samedi 20 décembre 2014

"Amid the yellowed clippings" : Modiano by Henri Astier

Version légèrement augmentée d'un article de Henri Astier paru dans le Times Literary Supplement du 5 décembre 2014, à propos de Pour que tu ne te perdes par dans le quartier et de quelques autres romans de Patrick Modiano. 

The protagonist in Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier - a veteran novelist, like Modiano - no longer has much appetite for literature: 

"Lately his reading list had dwindled to a single author: Buffon. He found great solace in the limpidity of the style and was sorry he had not been influenced by him."  
This homage to Buffon cannot be entirely serious. Modiano enjoys the occasional literary incongruity. In a book written four decades ago, his (then young) alter-ego praises André Maurois, a profoundly unfashionable writer.

But the reference to Buffon is not wholly fanciful. The eighteenth-century naturalist is also the favourite author of a character in Fleurs de ruine - published in 1991 and now released in English along with two other Modiano novels written around that time. This longstanding interest in Buffon reflects one of Modiano's key themes: people are slippery; what they do not conceal, time erases; plants and animals, by contrast, are reassuringly there. 

When the writer of Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier has an anxious spell, he looks at a tree outside his window and its presence makes him feel rooted in solid ground. 
In Fleurs de ruine, his younger incarnation panics after running away from boarding school, but is soothed by the sight of fish at the Paris Aquarium:  
"They opened their mouths silently, but from time to time bubbles rose to the surface. They would never call me to account."
Planche extraite d'une édition des Oeuvres complètes de Buffon (1835)
Whether or not Modiano shares his latest hero's wish to have been a novelist of "animals, and even trees or flowers", he certainly is anything but. His narrators are obsessed by the memory of elusive people. Modiano has been compared with Proust, notably by the Nobel jury that recently crowned him. But his subject is not time recalled itself: it is the painstaking process of recalling time. Almost all his novels centre on the reconstitution of the past from scant evidence - half-remembered events, fragments of documents, conversations with unreliable witnesses... His first books were fictional recreations of his father's life in Nazi-occupied France. Later, as Modiano's youth receded into a suitably hazy distance, his characters turned their attention to their own early experiences.

In the new book, the writer Jean Daragane revisits his past against his will when a stranger appears claiming to be investigating a crime from the 1950s. A character in Daragane's first novel could provide a clue: the stranger wants to know about the real person behind it. Daragane is at first reluctant to help. The book was written half-a century ago and he has forgotten all about it. Why does this man want to dig up old dirt? His "languid, threatening voice" is redolent of blackmail. But partly drawn in by the stranger's enigmatic girlfriend, who takes over the questioning, Daragane agrees to look at the documents the man has gathered.

At first sight, they make no sense. But amid the yellowed clippings, old photos and scraps of police reports, names from his past emerge. Seen a lifetime later in the harsh light of a cold criminal case, events Daragane experienced as a boy start to yield some of their secrets. In 1952 his mother had placed him in the care of a young woman called Annie. He spent a year at her house, north of Paris, amid a colourful group of oddballs. 

His happy time there came to an abrupt end. Daragane remembers being whisked off by to the south of France by Annie. She then vanished, and he was picked up by his father who consigned him to years of dismal boarding schools.

Reading the dossier, it is now clear that his surrogate family were criminals. Annie herself was a part-time prostitute. The gang (had to leave because the police were about to raid the house. Annie took the boy with her as she tried to flee to Italy, but she was caught at the border. The documents also take Daragane back to 1967, when he wrote his first book. He suddenly remembers that his initial inspiration had been a burning desire to resolve the riddle of his eviction from paradise through fiction. But by then the witnesses had evaporated. He ended up writing about something else, leaving only a few cryptic allusions to the original episode in the novel.

As the present-day Daragane fumbles through pieces of an old puzzle, the picture gradually emerges, but it is never complete: we are not told what crime the gang were plotting, or whether the modern couple were really blackmailers. Such holes in the story are central to any Modiano book. As what is highlighted is not the past, but the quest for the past, it is important that it should never quite succeed. The epigraph, a quote by Stendhal, makes the point: 

"I cannot convey the reality of facts. I can only present their shadow."
La Montagne Sainte-Geneviève par Cézanne (vers 1885)
Another consequence of Modiano's stress on the process of remembering is multiple attempts at capturing the same events. The happy time at the house near Paris, the loneliness of boarding school, the floating world of youth and escape through literature have all been explored by Modiano before. Names, locations, and situations recur from one book to the next. 

Modiano - like Cézanne painting the Montagne Sainte-Victoire in Provence over and over again - approaches the same elusive material from different angles, in different lights, at different seasons, giving each iteration fresh twists and its own dynamic.

One theme introduced in
Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier is age. The writer's memory is fading; he struggles with internet searches; his fingers cannot cope with small mobile phones. (Modiano is himself 69). And since the birth of a novel is a central part of this particular story, Modiano has arresting things to say about writing:  
"He had written the book only in the hope that she [Annie] might get in touch with him. Writing a book, for him, was in part a way of flashing his headlights or sending out Morse code signals to try to reach certain people who had vanished from his life. All he needed to do was scatter their names across the pages and wait for them to contact him at last. But in the case of Annie Astrand, he had not given a name and had tried to cover the tracks. She could not recognize herself in any of the characters. He had never understood how you could place someone who had meant a lot to you in a novel. Once they had gone through the looking glass and into the book, they would escape forever (...) They had been reduced to nothing."
It is unclear whether Modiano himself feels the same about literature. This is one of several books focusing on the all-important Annie figure. Another, written a quarter-century earlier, is Suspended Sentences (Remise de peine), which gives its title to the translated trilogy. The basic plot and cast are similar to those of Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier Annie appears under the same name, as does the avuncular gangster who protects her. 

