Wisniewski: Out of the past | Opinion


I can’t think of a writer I would love to see visit Aspen – perhaps at the invitation of the Aspen Institute – than Patrick Modiano. And yet, I despised the first book I read by Modiano. Too vague, too insignificant, I thought.

The French novelist had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. At the time, I was too young to appreciate the work of the solitary author. Modiano writes thin novels about memory, forgetting and troubled pasts. His critics and fans say he writes the same book over and over again. Modiano has said it in rare interviews: “[I am] still writing the same book.

Modiano’s biography is like a manipulative sketch, but some facts are relatively certain. He has written more than 30 books since the first was published in 1968. He was born not far from Paris in 1945. His Belgian mother was an actress. She has played roles in films directed by Continental Films, a Nazi-controlled film company that was established in Paris in 1940. Modiano’s father, Albert, was a businessman who survived World War II in occupied France by collaborating with the Nazis as a black merchant. Albert was Jewish. He was arrested during the occupation but somehow escaped deportation. He lived under assumed names.

In Modiano’s Nobel speech, the author explained: “Those who lived in this [occupied] Paris wanted to forget it very quickly or at least remember only the details of everyday life, those which gave the illusion that everyday life was ultimately not so different from the life they led in normal times. It was all a bad dream, with vague remorse at having been somehow survivors. […] But faced with the silence of our parents, we arranged everything as if we had experienced it ourselves.

Modiano’s first books shed light on the dark corners of French history, the days of occupation and collaboration that the French would have liked to forget. In these early novels, Modiano struggles with the burdens of history, that of his father and of his country. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to start with those first books, “The Occupation Trilogy”. He had yet to discover his characteristic combination of hypnotic and choppy prose, film noir atmosphere (no one does better in dimly lit streets in fog and drizzle), and meditations on human memory. Youthful indignation obscures his true talents, like a young artist experimenting with graffiti.

Modiano went on to write about collaborators, black market dealers, crooks, pimps and prostitutes, private detectives and burlesque dancers – characters who embrace and shy away from the way models change clothes. Thanks to his father, Modiano had access to a world hidden from the sight of the most honest Parisians. In the novels that followed “The Occupation Trilogy”, Modiano writes on the belly of Paris so subtly that the reader feels like a Parisian on a lunch break strolling through the streets of the city, passing through the open door of Paris. ‘a dark saloon and seeing the twisted figures inside and a part of treacherous conversation before a scarred bouncer closes the door. Almost all of her books are sort of mysteries, but the crime always takes place far from the camera, and the trail is so cold it’s virtually non-existent.

When I started to breathe Modiano’s novels about a year ago, it was like reading a different author, the one who spoke to me. Six years after my first attempt at reading Modiano, I now, like the characters in his books, had large white spaces in my memory – ordinary but pleasant days lost in time, episodes of distress reduced to outlines like if it was little more than a count in a ledger. Life had taken twists and turns. The series of events that had led me here and there had turned into knots that I can no longer untie.

I only have three or four of his books left to read. A single novel by Modiano may not be so remarkable, but reading his work in succession has a strange effect. It builds up in the reader’s mind, creating the reader’s sense of the fading memory itself that Modiano constantly examines. Like the characters in Modiano’s books, the reader begins to wonder: Have I been here before? Is it the same character or just someone with the same name? Do I really remember his face, this character? Have I read all of this before?

Sometimes in the books a character from another novel will make an appearance or be mentioned in a conversation. Another fragment of the backstory will be revealed. In a way, this makes Modiano’s Paris, his world, more real. It’s as if Modiano’s world isn’t limited to the pages between the covers, but somehow extends beyond; everything is linked, as if even after the reader has closed a book by Modiano, the world of the writer persists, continuing to move forward even without the reader. Each Modiano novel is just a snapshot of a world in constant motion, always in oblivion and in motion.

I believe Modiano reminds readers to stop and remember, or try to remember, the path they took to “here”. Modiano’s characters ruminate in a way that is becoming rare as the modern world bombards us with more and more distractions. Modiano’s reading says examine your life, pick up some of the loose threads, see where they take you. What has become of some of these specters that cross our lives, captivate us momentarily, before relapsing into the darkness of memory? Like a strange noise in the night that keeps us awake until dawn that we forget in a few days. How critical something can seem for a moment. Modiano reminds us that time decides which events and which people are essential to the story we tell about our lives. But perhaps we can also have our say.

Modiano does all of this with barely a word unknown to a college student. A tension of hope runs through each of his works. His characters struggle to do so, but are often able to save pieces of the past – memories – from oblivion. Sometimes they can resurrect painful episodes, but something is still being recovered, and it’s kind of a victory, I think.

In 2014, Modiano’s announcement of the Nobel Prize was greeted by a choir of “Who? In the English-speaking world, although almost all of his books have been bestsellers in France. A deeply private man concerned with the vagaries of identity and forgotten souls, I suspect Modiano might have appreciated this response to his name.

Some favorites from Patrick Modiano’s extensive bibliography: “Little Jewel”, “Invisible Ink”, “Out of the Dark” and “Such Fine Boys”.

Jay can be contacted by email at [email protected]


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