The Work of Patrick Modiano

Books Reviewed in this Essay:
Villa Triste
By Patrick Modiano
Translated by John Cullen
Other Press, May 2016

Young Once
By Patrick Modiano
Translated by Damion Searls
New York Review Books Classics, March 2016

In the Café of Lost Youth
By Patrick Modiano
Translated by Chris Clark
New York Review Books Classics, March 2016

Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal

 

Modiano_VillaTriste-260x390I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of Patrick Modiano until he won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. The Secretary of the Nobel Academy praised Modiano as being “not at all difficult to read,” in that he writes with “a very refined, simple, straight, clear style…but is very sophisticated in that simplicity.” This description perfectly describes the writing in Villa Triste, which is an accessible introduction to Modiano’s work. Sharp and deceptively simple, it’s about a mysterious young man hiding out in a provincial French lakeside town the early 1960s, during the Algerian War. But there’s much going on under the surface here, and we’re never quite sure just what that is.

First of all, we don’t know why the narrator’s on the run. He claims he fled Paris because “the city was becoming dangerous for people like me.” There was “a disagreeable, police-heavy atmosphere,” with “exploding bombs” and “far too many round ups” for his taste. But who are people like him? We don’t even know the narrator’s real name. He tells his friends Yvonne and René that he’s Count Victor Chmara, originally from an aristocratic Russian family. His father fled because of the Revolution, and his parents both “disappeared in a light airplane over the Cap Ferrat in 1949,” leaving Chmara to be raised by his grandmother in Paris. It’s sounds plausible. But Chmara later admits he told Yvonne this story about his family’s adventures because “the truth about me would have disappointed her.” And when someone at a party claims to know of Chmaras in Egypt, he thinks, “I realized why I chose that name, which I thought sprung from my imagination: it belonged to a family in Alexandria my father had often talked to me about.” He’s not a Chmara at all. He’s not even a Victor.

And so there are hints here and there, clues indicating the truth, but never clarifying it. We don’t even know if he’s awake. Assuming the whole story isn’t a dream, the only thing that’s clear is that he’s lying. Perhaps he’s only on the move because it’s in his blood—he lets on that he’ll eventually “end up as a Jewish writer and wear thick horn-rimmed spectacles.” (Modiano is half-Jewish and wears thick-rimmed spectacles.) And toward the end, he shares early, faint memories of “drab rooms, precarious stopping places you always must evacuate before the Germans arrive, abodes where you leave no trace.”

The Nobel committee is notorious for its obsession with World War II and the Holocaust, and so it seems Modiano fits the bill. The Committee claimed they awarded him the prize “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Even though it takes place two decades later, Villa Triste is pervaded by the occupation, because we see its traumatizing effect on the grown child who lived through it. Chmara’s destiny has been shaped by the war: his parents most likely perished in a camp, not a plane crash; rather than descending from nobility, his ancestors were probably nobodies from Eastern Europe.

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Young_Once_1024x1024The occupation haunts all of the Modiano books I read, most directly his screenplay Lacombe Lucien, which is about a poor provincial French boy who collaborates with the Gestapo after tasting the power of fascist violence. But the disorienting experience of the occupation’s end is perhaps felt most of all in Young Once. Also dealing with memory, this novel begins with the question if anything new in life can happen after age thirty-five. The question is asked by Odile, who feels the answer is no: “You reach a zone of total calm and the paddleboat glides all by itself across a lake,” she thinks. Odile is married to Louis, who’s also about to turn thirty-five. They have two kids, the oldest thirteen. “And the children grow up. They leave you.”

After a few pages, the novel jumps back fifteen years, to when Odile and Louis meet after the war, when the world had fallen apart. Both nineteen years old, they had nothing. Odile wants to be a singer, and allows men to sexually molest her in order to get ahead. Louis takes a night watchman job for a shady wealthy man who asks him to do mysterious tasks that have nothing to do with being a night watchman. “They were living through one of those moments when you feel the need to grab on to something stable and solid, the longing to ask someone for advice. But there wasn’t anyone.” All they have is each other. There is a clean slate behind and ahead. As France rebuilds itself after the shameful occupation, Odile and Louis build their life together, without the luxury of shame.

 

In_the_Cafe_of_Lost_Youth_1024x1024Taking place in the early 1950s, once things have somewhat settled, In the Café of Lost Youth is Modiano’s most alluring novel, the most mesmerizing. Again, we are immersed in memory. Told from four perspectives, it’s about a girl called Louki who captures everyone’s attention in the Café Condé. Louki is an elusive figure, smiling and usually present in the café, yet inaccessible. She carries the book Lost Horizon, and like its characters she eventually disappears. Looking back, the narrators—including Louki herself—recreate what it was like to be a poor, young Parisian at the time, when the world began again, and one could create one’s identity. “Sometimes you remember certain episodes of your life and you need proof that you haven’t dreamed them,” one narrator says, as if his youth belonged to someone else.

Along with Modiano’s other books, In the Cafe of Lost Youth is also pervaded with a feeling of suspense. It’s not about what happens, but the elusive atmosphere is what’s important, the sense of piecing together a mystery. Maybe it reflects the mystery of those years when the world went insane. The occupation hangs heavy in this book too; bullet holes dot buildings around one narrator’s school, “like they had shot someone there.” Clearly, there’s a theme here.

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Some people think we should move on from literature about World War II, since there’s so much of it. Yet the Nobel people know that such madness can easily happen again, and judging by the abrupt rise in right-wing xenophobia currently spreading across Europe, such madness might not be too far off. And so it’s important to remember. If we forget, history repeats itself.

The unreliable narrator of Villa Triste says “maybe one shouldn’t trust one’s memories.” But Modiano’s “art of memory” might be our best defense against another world war. So the Swedes seem to believe.

 

 

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