On Patrick Modiano

patrick modianoYesterday I put two and two together and realised that the reason I’d seen a lot of brief but extremely unusual mentions of Patrick Modiano online was that he’d just won the Nobel Prize. Yes, I know, let’s put it down to age. But I love Patrick Modiano, he’s a wonderful author whose simply written novels, drawing on – and subverting – the genres of the spy novel, detective fiction and film noir are exquisitely complex and unnerving. I was trying to think how I could possibly describe the experience of reading one of his works and I could only come up with strange metaphors. They are like waking from a vivid dream, straining to catch those last fleeting remnants as they fade away. They are like being involved in a high-speed car chase only to turn the corner and find you are driving in solitary splendour. They are like the moment when Bugs Bunny runs off the edge of the cliff and doesn’t realise that he is pedalling pure air. He writes what I suppose I think of as proper literature – in which the story is perfectly formed, but the questions provoked by it are endless.

rue des boutiquesTake for instance the novel for which he won the Prix Goncourt, Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person). This was my first introduction to Modiano and I still recall it today. Guy Roland is a detective who decides, when his partner retires, to turn his skills onto himself. For fifteen years, since an accident left him an amnesiac, he has not known who he is. Armed with a fistful of clues he heads out on the quest for his real self, following a chain of witnesses, each of whom provides him with just enough information to carry on the search, but never enough for answers or closure. The trail of his old self runs out in the Second World War, when he seemed, like others around him, to be escaping the Nazis and the Occupation by fleeing to Switzerland. When Guy tracks down the last surviving person who might be able to help him, he learns that he has gone missing. And now I’m going to give away a massive spoiler, so you can hop to the next paragraph though the spoiler is intrinsic in understanding Modiano’s audacity as a writer… because the story ends with Guy in pursuit of this last witness, the original missing man chasing a missing man. The traces could not be any existentially lighter, and so it is almost as if Guy fades away into oblivion. It’s a shock ending, it was certainly not what I was expecting, and yet I didn’t mind at all; I may even have applauded. It was so original when I first read it, some 15 years ago.

voyage de nocesThe other novel of his I want to tell you about is Voyage de noces (Honeymoon). This concerns the documentary maker, Jean, who learns in a hotel in Milan of the recent suicide there of a woman he once knew. When he returns to Paris, he arranges his own disappearance and sets off on a quest to find out all he can about her. The search for information about Ingrid Teyrson and her husband, Rigaud, takes him back in time to the Occupation in France, when the couple were hiding out on the Côte d’Azur. Ingrid is Jewish and the couple are haunted by the figure of a man in a black raincoat who they feel sure is spying on them, in the hope of turning them in. How does this past match up with the present in which Ingrid has become suicidal? What happened?

So what have we got, then, in terms of preoccupations here? There’s an intriguing quest for identity at work in both novels, in which the hunt for the self is also the hunt for another person. But these quests which drive the narrative forward powerfully and compellingly are always doomed to failure – what’s missing can never be retrieved. There’s also a fascination with the Occupation as a kind of black hole – or maybe the sort of rabbit hole that appears in Alice in Wonderland – down which the experience of France as a nation disappeared, and now only fantastic traces remain that seem surreal and inexplicable. There’s nostalgia for a time when things were not strange and disconnected and wrong. But there’s also a pervasive sense of melancholia and shame. Modiano’s protagonists are not just postmodern, they’re post-lapsarian: guilty until proven guilty. We may not even be sure what they’ve done, but the strong sense of needing to atone, or to piece together a mystery that shows them in a bad light, creates building blocks of the plot that feel like they’re made out of antimatter.

bon voyageOf all the contemporary writers in France that I know of, Modiano is a surprise choice for the Nobel. His novels have a strong family resemblance – I imagine he might be accused of being a one-trick pony (though it’s a good trick). I cannot think he would go down well in America; if as a culture you want to outlaw the passive voice then Modiano’s enigmas of who-did-what and who-am-I-anyway aren’t going to please a lot of people. He’s very postmodern. And I wonder how much you have to understand French history to get the significance of the feeling aroused when it became clear that the myth of France as a nation of resistance fighters was built on shifting sand. But all that being said, I really like him; he’s an original, and his work of sophisticated simplicity is both eminently readable and full of menacing mystique.

If you’re interested in trying Patrick Modiano in his simplest form, then I recommend the film: Bon Voyage. Modiano wrote the screenplay, about the converging lives of a disparate group of people who flee Paris when the Nazis invade. Watching the different storylines dovetail so neatly into one another, you can feel the hand of Modiano guiding the plot.

30 thoughts on “On Patrick Modiano

  1. I had never heard of Modiano before all the recent Nobel coverage, but he sounds right up my street. I think the criteria for the Nobel (a writer having produced ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’) favours writers like Modiano who have particular themes that they keep chipping away at for many years, rather than those who have a more diverse output.

    • I think you would appreciate Modiano – it’s all very elegantly done, nothing overblown, nothing sensational, but the prose remains deeply affecting nevertheless. What an interesting comment you make about the Nobel’s choices. That’s certainly true for the authors who immediately spring to my mind (maybe with Gide as the most diverse, but even so…). I rather like the chipping-away authors too, well I must, having studied Marguerite Duras!

