Patrick Modiano may not have been quite as unknown as some suggested when he won the Nobel Prize last year, but it was true to say that not many of his books were around in English at the time. Nine months on, and that’s definitely no longer the case. More of his work has appeared in both the US and the UK, and even here in Australia, Text Publishing have just brought out a couple of his more recent books. Today’s post marks the first look I’ve had at his work – let’s see what all the fuss is about 😉
Little Jewel (translated by Penny Hueston, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins with a chance encounter on a Metro platform in Paris. A young woman, the narrator of the piece, sees an older woman in a yellow coat, one who looks very much like her mother. Despite the resemblance the narrator can’t quite bring herself to approach the woman, mainly because her mother supposedly died in Morocco years earlier.
Having followed the woman in the yellow coat to her home, the young woman tries to decide if she should take the final step, unsure as to whether she even wants to make contact with her mother. Instead, she gives herself a little time to think it over, and as she goes about her usual business, little things remind her of her past, memories flooding back of days spent with (and waiting for) her mother. Very soon, you wonder whether the poor woman will cope with the sudden weight of her unfortunate past.
Little Jewel is certainly not a long book (despite clocking in at 158 pages, it could easily have been less than a hundred with smaller type and less generous spacing…), but it’s a nice introduction to Modiano’s work. The story is concerned less with what happens than with how the young woman feels about the surprise encounter. Young Thérèse (whose name we only learn towards the end of the book) is a soul adrift, floating from job to job, with no friends or family. It’s easy to see why the sudden appearance of the woman in the yellow coat disturbs her so much, throwing up the possibility of the return of her mother.
Both the writer and narrator show an obsession with the past, and Thérèse is constantly returning mentally to the time “…back when I was called Little Jewel.” A nickname? Not quite… While she’d like it to be, it’s actually a form of stage name given to her by her mother – a woman of many names herself:
“That evening, during the trip home on the metro, I kept thinking about the name. Boré. Yes, it was similar to the name of the man I had understood to be my mother’s brother, Jean Borand. On Thursdays, he used to take me to his garage. Was it just a coincidence? And yet my mother’s surname, as it appeared on my birth certificate, was Cardères. And O’Dauyé was the surname she had adopted as a sort of stage name. That was around the time when my own name was Little Jewel…”
p.22 (Text Publishing, 2015)
The mother is a woman whose image is slowly constructed in her absence, the reader (through Thérèse) receiving glimpses of a bohemian lifestyle. We infer days of men, dancing and neglect, even if the true woman remains frustratingly vague and absent.
Thérèse is far from the only one living in the past, though, and many of the other handful of characters in the novel share her inability to build a solid existence. Her latest job involves looking after a young girl in the afternoons, employed by a couple with little interest in their daughter:
“Back at the house, she wanted to show me her bedroom, a large room on the second floor that looked out over the trees of the Jardin d’Acclimatation. From the wood panelling and the two built-in glass cabinets on either side of the fireplace, I assumed that it had once been a living room or a study, but never a child’s bedroom. Her bed wasn’t a child’s bed either, but was broad with upholstered surrounds. Ivory chess pieces were displayed in one of the glass cabinets. No doubt the upholstered bed and the chess pieces were in the house when the Valdiers moved in, along with other items the previous tenants had forgotten or didn’t have time to pack up.” (p.48)
The more she learns about the girl, the more she recognises her own childhood in her, seeing how for the parents the daughter is a mere inconvenience – which leads her back to thoughts of her own mother…
In some ways, Little Jewel is a fairly simple book. The language, for example is mostly straight-forward (I imagine Modiano would be a good suggestion for those wanting to try reading novels in French), and there’s nothing complex here in terms of plot. There’s a lot more to the book than that, though, with Thérèse drawing us through the Parisian streets in her company as she visits metro stations, bars and cafés. We get the odd glimpse of daylight, but for the most part, this is a book of darkness, with the narrator preferring the early morning or night. The darkness is also metaphorical, with each memory dragging the young woman further into a murky past, one which might end up affecting her future.
It’s an enjoyable book, and while it’s not a world-changing novel, that’s not really the point. On being awarded the Nobel Prize, Modiano was lauded for his body of work dealing with memory, so I suspect that the joy of reading his books will come in approaching his style and themes from various angles, comparing many of his novels. Luckily enough, I’ll have another chance of doing so soon, as Text have also sent me a copy of Paris Nocturne, the second of the pair they’ve just released. It might take a while, but I’ll be happy to take another stroll down Modiano’s memory lane – I hope you’ll join me on my next Parisian adventure 😉