Remise de peine en édition de poche (photo Willy Ronnis)
There are variations, some superficial and others significant: in Suspended Sentences Annie and the child are slightly older; the house is located south of Paris; the boy stays there with a younger brother; in the end the gang just vanish and the children watch helplessly as police raid the empty house; the story is a first-person narrative told by a novelist named "Patrick".

More fundamentally, what gives
Suspended Sentences (Remise de peine) its distinctive quality is the voice of the child. Modiano conveys the thrill of exploring the woods, the magic of the nearby mansion haunted by a First World War flying ace, the odd things adults say which stick with you all your life, the joy of riding bumper cars, the mysterious allure of a logo on a can of motor oil, and ultimately the pain of being abandoned.

The Montagne Sainte-Victoire is painted in short strokes and the vivid colours of youth, while in 
Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier the scene is blurred by the mist of time as the brush lingers. In a scene that appears in both books, the boy sits next to Annie in her car. In Suspended Sentences (Remise de peine) it reads: 
"I saw her face, profile. She was staring straight in front of her. A tear was falling down her cheek." 
In the later book, Daragane remembers Annie "in profile, her bust upright at the wheel of her car, and he, a child, sitting next to her (...) He noticed, barely visible, a tear sliding down her right cheek."

In both novels, as often with Modiano, the wartime past lurks just beneath the surface. It emerges abruptly from chance meetings or the sight of certain buildings as you walk in the street. These glimpses from a dark era are particularly striking in Suspended Sentences, where they are set off by the overall tone of wide-eyed innocence.

The long shadow of war is a leading theme in the other two books in the translated trilogy. The main character of Chien de printemps (translated here as "Afterimage") is a prominent photographer the narrator befriended for a few weeks in the mid-1960s - when the latter just happened to be writing his first novel. 

Robert Capa

The photographer, named Francis Jansen, has been damaged by history. His years in occupied Paris, including a spell at the Drancy internment camp, left him prone to "black holes", and struggling to shake his ghosts. He owes his salvation to the photojournalist Robert Capa, who picked him up and taught him the trade. 

Ever since Capa died covering another conflict in 1954, Jansen has lived as a recluse. He is unmoved by his celebrity and puzzled by the young writer's attempt to catalogue his life's work for posterity. The book ends with the discovery of another Francis Jansen, who was arrested in Rome in 1944, deported and never been heard of since. Identifying with his tragic namesake, the photographer decides to sink into his own black hole and disappears.

In Flowers of Ruin the narrator also pieces together the story of a man destroyed by the war and his double who survived it. The victim is a scion of a foreign aristocratic family who was sent to the Dachau concentration camp and, rather bizarrely, later tried in absentia for aiding the enemy. "What chain of events could have led to such a paradoxical situation?" the young sleuth asks.  

"I thought of my father who had experienced all the contradictions of the Occupation period and had told me almost nothing, before we parted forever."  

The fallen aristocrat, we learn, survived Dachau but played dead. He became a vagrant and was killed by another homeless man with a collaborationist past, who stole his identity. Thanks to an amnesty, the impostor found a job with an airline and was jetting around the world under his new name when the narrator met him in the 1960s.

For Modiano, you don't need to have direct experience of the war to be scarred by it. His characters born around 1945, as he was, are the products of chance encounters in dangerous circumstances. The result is parental neglect and a sense of inner void. His drifting young men of the 1960s and their beautiful, unreliable girlfriends are all "flowers of ruin".

Fleurs de ruine (aquarelle de Pierre Le-Tan)
Similarly, Modiano's geography of Paris is imbued with the feeling of being hunted his father once felt:

"We drove along along the quais and crossed the Seine via the Pont de la Concorde. Once we had arrived on the Right Bank I felt better, as if the Seine was a border that protected me from a hostile hinterland."

The evocative power of Modiano's style lies in a blend of clarity and imprecision. People and places are rendered in detail, but what matters most is hinted at or left unsaid. Afterimage includes this Buffonesque comment on the photographer's craft: 

"Sometimes Jansen took objects from very close up: plants, a spider's web, snail shells, flowers, blades of grass with ants running among them. You felt that he trained his gaze on a very specific point to avoid thinking of something else."

In photographs or paintings, artists can be universally appreciated. In literature, language barriers often stand in the way. The subtlety and deceptive lucidity of Modiano's prose make it difficult to translate. Unfortunately the three-novella volume lacks the flow and music of the original, and at times clumsily sticks to the French ("We penetrated into the forest.") The translation captures the flowers and the ants, but to get to the "something else" you need to read Modiano in the original.

Patrick Modiano, Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier, Gallimard, Paris, 148 pages, ISBN 978-2-07-014693-2

Patrick Modiano, Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas, Translated by Mark Polizzotti, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 232 pages,ISBN 9780300198058


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