When Patrick Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature, he was — as is so often the case — barely a name to most American readers. Matters were hardly better in England: James Campbell, one of the editors of the Times Literary Supplement, wrote of him as follows:
“Patrick Modiano . . . is the author of two dozen mostly short novels, linked to thriller and mystery genres, with modernist tints. His work has been translated into some thirty languages. English is one of them — a handful of novels have appeared here or in the U.S. — but you would never know it from a perusal of even the better bookshops. On our perambulations, we have never seen an English Modiano. The day after the announcement, we made our way to the splendid Foyles shop in Charing Cross Road. As we feared, there was no trace of the Nobel Prize-winner on the otherwise all-embracing Fiction shelves. At the desk, we were told that one book is available in print-on-demand form.”
With lucky timing, Yale University Press had already scheduled this elegant volume comprising three Modiano novellas: “Afterimage,” “Suspended Sentences” and “Flowers of Ruin.” Starting with its misty cover photograph of a brick walkway and iron fencing, the book feels quietly unpretentious, approachable. You won’t have to break out the pitons and climbing ropes as if you were facing, say, Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.” This is human-scaled writing.
The three stories — essentially independent, but with subtle connections and repeated elements — are nonetheless deeply mysterious. In “Afterimage,” a first-person narrator, who seems to be Modiano, recalls an eccentric photographer whose work he once catalogued; in “Suspended Sentences,” he re-creates a period in his childhood when he and his younger brother were cared for by a kindly criminal gang; and in “Flowers of Ruin,” he presents his investigations into a 1933 double suicide and its possible link to a secretive character he once knew in the early 1960s, who might have been a decayed aristocrat or a World War II collaborator, or neither or both.
Still, as translator Mark Polizzotti writes in his insightful introduction, the Modiano reader must be prepared for a certain “indirection” and “haziness” in the storytelling. While there’s a lot of geographical detail and the prose is always clear, the narratives seem to circle a subject that is never quite stated. Neither is there any distinct closure. One turns these low-keyed pages with pleasure, eagerly awaiting some revelation that accounts for and explains all the mysteries. But that plot payoff never quite comes. Modiano hints and invites guesses, but he leaves the reader wondering. He presents the experience; its meaning is up to you.
At times, Modiano slightly resembles the early Paul Auster, who can be comparably eerie beneath the smoothness of his prose, equally grounded in his urban geography, and just as fond of playing with a mix of autobiography and genre fiction. In, for instance, the Goncourt Prize-winning “Missing Person” and “Honeymoon ” — both recently reissued in paperback by Godine — Modiano’s protagonists are, respectively, a young detective and a documentary filmmaker who undertake investigations into their own cryptic pasts. The two short novels might almost be pendants to Auster’s “New York Trilogy.”
Modiano’s preferred mood seems to be a faintly pensive wistfulness — there are lots of autumn leaves on his sidewalks. The first of the three novellas, “Afterimage,” opens this way:
“I met Francis Jansen when I was nineteen, in the spring of 1964, and today I want to relate the little I know about him.
“It was early morning, in a café on Place Denfert-Rochereau. I was there in the company of a girl my age, and Jansen was at a table facing ours. He was watching us and smiling. Then, from a bag placed next to him on the imitation leather bench, he pulled out a Rolleiflex. I barely realized he’d trained the lens on us — that’s how quick and casual his movements were.”
While there’s nothing overtly dramatic here, Modiano nonetheless leaves you wanting to know more. So you read on, learning that Jansen lives alone, used to work with Robert Capa, was once in love with a woman named Colette. While he still keeps three leather suitcases crammed with his pictures, he now largely disdains photography. Then, one day, Jansen simply disappears. . . . As the narrator remarks, “Of all the punctuation marks, he told me, ellipses were his favorite.”
There’s both much else and not much more to this story. I haven’t, for instance, mentioned the brutal mime Gil or the fact that the narrator’s girlfriend resembles the dead Colette. Above all, through these strobe-lit memories Modiano gradually evokes the melancholy of things lost and gone forever. “One would like to make the dead talk, one would especially like them to come back for real, and not merely in our dreams where they stand beside us, but so far away and so absent. . . .”
In “Suspended Sentences,” this Proustian element grows stronger. Again, we seem to be reading memoirs, as the narrator — now affectionately nicknamed Patoche — recalls an almost magical year of his childhood. In what must be the early 1950s, his mother — supposedly on tour with a traveling theater company — and his father, who is obviously involved in some shadowy business, install their two little boys in an all-female household, one that includes Little Helene, a former acrobat who now limps, and sexy Annie, who spends her nights “crying” at a nightclub. Even more than “Afterimage,” this is a story about trying to give meaning to the past.
Like Henry James’s “What Maisie Knew,” it is also a portrait of adult behavior viewed through a child’s eyes. Even now, the narrator writes, “I’m amazed the police never questioned me: children see things, after all. They also hear things.” What did young Patoche see and hear? Visitors to the house, mainly. The smiling Roger Vincent, who drove a fancy American convertible; Jean D., who sported a big expensive wristwatch, which he allowed the little boy to wear. But Patoche also overheard talk of the old Rue Lauriston gang and a certain Pagnon, who during the war had somehow engineered his father’s release from a Nazi holding cell. One day, too, all these people suddenly vanished, so that this strange year sometimes seems just a fantasy, a dream.
In “Flowers of Ruin,” though, we pick up a few more details about Eddy Pagnon, who at one point was bootlegging wine from Bordeaux to Paris. But mainly, the adult Modiano — he mentions his daughters — now remembers his life after he quit school, fell hard for a sullen girl in a fur coat and became obsessed with finding out the truth about a certain Pacheco, perhaps a vagrant, perhaps the wanted aristocrat Philippe de Bellune. While keeping a notebook in which to scribble his various hypotheses about Pacheco, the 20-year-old dropout gradually began to write more and more, finally discovering that he had begun his first book.
Though enigmatic and open-ended, Modiano’s remembrances of things past and his probings of personal identity are presented with a surprisingly light touch. He is, all in all, quite an endearing Nobelist.