on Villa Triste (Other Press) and Young Once (New York Review of Books), two novels by Patrick Modiano
American readers asked a collective “Who?” when French novelist Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Writing in the Telegraph (UK), Duncan White quipped, “Modiano was simply a French thing we didn’t consume, like snails.” But across the Channel, Modiano has enjoyed a loyal following ever since his first novel, La place de l’etoile, was published to acclaim in 1968. Instant Nobel celebrity accelerated the appearance of several of his novels and a memoir for Anglophones.
Now, two more novels have been published -- Young Once by the New York Review of Books and Villa Triste by Other Press (which has also issued a translation of his screenplay for Lacombe, Lucien, co-written with Louis Malle).
My French cousins seem to regard Modiano’s prose fiction the way I and my American cousins react to James Salter’s novels – with a taste for stylish economy, transgressive frisson and intimate bluntness that raises the pulse even when nothing much is happening plot wise. In Paths to Contemporary French Literature, John Taylor says Modiano’s style is “marked by highly crafted syntactic limpidity as well as by subtle semantic mysteries … a constantly suspenseful ambiguity surrounding key events and feelings – and by an unmistakable personal ‘music,’ as French readers and reviewers frequently point out.”
In his Nobel speech, Modiano described himself as “a child of the war, and more specifically, since I was born in Paris, a child who owed his birth to the Paris of the occupation.” The post-war psyche and atmosphere, cast in noirish shadows, is his true subject. His novels’ tense situations and anxious characters repeat themselves as if impelled by a vast but unnamable and sinister force. Last year, Modiano told the Guardian that he produced the novels “in continuous fashion, in successive periods of forgetfulness, but often the same faces, the same names, the same places, the same sentences recur from one to another, like the patterns in a tapestry one might have woven when half asleep … I became a prisoner of my memories of Paris.” He was born there in July 1945.
This unsettled forgetting may suggest the reasons for Modiano’s decades-long anonymity in America – as well as for his avid readership in France. Between the end of World War II in 1945 and the presidency of Jacques Chirac in the mid-1990s, the French suppressed public discussion of the complicity of both occupied France and the Vichy regime in supporting the Nazis. On July 16, 1995, Chirac finally acknowledged France’s responsibility for aiding the deportation of 76,000 Jews to Nazi death camps.
The occupation created un sentiment de viol, a “feeling of having been raped.” The familiar turned strange and getting by often required making compromises. By 1942, the mortality rate in Paris was 40% higher than during the period of 1932-38. The recurring phrase was nous sommes en pleine pagaille, or “we’re in deep trouble.” During this time, Modiano’s father Albert made his living in the black market. Although he was Jewish, he did not wear the obligatory star. Modiano’s mother was a Flemish actress; during the war, she wrote Dutch subtitles for a film studio established by the Nazis. After a disruptive childhood during which he and his younger brother Rudy were shuttled from school to school, Modiano ran away at age 15 yet still qualified for an elite Paris lycée and later graduated from the Sorbonne.
After the war, things were slow to improve economically – and the disquieting mood lingered. Meanwhile, French official life ignored the inner turbulence. An example: In 1994, Paul Touvier, a former Vichy official, became the first Frenchman condemned for crimes against humanity. Yet back in 1947, he had been condemned to death in absentia for sharing intelligence with the Germans. (His actions were bloodier, including the murder of seven Jewish hostages in 1944.) In 1971, President Georges Pompidou issued him a presidential pardon. Touvier was repatriated and sheltered by the Diocese of Lyon.
For three decades, Modiano’s novels provided one of the few consistently available ways to give a narrative’s shape and sound to this uncertain and troubled period. His books were “simply a French thing” because the lapse of memory operated uniquely within national boundaries – and the linguistic effects of his work, issuing from “periods of forgetfulness,” are perhaps not fully accessible to Anglophones. While American readers were becoming familiar with French novelists such as Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras and Georges Perec, those novelists were reading Modiano. Raymond Queneau was most responsible for bringing the young Modiano’s first novel to Gallimard. When John Taylor visited the 97-year old Sarraute in 1997, she asked him spontaneously if he had read Modiano “adding that he was one of the young writers whom she most admired.”
Modiano’s seventh novel, Young Once (Une jeunesse), was published in 1981 and features the pared down, less frenetic style he had then devised. The main characters, Odile and Louis, are introduced as a married couple, each about to turn 35 years old. For 12 years, they have operated a children’s camp in the French Alps. In other words, they lead a life that one could call stable. Modiano then carries the reader back 15 years to the time they met in Paris at age 20. Louis had been demobbed from the service and was easily persuaded to take a job with a shady operation. Odile was an aspiring pop singer, hoping to find an agent and make a “flexi-disc” to help her land a recording contract. (Because flexi-discs were introduced commercially in the early 1960s, we can assume that the present moment of the novel is around 1972.)
Modiano sets Odile and Louis in a demi-monde like targets on a shooting range. A cast of exploitative supporting characters shoves them around; the couple has aspirations but limited agency. But in 1981, when the novel was published and France was back on its feet, the question was: have we finally ditched the past? The novel’s explicit question is: how did Odile and Louis obtain their stability in Normandy? With Young Once, the obsessive Modiano forced La Patrie to suffer the past in the present.
In 1974, Gallimard brought out Villa Triste, Modiano’s fourth novel. But as in Young Once, its present moment is the late 1950’s or early 60s, and once again the protagonist looks back to les années noires. Twelve years earlier, the nameless narrator had situated himself in a town on the Swiss border in order to avoid conscription. He called himself Count Victor Chmara. Now, he returns to find an old and aging acquaintance, Dr. René Meinthe. But his thoughts are rooted in the past. He portrays himself as disengaged, standing on the periphery of life in the casino and cafés. Modiano’s secondary characters seek amusements and pleasures, and the Count recalls their habits and gestures with sharp profiles.
Despite his precise recollections or perhaps because of them, Chmara’s narrative raises an unvoiced question about the purpose of memory. Clearly, Modiano labored almost exclusively to preserve the memory of a dark period. But he succeeds by not just avoiding sententiousness, but by making recollection itself an alluring element and an attractive gesture. Villa Triste keeps the reader suspended in a moody world of quasi-anxiety and weak commitments. In the past, one side of the border was safety, the other was violence. But the middle zone – what was it? Or rather, in 1974 and 2016, Modiano still forces us to ask: what is it?
[Young Once, translated by Damion Searls, published March 8, 2016, 156 pages, $14.95 paperback. Villa Triste, translated by John Cullen, published May 31, 2016, 176 pages, $13.95 paperback]