Patrick Modiano’s Nobel Prize win last year was the catalyst for one of the biggest floods of translations of one writer’s work seen in recent times. From a couple of old editions, the availability of his work has stretched to a dozen or so available in English – there are no excuses now for being unaware of him… My Modiano experience started recently with a couple of books from Australian press Text Publishing, and while they were interesting enough, I didn’t really get a feel for a writer worthy of the prize. Which is why today’s post sees me going back to the source (language) to see if I can find out more about his talents…
Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood#) is recognisably, from the very start, a Modiano work. Jean Daragane, an elderly writer, is alone in his small apartment when he grudgingly decides to pick up his phone. On the other end is a man who has found Daragane’s address book, one he lost a while back, and the two men arrange to meet the following day.
At a nearby café, the writer meets Gilles Ottolini (and his companion, Chantal Grippay), and after handing over the book, Ottolini reveals an ulterior motive for arranging the meeting, one involving a crime from decades earlier and the name Guy Torstel. While Daragane is quick to remove himself from the scene, the mention of the name sends him on a trip down memory lane, back to a time he’d long forgotten. What follows is a tale from his childhood, and a later search for the truth of what really happened all those years ago.
While Little Jewel and Paris Nocturne were enjoyable reads, I found them a little plain on the whole, but luckily Pour que tu ne te perdes pas… is a far better book. It’s much more cleverly constructed, and less sparse, than the previous two, adding a solid storyline and tension to the usual air of nostalgia and regret. The book works simultaneously on several levels, and times, and it’s all the better for it.
Initially, we are led to believe that the focus will be on Ottolini and Grippay, and that the slightly suspicious characters will cause trouble for the writer. Daragane tries to avoid the man but is happier to become involved with his foil, paying her a visit at her request:
Daragane nota l’adresse à la même page que celle où était écrit le nom : Guy Torstel.
” Au quatrième étage, au fond du couloir. C’est écrit en bas sur la boîte aux lettres. Elle est au nom de Joséphine Grippay, mais j’ai changé de prénom…”
p.27 (Gallimard, 2014)
Daragane wrote the address down on the same page as that on which was written the name ‘Guy Torstel’.
“On the fourth floor, at the end of the corridor. It’s written downstairs on the letter box. It’s under the name of Joséphine Grippay, but I’ve changed my first name…” *** (my translation)
A couple of casual sentences, but they reveal an intriguing fact – one that will be of particular interest later in the novel.
However, as the novel develops, our attention drifts further away from the present day. In fact, the main part of the story focuses on two distant periods of the writer’s life. The first is a year or so of his childhood when, in the absence of his parents, a young woman called Annie Astrand took care of the young boy. The other is fifteen years or so later, around the time Daragane is writing his first novel. The book is less an artistic endeavour than an attempt to recall the people he remembers from his childhood:
“Il n’avait écrit ce livre que dans l’espoir qu’elle lui fasse signe. Écrire un livre, c’était aussi, pour lui, lancer des appels de phares ou des signaux de morse à l’intention de certaines personnes dont il ignorait ce qu’elles étatit devenues. Il suffisait de semer leurs noms au hasard des pages et d’attendre qu’elles donnent enfin de leurs nouvelles.” (p.70)
“He had written the book purely in the hope that she would make contact. Writing a book was also, for him, about sending out beacons, or messages in morse, for certain people he had lost track of. It was just a matter of planting their names randomly among his pages and waiting for them to get in touch.” ***
After a couple of chance encounters with men he remembers seeing at the house he was staying at, Jean finally tracks Annie down, hoping to find answers to the questions he’s begun asking himself. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember – or rather, she doesn’t want to…
In my Paris Nocturne post, I mentioned certain similarities with the work of Javier Marías, a parallel which comes across much more strongly in this work. The stronger plot, involving a murder, Annie’s past and a mystery concerning some childhood photos, gives Modiano more room to move while keeping the reader interested. The conversations, in particular, remind me very much of Marías, even if Modiano doesn’t turn in quite as many linguistic circles as his Spanish counterpart.
Like Marías, Modiano circles around certain themes, the reader trusting that matters will become clear (even if we’re not quite sure how), and there’s the usual focus on memories:
“Il se rappelait qu’il avait écrit la première page du livre le soir de ce dimanche dans la chambre du square du Graisivaudan. Quelques heures auparavant, quand la voiture de Torstel avait longé les quais de la Marne puis traversé le bois de Vincennes, il avait vraiment senti l’automne peser sur lui : la brume, l’odeur de la terre mouillée, les allées joncheées de feuilles mortes. Désormais le mot ‘Tremblay’ serait pour lui toujours associé à cet automne-là.” (p.42)
“He recalled that he had written the first page of the book on the evening of that Sunday in the apartment on Graisivaudan Place. A few hours before, as Torstel’s car was driving past the banks of the Marne and then crossing the Bois de Vincennes, he had truly felt autumn pressing down on him: the mist, the scent of damp soil, the streets strewn with dead leaves. From that moment on, for him the word ‘Tremblay’ would always be associated with that autumn.” ***
As in other works, Paris itself is a major part of the novel, with the setting here moved to the leafier outer suburbs. These frequent evocations of place help ground Daragane, a man lacking in the usual family ties which hold people together, and also tie together the three distinct periods in which the story takes place.
Another way in which Modiano’s work resembles that of Marías is in the way it uses darkness and the night. There is the odd touch of sun, but many of the important events occur as (and after) the sun goes down. Daragane’s conversations with Chantal happen in growing darkness, and the writer’s visit to Annie, with the sun slowly going down as they sit quietly on a sofa, is one of the key scenes in the novel. As was the case in Paris Nocturne, Modiano seems more at ease with the night, preferring to have his characters roam the city when most are already asleep.
When reading in a foreign language, it’s easier to overestimate the quality of the book you’re engaged with – you’re forced to slow down and let ideas sink in, and the text can seem more subtle. However, I don’t think this is the only reason why I enjoyed this one more than the previous two. For me, it’s a more complex work, far better constructed and a joy to read, allowing the reader a glimpse of the quality the Nobel committee must have seen in Modiano’s work. If you’re looking for a way into Modiano’s writing, I’d definitely recommend this one, both for the writing and the content – despite its slender size, it’s most definitely a book to get lost in…
#The English version (So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood) is available from MacLehose Press in Euan Cameron’s translation 🙂