I had never heard of Patrick Modiano until he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. He is French of Italian descent and not only does he mine his own life for inspiration – usually to do with WWII and the city of Paris, he was born the year the war ended – but his focus is on the reliability, or not, of memory, which is not the same as one’s personal history, or memoir.
Reading Modiano is like walking through a maze: each chapter creates an expectation, but when you turn the corner, it is more of the same, another expectation; and when you get to the end, the centre of the maze, you realise that it’s not the end, just another beginning.
What is this book about? It’s about memory and its fickleness. A writer once said, “Memory is like an oven: you put something in, close the door, wait a while, open the door, and there it is, something else.”
There are three novellas in this short volume, Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin.
The narrator of the first, Afterimage, almost like the writer, is like someone remembering anecdotes that will eventually lead to a point, but one anecdote only leads to another. The veracity of these episodes is given weight by detail: the colour of a hat, the bullet holes in a wall, a list – Modiano loves lists – a footnote containing a minor thought or an address, the sound of leaves in a breeze. And all to do with the narrator’s memory of Francis Jensen, an enigmatic man who the narrator remembers over a period of 20 years.
The first sentence:
I met Francis Jansen when I was nineteen, in the spring of 1964, and today I want to relate the little I know of him;
which starts comfortably enough, but there is a wobble of uncertainty by the end of it: a book usually tends to contain a lot of information a writer knows about a person, not a ‘little’.
By the end of this short story – only 55 pages – you feel as if the short chapters – some very short – could be in any order. There is no obvious narrative ark. Francis Jansen is ‘revealed’ hazily through what the narrator remembers and the people, friends, lovers, and photographs the narrator discovers and the interplay he remembers having with them, which may have happened, or not. It reads like autobiography, and maybe it is, maybe it is not. This is fiction after all.
Mark Polizzotti, the translator, says “Modiano’s narrators seem fatally drawn to individuals who are uncommonly vague about themselves and their situation” and Modiano himself confirms this, “the more obscure and mysterious things remained, the more interested I became in them. I even looked for mystery where there was none.”
Read his biography in his own words here. In true Modiano-fashion he leaves out a lot of information, creating his own mysteries. He doesn’t say, for example, that the interesting reason that he spent his childhood with his grandparents was that his father was deported during the war and his mother was a touring actor.
The second, and title story, has a narrator of 10 years old: Patoche (a diminutive of Patrick), but here the prose is remembered by the adult Patoche who tries to remember and understand the adult world around the boy, and true to Modiano’s love of mystery there is one here. However, what does a 10-year-old boy know of the world of adults. Why are there policemen scouring his home one day when he gets home from school? And where are all the adults. No spoilers here.
“With each new book, Modiano has refined his memorial mode. He is perhaps the most repetitive novelist in world literature: he uses the novel as a serial form, like a screen print,” wrote Adam Thirlwell in The Guardian.
The third, Flowers of Ruin, is the narrator’s shadowy attempt to solve a double suicide and to uncover the history of an acquaintance: Phillipe de Pacheco, commonly known as simply ‘Pachero’; or his name could’ve been Phillipe de Bellune with a tarnished shadow of nobility.
I sat at a sidewalk table of one of the café’s facing the Charlety stadium. I constructed all the hypotheses concerning Phillippe de Pacheco, whose face I didn’t even know. I took notes. Without fully realising it I began writing my first book. It was neither a vocation nor a particular gift that pushed me to write, but quite simply the enigma posed by the man I had no chance of finding again, and by all those questions that would never have an answer.
Behind me, the jukebox was playing an Italian song. The stench of burned tires filled the air. A girl was walking under the leaves of the trees along Boulevard Jourdan. Her blond bangs, cheekbones, and green dress were the only note of freshness on that early August afternoon. Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun?
This sounds like the ending, doesn’t it? But it isn’t; there’s 33 more pages to go!
Like Virginia Woolf, and other modernists, and post modernists, the pleasure is in the action of reading them, not in following a story or remembering it later. Memory has not been explored like this since that other French writer, Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Modiano’s works are short; read one, and tell me what you think.
You can purchase this book in various formats here.