  2. Thanks for this post! I hadn’t heard of Modiano till his win, but his books sound like they might very much be ones I would enjoy! I shall be on the hunt….🙂

    • Karen, you have been on a roll lately with this sort of book, only Modiano has no violence, nothing sensational or hard to read, though he packs a punch for all that. I would love to know what you think of him!

  3. A nicely balanced introduction to a writer who was a bit of an unknown to the English-speaking world until his surprise win. I’ve read a couple of his books more by accident than by design, but want to read more now.

  4. I read a couple of Patrick Modino novels as an undergraduate. I can’t remember now the titles or what they were about, but I do remember enjoying them. I may even still have a copy somewhere.

    The books were recommended to me by a friend who ended up writing her doctoral thesis about the parallels between the search for the self in memoir and the role of the detective in crime novels (or something like that) so it makes sense that Modiano would have appealed to her.

    As I understand it, few of his books have been translated in to English and those that were are out of print, so maybe the prize win will encourage one or two titles to be re-issued. I would be interested in (re) reading some of his titles, for sure.

    • Ooh what an intriguing sounding thesis! I loved writing academically about crime fiction (and in particular what the French postmodern writers were doing with it), such a rich topic. I really hope, too, that this will provoke publishers into getting more translations of his works out there. He’s written lots and I would certainly love to read more by him (though really I ought to read in French – I am lazy, not to mention, rusty).

  5. I think lots of people are now going “Patrick who?” and wondering which book to read first. I’ve just done a search on my e-reader and was very surprised to see that only one novel came up. “Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas” will be released on the 28th of October. I think I’d rather start with “Missing Person” on the strength of your review though. My local internet bookstore has “Search Warrant” which also looks good. Perhaps I’ll start with the film as you suggest.

    • I’ve heard good things about Search Warrant (one never knows what the title of the original might have been!) but Suspended Sentences is new to me. I think Missing Person is a really good place to start, or indeed the film if you can get hold of it. It is really surprising sometimes how little there is available of a Nobel prize-winning author’s works. Your first sentence really made me laugh!

  6. Almost all Nobel lit winners have been obscure to me, so I’m not surprised with another one. But of course, by now, I’ve heard of PM and your post is most influential to motivate me to read him. Yes, I did look him up after reading the news of his win and surprised to find he is a screenwriter as well. But then again, I can’t find his films including this one you recommend anywhere, not on Netflix ( Canada) or in our library.

    • Bon Voyage is available from UK amazon (secondhand copies going for a couple of pounds, though shipping would be expensive, I fear). American amazon has it too – though you’d be obliged to buy secondhand because a new copy is almost 50 dollars! He obviously hasn’t made it as far as Canada, but I do hope that will change now. I’d love to know what you think of him.

  7. I really enjoyed this post. It told me a lot of things I hadn’t a clue about before.

    I particularly enjoyed your insight about the passive voice and postmodernism.

    • Thank you so much! It was fun to write about French lit – not something I get to do very often. I should really read more postmodern books because I do like writing about them – and then, to misquote P G Wodehouse, my eye falls on the latest Agatha Christie and all is lost.🙂

      • Do feel free to write about French lit more!

        I really enjoy your reviews because to me it’s a bit like reading the LRB*. I may never have time to read the book involved, but your reviews always tell me something about the context of the book, and indeed tell me something new about the world.

        * Sometimes when I read the LRB I wonder whether the fact that they tell you practically everything about the book, and also give you a range of intelligent and plausible opinions about it means that people don’t bother buying the book itself.

  8. This question of why Modiano might or might not connect with American readers is an interesting one, but I feel so out of touch with my fellow Americans’ reading tastes that I won’t even think to weigh in on it! Having enjoyed Rue des boutiques obscures at your instigation earlier in the year, I look forward to rereading that at some point (my French felt way rusty back then) and trying another novel or two by Modiano. Glad to see he’s getting some extra pub these days!

    • I would love to know how much you feel obliged to follow Strunk and White when you are writing? It always seems to me, from this distance, as if their rules are a subset of the constitution. My French is horribly rusty at the moment and I must must must read something in it – use it or lose it. I found a copy of Du plus loin de l’oubli by Modiano that I have on my shelf and haven’t read, and that’s quite tempting.

  9. Thanks for this! I had never heard of Modiano until he won the Nobel and even then there wasn’t much about him other than he’s French and writes a lot about the Occupation which really tells you nothing at all. My library has a number of his books on order and the requests are piling up so I put myself on the list for Missing Person.

    • Ooh that’s exciting – I really want to know what you make of it! I loved that book, but it is very different and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I think you might well appreciate him, though.

  10. I was so pleased to see this choice. He’s been one of my favourite writers ever since I discovered him. My first was Villa Triste and it is still my favourite. On the other hand – i don’t think I ever read anything I didn’t like. I’m surprised that they chose him because he’s subtle and accessible. A rare combination.

    • You said it exactly right – subtle and accessible is just what he is. I’m so glad you love him – I will definitely try to read some more of his books, now. They are always a pleasure.

  11. I had never heard of him prior to his winning the Nobel, but my library has a number of his books-both in French and a few translated into English. I would love to give his books a try and might give one a go, and if all else fails and it is too over my head will look for the film. I like the idea of his playing with the spy genre.

  12. Pingback: Review: Some French books | Listen Watch Read Share

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