With yet more translations of Patrick Modiano’s work appearing this year (a couple of which I already have on the shelves), it’s high time I read more of what appeared in 2015. Last year, I posted on the first of The Occupation Trilogy novels, collected in a beautiful hardback edition from Bloomsbury Publishing, and today I’m looking at the second of these short works from early in Modiano’s career. There’s a definite connection in style with the exuberant debut of La Place de l’Étoile, yet if you look closely, the transition to his later, more minimalist technique is slowly getting underway…
The Night Watch (translated by Patricia Wolf, revised by Frank Wynne) begins with a bang, throwing the reader into a hedonistic scene with hints of 1920s Berlin (or The Great Gatsby). It’s actually occupied Paris, and an unlikely mix of crooks and fake aristocracy are fiddling while French self-esteem burns:
‘One rumba, just one rumba,’ pleads the Baroness. ‘One rumba, one rumba!’ shrieks Violette Morris. Beneath the glow of the chandeliers, they flush, turning blue in the face, flushing to deep purple. Beads of perspiration trickle down their temples, their eyes grow wide. Pols de Helder’s face grows black as if it were burning up. Count Baruzzi’s cheeks are sunken, the bags under Rachid von Rosenheim’s eyes puff bloated. Lionel de Zieff brings one hand to his heart. Costachesco and Odicharvi seem stupified. The women’s make-up begins to crack, their hair turning ever more garish colours. They are all putrefying and will surely rot right where they stand. Do they stink already?
p.123 (Bloomsbury, 2015)
A chaotic scene, one in which the reader struggles to find their bearings, forced to latch on to the narrator (although he’s less a narrator here than a silent pair of eyes drinking in the carnage).
When the party dies down, we slowly begin to make sense of the story. The chaotic troupe are a bunch of criminals made-good, taking advantage of the flight from Paris of the city’s rulers to take control of the city, cooperating with the (largely unseen and unmentioned) German occupiers. Having been discovered by one of the group’s leaders, the young narrator, known only by the code name of Swing Troubador, becomes a handy henchman, favoured for his knowledge of culture (allowing him to recognise the loot worth plundering from the vacant mansions) and his pleasing, innocent countenance.
This feature is to lead him into darkness as he is used by the gang to infiltrate a resistance group, led by ‘the Lieutenant’. At the same time, the freedom fighters assign him the name of La Princess de Lamballe and task him with bringing down the leaders of the traitors bringing fear to the French capital. Obviously, there’s only so long he can string both groups along – and whichever way he jumps, there’s unlikely to be a happy ending.
In The Night Watch, Modiano once again sets out to poke away at the sore wound of French behaviour during the Second World War occupation, with the shadowy youth at the center of the novel a reflection of the average citizen’s behaviour during the period:
It was in the pawnshop on the Rue Pierre Charron (my mother would often go there, but they always refused to take her paste jewellery) that I decided once and for all that poverty was a pain in the arse. You might think I have no principles. I stared out a pure and innocent soul. But innocence gets lost along the way. (p.171)
The youth is neither good nor bad, a drifter shaped by circumstances, but he is marked by a distinct lack of a real moral centre, unable to decide between the two groups who put their trust in him, and the temptation of wealth and relative comfort is too much for him.
Which is not to say that he throws himself obliviously into his role as a double agent. There are frequent glimpses of his sense of shame at this betrayal, and he’s under no illusion that his actions might all turn out for the best. It is made clear that these long, violent nights are temporary and that the old order will eventually be restored. In fact, he shows a sober sense of realism, knowing that his time will come, all the bright lights burning out in the darkness of a bloody Parisian night.
These reflective moments, especially in the middle of the book, show far more of Modiano’s later sparse style than was evident in La Place de l’Étoile, and it appears that a shift away from the more sarcastic, parodic writing is already underway. However, these brief oases of calm are sandwiched between the deliberately confusing scenes back at the HQ (a requisitioned mansion), where drink, drugs, nudity and loud music are juxtaposed with the screams of tortured resistance fighters coming from the basement. Just as in Modiano’s debut work, the reader is swept up in a dizzying, confusing world, one in which anything seems to go. The major difference between The Night Watch and La Place de l’Étoile, though, is that this time the effect is more fleeting, and we are given time to reflect on the characters’ behaviour – and for the original French readership, with memories of the war still fairly fresh, on their own.
The Night Watch doesn’t quite run to 100 pages, but it’s an interesting, complex read, a novella showcasing a slight shift in the writer’s style, and another story holding a mirror up to his countrymen, asking them if they recognise themselves there. Many will deny any resemblance, but some might have pause for thought, just like the unfortunate protagonist. Much as he would like to claim a distinction between himself and the people he serves, they gently set him right:
‘I’m only too aware that all this might seem rather distasteful to a well-bred young man. But…’ – his voice takes on a savage tone – ‘the fact that you find yourself among such disreputable souls tonight means that, despite that choirboy face of yours,’ (very tenderly) ‘we belong to the same world, Monsieur.’ (p.149)