhood. Only the familiar street names gave me some frame of references. But again, it might have been Modiano’s intention from the start. Intriguing and unsettling.