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.