Patrick Modiano opens his most recent novel, "So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood," with an epigraph from Stendhal: "I cannot provide the reality of events, I can only convey their shadow." It's an almost perfect evocation of the book, not to mention Modiano's career.
The French writer, who won the Nobel Prize last year for a body of work as deft and beautiful as any in postwar European literature, is an excavator of memory — not only his own or those of his characters (many of whom bear, as J.D. Salinger once observed of his fictional alter ego Seymour Glass, "a striking resemblance to — alley oop, I'm afraid — myself"), but also that of Paris.
That's why his fiction resonates so deeply; it occupies an elusive middle ground between place and personality. At its center is the legacy of the German occupation, which Modiano, who was born in 1945, refers to in his memoir "Pedigree" as "the soil — or the dung — from which I emerged." What he's suggesting is that history is both personal and collective, that identity is dependent, at least in part, on circumstance. This can refer to family — Modiano's mother, an actress, met his father, a black marketeer, in the morally blank landscape of Vichy Paris — but it also has to do with how the past appears to rise up from the streets around us, mingling with the present until we are no longer sure where (or when) we are.
"So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood" very much expresses this conundrum; it involves a writer named Jean Daragane who gets drawn into an unlikely conspiracy after an address book he has lost is recovered and returned. The setup recalls the work of Sophie Calle, whose 1983 conceptual project "The Address Book" grows out of a similar interaction, but if Calle is all about exposure, revelation, Modiano has the opposite effect in mind.
Daragane is a recluse living alone in a Paris apartment, too disconnected, even, to remember the substance of his own books. That all changes after he meets Gilles Ottolini, who has found the address book and wants to ask Daragane about one of the entries: a single name, Guy Torstel, and a telephone number that has long since been rendered obsolete.
"He leafed through the notebook absent-mindedly," Modiano writes. "Among these telephone numbers, there was not one that he would have wanted to dial. And then, the two or three missing numbers, those that had mattered to him and which he still knew by heart, would no longer respond."
Such a passage highlights Modiano's method in a nutshell: to introduce a narrative and then detour, intentionally, into echoes, longings, the delirious tension between who we are and who we once were, and who we can never be again. In this case, Torstel's name leads Daragane to recall the years he lived in the Paris suburbs with a friend of his mother's — a woman with whom he reconnects while writing his first book.
Readers of Modiano will find the scenario familiar; it forms the substance of his novella "Suspended Sentences," and references to it also appear in "Pedigree," which tells the story of the author's early years. As he recollects, "Between Jouy-en-Josas and Paris, the mystery of those suburbs that weren't yet suburbs. The ruined chateau and, in front of it, the tall grass in the meadow where we flew our kite. The woods at Les Metz. And the large wheel of the water mill in Marly, which spun with the noise and coolness of a waterfall."
The overlap, the back-and-forth, may seem repetitious, but it isn't. Rather, it makes reading any single Modiano book like encountering one installment in an ongoing, multivolume work. This press of memory becomes more resonant the more one reads.
As such, "So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood" leads us back through "Pedigree" to Modiano's first three novels — "La Place de l'Etoile," "The Night Watch" and "Ring Roads" — which have just been issued in a single volume called "The Occupation Trilogy." It's like peeling back the layers of an onion, the petals of a rose.
"You try to forget the past," he writes in "The Night Watch," "but your footsteps invariably lead you back to difficult crossroads." In these early novels, that means imagining his way to his father's Paris, during the darkest period of the war. "Ring Roads," in particular, makes the tension explicit, as Modiano projects himself back in time, envisioning an occupation-era encounter with a father who doesn't recognize him. Resolution? Reconciliation? For Modiano, the outcome is never so simple.
"I feel as though I'm writing a 'trashy adventure story,'" he confides, "but I'm not making this up. No, this is not a fiction. … I tell you again that I'll stay with you until the end of the book, the last one dealing with my other life. Don't think I'm writing it out of pleasure; I had no choice."
As to whom he is addressing, it could be anyone: his readers, the other characters in the novel, himself. And yet, that makes his work only more compelling, like an ouroboros of the inner life. This, Modiano insists, is where we are, born out of history into a state of unknowing, in which memory and forgetting blur into a fantasy that can never be fulfilled.
"Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch," he explains in "So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood." "It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves."
Literature, in other words, as act of faith, as gesture of connection, no matter how futile or doomed. "It was a fragment of reality that he had smuggled in," Modiano tells us, "one of those private messages that people put in small ads in newspapers and that can only be deciphered by one person."
So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood
Translated from the French by Euan Cameron
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 156 pp., $24
Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Yale University Press: 130 pp., $25
The Occupation Trilogy:
La Place de l'Etoile; The Night Watch; Ring Roads
Translated from the French by Caroline Hillier, Patricia Wolf and Frank Wynne
Bloomsbury: 352 pp., $18 paper