Monday, January 11, 2016

Review: So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood, Patrick Modiano

This is a revised version of a review that was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian.

The great value of prizes in the arts is not that they honor the best. Even the most prestigious are fairly hit or miss. Awards are at their most worthwhile when they direct the public to work it otherwise hasn’t considered. For English-language readers, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been a godsend. The world of English-language readers is overwhelmingly dominated by English-language writers. A non-English writer, such as Elena Ferrante or Roberto Bolaño, will occasionally break through, but it’s very unusual. The Nobel takes contemporary literature in all languages into consideration. It gives us glimpses of the world beyond our linguistic borders. Without it, the treasures of such writers as Gao Xingjian, Orhan Pamuk, and Herta Müller might never have become part of our reading lives.

Patrick Modiano, the latest fiction writer to earn the Nobel, was little known outside his native France when he received the honor in 2014. To the extent he was familiar at all to English-language audiences, it was for his screenwriting work, most notably for the 1974 film Lacombe, Lucien, directed and co-written by Louis Malle. Since the Nobel announcement, publishers have been falling all over themselves to make his work available. At least eight editions of his books--two of them collections of trilogies--have been published in translation over the last year or so.

Modiano’s most recent work is the 2014 novel So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neigborhood, translated into English by Euan Cameron. This story about an aging writer’s efforts to reclaim lost memories from childhood is a small masterpiece of both form and content. The rigor and precision of its construction is remarkable. Every word seems to contribute to one’s understanding of the climactic epiphany; the book is like a jigsaw puzzle that cannot be comprehended until the final piece is in place. One also can’t help but marvel at how Modiano develops the narrative poetically; metonymy builds into metonymy to move the story along. The book provides food for thought about life’s relationship to memory as well. After one finishes, one may feel eager to read it again.

The protagonist is Jean Daragane, a Parisian novelist in his sixties. He has become a recluse. When the story begins, he has not spoken to another person in three months. He constantly looks for reasons to stay indoors, and he has so little use for the telephone that he can barely remember how to use it. His memories are slipping away, too. When asked about his first novel, he doesn’t recall its title or contents. However, as Modiano makes clear, Daragane isn’t suffering from senility. His isolation and failings of memory are borne of profound alienation. He is incapable of trust towards others, and he experiences isolation as an escape from what he regards as the oppression of dealing with the everyday world.

The peace of Daragane’s solitude is disrupted with a telephone call. A journalist has found his address book and wishes to meet with him to return it. But the journalist has more on his mind. He claims that while going through the address book, he noticed a name that relates to a matter he is researching. He queries Daragane for more information, but Daragane doesn’t remember anything. In the days that follow, the journalist’s girlfriend contacts Daragane. In hopes that he can help, she acquaints him further with the journalist’s investigation. Bits and pieces of the gathered information--names, addresses, a child’s photograph--prove achingly familiar, but he cannot at first recall why, much less how they are connected. In short order it obsesses him. The book follows Daragane as he becomes a detective searching through his own memories, coming ever closer to unraveling the mystery of these people and places and what ties them together. The story ends when everything is revealed, specifically the buried memory of what may have been the defining moment of Daragane’s life.

The story is developed across three timelines: the present day; the late 1960s, when Daragane was an aspiring writer in his early twenties; and the early 1950s, when the character was seven. Associations from the present day lead to recollections of incidents and people from the 1960s, and the associations from those recollections uncover Daragane’s childhood memories. Modiano is at his most dazzling when he uses an object or the like as a springboard for articulating Daragane’s emotions in a recalled scene, and then uses new associations from those emotions as a springboard into the next uncovered memory. For example, an old suitcase eventually figures into a memory of a childhood train ride, and the accompanying anxiety of losing that suitcase then ties into an anxiety that’s the key to the next memory to be unlocked. Daragane’s life is explored and understood in terms of metonymy. The onion of the book’s mystery is peeled through poetic means.

While the book is certainly a mystery--describing it as a psychological thriller is accurate as well--most would not consider it an airport read. There’s nothing pop or pulpy about it; it is structured as a series of epiphanies, and it is not framed as a melodrama. The story is certainly suspenseful, but that suspense relies on the reader’s curiosity, rather than on building dread. Following how the associations build into one another requires a good deal of concentration; a break in one’s attention can lead to the entire story falling away. One must also be mindful of details about character relationships, no matter how insignificant they at first seem. Modiano does not belabor story points, and if one doesn’t keep the details continually in mind, things may stop making sense. If the book has a failing, it may be that Modiano respects the reader’s intelligence too much.

In the announcement of Modiano’s Nobel, he was praised “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.” One notes that So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood shares little, if any, concern with the German presence in France during World War II. (There appear to be tangential references in a few spots, but one would have to be pretty knowledgeable about the history to say for sure. Modiano's Occupation material, such as the script for Lacombe, Lucien, is elsewhere in his oeuvre.) But with a striking command of narrative craft, Modiano presents a compelling dramatization of how memory shapes one’s life, and how one cannot know oneself without coming to terms with it. The novel is a worthy introduction to his work.