How Good is Patrick Modiano, the New Nobel in Literature?

The Nobel jury seems to be able to discover new writers you’ve never heard of, coming from countries that have a literature you have never read, like China, Egypt or Turkey and everytime, it’s a real pleasure to discover something totally new. So when the Nobel this year went to a Frenchman I had never read – and I do read regularly French literature –  I was totally floored and rushed to buy one of his books. In French, of course.

I got “Rue des Boutiques Obscures” because I thought it was a take on the Rome address of the old Italian Communist Party (now PD, Partito Democratico). As everyone in Italy knows, it’s “via delle botteghe scure”. But no, this book has nothing to do with the Communist Party or any party for that matter.

Patrick Modiano is not interested in politics, he’s into the past, and a particular past at that, all the dark years around and during World War II, and most of his stories are set in Paris. In short, a very local, circumscribed author.

Yet, in spite of that, the themes he predilects are universal, they focus on the question of identity and self. This book, which came out in 1978, the year he won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, was quickly translated into English by Daniel Weissbort, under the title “Missing Person” – actually one of the few books he wrote that got translated. It is published in the United States by a small indie press owned by David R. Godine and of course it is available on Amazon (see here). That’s where I got it – but I was able to find the Kindle version of the French original, to pass onto my 100 year-old mother who still reads a novel per week on her Kindle; incidentally, she was very happy to get it, she likes to keep abreast of the latest literary news…This said, I’m a little surprised that Amazon, ever so efficient, hasn’t got a digital version of the English translation all ready for the American public. Quite clearly, both Mr. Godine and Amazon were taken by surprise by the Nobel jury!

He wrote some 20 books in a career that spanned  nearly 45 years (he was born in 1945). As I am now writing this blog post, I just learned from an article in the Washington Post (here), that “Missing Person” is the book Peter Englund, a historian and the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, recommends to readers unfamiliar with Patrick Modiano.  “It’s a fun book,” Englund said. “He’s playing with the genre.”

And the genre he is playing with is mysteries. A detective, suffering from amnesia, sets out to recover his identity, following a variety of strange leads. As described on the Godine site:

In this strange, elegant novel, winner of France’s premier literary prize, Patrick Modiano portrays a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation, the black hole of French memory.

For ten years Guy Roland has lived without a past. His current life and name were given to him by his recently retired boss, Hutte, who welcomed him, a onetime client, into his detective agency. Guy makes full use of Hutte’s files – directories, yearbooks, and papers of all kinds going back half a century – but his leads are few. Could he really be the person in that photograph, a young man remembered by some as a South American attaché? Or was he someone else, perhaps the disappeared scion of a prominent local family? He interviews strangers and is tantalized by half-clues until, at last, he grasps a thread that leads him through the maze of his own repressed experience.

On one level Missing Person is a detective thriller, a 1950s film noir mix of smoky cafés, illegal passports, and insubstantial figures crossing bridges in the fog. On another level, it is also a haunting meditation on the nature of the self. Modiano’s sparce, hypnotic prose, superbly translated by Daniel Weissbort, draws his readers into the intoxication of a rare literary experience. 

I’d like to recall here a very astute comment made sometime back by Anne Korkokeakivi, writing for THE MILLIONS, where she noted that French novels tend to be “… dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten).” Patrick Modiano’s “Missing Person” precisely fits this description. It is all these things, dark, searching, self-reflective and yes, poetic.

Consider the first lines:  “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop; the shower had started when Hutte left me.”

Amazing, isn’t it? The opening sentence is just three words, but how they resound. I am nothing. That is of course the whole theme of the book. What comes next is a poetic evocation of someone barely there, uncertainly watching the rain. And the last part of the sentence immediately makes you want to know who is this Hutte – someone with a strange name if there ever was one.

Yes, that is how a master storyteller starts a novel, and I guarantee that you will be turning the pages as fast as you can. And you will be wondering as the main character follows clues that turn out to be non-clues, and you will find yourself perplexed as he attempts to start conversations with people who take him for…who? Really him or someone else? This is done very subtly, especially at the level of dialogues, the kind one carries on with people one barely knows. But can one ever really know the other and oneself? So yes, the book is presented as a mystery, but the mystery is the main character…

And to answer my own question: How good is Patrick Modiano? Very good, five stars, I highly recommend it. And I think you’ll be happily surprised what a short read it is too, featherweight, a little over 200 pages.  A small perfection…

Patrick Modiano
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