Sunday 22 February 2015

Patrick Modiano

So I thought I'd have a look at Patrick Modiano. This was not because he won the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature (no guarantor of literary worth, as a look at the list of winners - beginning with a French windbag called Sully Prudhomme - clearly demonstrates). Rather it was because a couple of people of sound judgment had mentioned Modiano (also French but no windbag) to me as perhaps worth a look. And so he has proved, on the evidence on the volume I've just read, Suspended Sentences - a collection of three short-novella-length pieces, in a highly praised translation by Mark Pollizzotti.
  It is clear from these pieces that Modiano is a writer who deals in indirection, in a gauzy world of enigmatic characters who come and go without ever coming fully into view, whose mysteries are never quite solved, while Modiano - or his fictional surrogate - stands always at a slight distance, at an oblique angle. It is also clear that these works are all variations of a few key themes and events, all of which are very close to the facts of Modiano's own life, in particular his early years. The most mysterious and most central figure - who keeps reappearing in various guises - is Modiano's father, who led a shady existence among the criminal gangs of wartime Paris, was finally rounded up for deportation as a Jew, but was rescued in mysterious circumstances by a leading gangster. Then there is the absent mother (an actress) and the various friends of hers who looked after young Patoche (Patrick) and his brother. And there is the death of that brother, a fact that colours everything.
 Those are the human presences, variously shadowy and enigmatic - and then there are the locations, the obscure corners of a Paris that has now disappeared (much of it under the peripherique). These are described with a precision of detail - including lists of names, a Modiano speciality - that is in marked contrast to the wraith-like humans who pass through them. I am quite sure I would have enjoyed reading this book more if I had a more detailed knowledge of the topography of Paris - and if my French was up to reading it in the original. Modiano's prose style is much praised, critics talking in terms of an elusive but specific flavour, even a 'signature scent'. Something of this comes across in translation, but I fancy Modiano is the kind of writer who doesn't travel terribly well. Reading him, I was strongly reminded of W.G. Sebald, another author whose works are peopled by mysterious and elusive characters (and another who relishes documentation and the mingling of fictional and actual worlds) - but Modiano doesn't (on this evidence anyway) achieve the allusive density and momentum of Sebald. He seems to be working in watercolour - delicate, elusive, enigmatic - while Sebald works with stronger, denser, darker pigments.
 I should add that I found the experience of reading Modiano enjoyable. These are intriguing stories with an atmosphere all their own, and they keep you reading. That 'signature scent' is attractive - but I have a suspicion that, like many scents, it fades fast.

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