Cons: Flower of Ruins
When last year’s announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, I was not aghast (as with awards to Daniel Fo, Mo Yan, and Herta Muller). Admiring two films about the Occupation of France (; ), I gave the Swedish Academy the benefit of the doubt. Having now read four novels by Modiano (Out of the Dark and the three that were originally published separately that were recently bundled by Yale University Press as Suspended Sentences), my doubts have become acute.
It seems (not just from my sample but from what I have read about others) that Modiano’s plots are wispy without any counterweight of character development: that is, his novels are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. Indeed, I’d say they are not driven at all. They have a protagonist whose age and life experiences match Modiano’s who is curious about people with whom he interacted (I can’t say that “he knew”) or with whom his father interacted at some time in the past. The protagonist is definitely a professional investigator or researcher: he gives an additional meaning to the “private” in “private investigator”!
Not least in that Modiano frequently calls this man haunted by and speculating about the past “Patrick,” I will, too. Patrick turns up some material in old newspapers and magazine, but never attempts to investigate the police records of Paris. When he finds someone who might know something about those about whom he is recollecting and speculating, he is too diffident to talk to them and ask any questions.
Those who interest him, particularly those who were adults during the Occupation, were furtive and elusive, both then and later. Patrick’s father, Albert (1912-77) was a low-level black-market operator who kept his Jewish ancestry secret from the Nazis with whom he got along. He defied the legal requirement to wear the yellow Star of David that marked Jews. Though Albert was, nonetheless, rounded up and stored in Drancy, a transit camp for Jews being shipped to Auschwitz, he was mysteriously sprung by a collaborationist racketeer, Eddy Pagnon, about whom Patrick would like to know more (but not at the cost of having to ask anyone about the man who seemingly saved his father from a Nazi death camp).
The same story, or, rather, the part of the story Patrick/Modiano knows recurs—without elaboration. Author and narrator fail even to try to imagine details to fill in the very sketchy historical record.
Modiano’s fictions are extremely specific about objects in vanished rooms, often in buildings that no longer exist, and Modiano is hyper-specific about place names (mostly, but not only Parisian ones) where he was in the 1960s (or, less often, the previous and the following decades), often noting both what once stood at an address and what is there now. Perhaps these details covey more to readers who have lived there whole lives in Paris than they do me, but can that substitute for plots and characterizations, even for native Parisians?
Reading Suspended Sentences (in which the three novellas are not placed in chronological order of publication or in chronological order of the part of the narrator’s past that is the blurry focus of the work), I grew more impatient and critical with each doomed attempt to understand someone from the past. Perhaps my dismay was cumulative, though I liked “Afterimage” (1993, a rendition in English from the untranslatable idiom of its French title Chien de printemps, which means literally “dog of spring”).
Patrick is recalling when he was a 19-year-old university dropout who volunteered to catalog the archive of Francis Jansen, a MAGNUM photographer (and friend of the legendary Robert Capa), who is getting ready to leave Paris for Mexico (disappearing like Ambrose Bierce) and evading a mistress who intrigues Patrick. Jansen was, perhaps, trying to teach Patrick to “train his gaze on something very specific to avoid thinking about anything else,” as Patrick thinks Jansen did.
The second novella, “Suspended Sentences” (from the 1988 Remisse de peine, a phrase with different connotations in French: remission of pain would be a literal and cognate translation) is more obsessive and even more fragmented. Patrick (often called the affectionate/diminutive “Patrice,” but also “blissful idiot) recalls a year or so during which he and his younger brother Rudy (who was to die at the age of ten and has haunted Modiano as much as his father’s nefarious past) were housed with Annie, a possibly lesbian possible prostitute who wore a black leather jacket and jeans when no other women did). Her circle included some swindlers and other sorts of criminals Modiano père probably knew. The fragments of memory and suggestions of romantic malefactors do not add up to anything. At the end the police have arrived at the house where the young Modianos have been staying, but though her car remains parked out front, Annie has vanished forever (at least from Patrick’s view).
In the longest of the three, “Flowers of Ruin” (a literal translation of Fleurs de ruine, 1991), a desultory investigation into what happened before a young couple, Urbain and Gisèle T., committed suicide in 1933, shifts to trying to sort out the trajectory of a waiter who had served the Ts at a night club, seemingly lied that they were there alone, and much later (late-1940) took on the identity of a Peruvian(-father)/Italian(-mother) called Pacheco, a collaborationist, Philippe de Bellune, who disappeared after WWII (the “Liberation”). It is the failure to develop any of the characters (including Patrick’s) or even a tentative solution to the mysteries of the suicides, the disappeared ex-waiter or the ersatz nobleman (and collaborationist sought by the postwar French authorities) that irritated me more than the open-ended other three Modiano novels I’d read.
Bottom line: I think the Nobel committee should have chosen Michael Ondaatje, a great writer in diverse media and very varied settings, rather than Modiano. For a French writer, I think they should have chosen Michel Tournier (1924-) (before either Modiano or their previous pick, J[ean]. M[arie]. G[ustave].Le Clézio, and I regret that they did not anoint Modiano’s original patron, Raymond Queneau (1902-76)… or Marcel Proust (1871-1922)!