Ah Paris, where booksellers go out for espressos and glasses of wine during the day at their nearby cafe instead of a trot round the block and a baked potato with cheese and beans… Bookseller Laurent comes across an upmarket handbag dumped by a bin which about to be emptied. He rescues the bag, guessing it had been thrown there by a thief. Having failed to give it in to the police he goes through it at his leisure. There are plenty clues as to the owner, but no address, no phone, nothing of monetary value but things of sentimental value. What is the story? An intriguing clue is a novel dedicated to “Laure” by the elusive Patrick Modiano (see reviews of his work elsewhere on this site). Neat because Modiano’s novels are mostly about tracing someone unknown on the basis of clues. Among the possessions is the red notebook which includes the owner’s scattered thoughts, her fears and hopes
Gradually Laurent tracks down the woman who we know from the first is in hospital in a coma following a mugging. He knows her well by now, he’s read her journal, has picked up her strappy dress from a laundry and, unaccountably when he turns up at her door to return the bag he allows Laure’s gay friend, William, also visiting her flat to think he is her latest boyfriend. Laurent finds himself looking after the flat and moves in, to explore room by room, bookshelf by bookshop, painting by painting the surroundings of the woman he has not yet met but knows so well. Meanwhile his relationship falls apart as the women he is seeing thinks he has found someone else, as he has.
Literary references abound; Sophie Calle is there of course, but this is not a book with pretensions, just an easy Friday night read with the odd bit of clunky translation.
But the fantasy has to end. Laurent leaves a brief note for Laure is getting better and will return. She knows that this man knows her life better than others who have simply known her body and sets out to find a bookseller called Laurent…
If you scroll down, you’ll see that the last book I reviewed was by Modanio, and I liked it. I regret that I can’t give such a positive review to the first book here, though it is perhaps his best known, having won the Prix Goncourt in France, some years before his winning the Nobel in 2014.
Godine – a great American independent publisher – must be so thrilled (they were the first English language publisher of the second book here) having stuck with Modiano despite sales that could only be described as modest until the Nobel. But Missing Person did not do a lot for me. The story is of Guy Roland, who decides to find out who he really is. That name and his identity were given him by his employer, a private detective, when the narrator becomes a private detective. Roland is a man without a past – the survivor of a fugue state (though the words are never used). When his employer retires Roland starts following clues to discover he could be one of several people. The clues lead him to assorted odd characters who invite him up, give him copies of photos and documents that lead him on to his next possible persona. He becomes a collector of other people’s memories and starts to imagine the lives of those he might or might not have been. Modiano deliberately confuses real life with imagined life so the reader is not sure if Roland has found anything real or is living in his imagination. Now that I am more familiar with Modiano, it is no suprise that a turning point is on the Swiss border in 1940 when a woman disappears without trace. The bones of a great story are here, but though this is only a novella of 168 pages I had to push myself to get to the end.
Modiano’s book for children, though quite suitable for adults, is, however, charming, and beautifully illustrated. The Catherine Certitude of the title looks back from New York to her childhood in Paris where she lived with her father before they rejoined her dancer mother in America. Her Papa owned a small firm which bought and sold, well, anything. It was obvious that the provenance of some at least of what he sold was dodgy. Was this the black market (which is how Modiano’s father made his living) or just scraping a living? Either way, her father was not a success and when Catherine is invited to a fellow ballet student’s party he pretends to own a posh car parked in the street, something nobody believes. When someone drives it away he pretends it is being stolen. But nobody is quite what they seem – he often speaks to people in “mysterious languages” while Catherine’s Russian ballet teacher is no more Russian than this writer. Despite, or perhaps because of his failure, Catherine loves him and the whole book is a a fond look back on Paris and childhood memories.
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Every time I visit Paris I’m always stopped short in the street by the sight of the small plaques commemorating those who died fighting the Nazi occupation. Ici est tombé pour la libération…Sometimes just one name, sometimes a few. They appear on walls as if at random but with a map and a history book it would be easy enough, I imagine, to chart the ebbs and flows of partisan warfare in the city.
It is easier, though, to work out the old working class Jewish areas around Belleville. There some blocks of flats have lists of those taken by the Nazis and, more dramatically, school buildings listing the names of the Jewish children deported and murdered.
I was reminded of all this when reading The Search Warrant, the first of the books released in English following the French author’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a short, sombre, novel of 137 pages which can be read in one sitting, and probably benefits for so doing as it has no continuous narrative. The narrator comes across an old notice in Paris Soir in a December 1941 issue, advertising for information on a missing girl, Dora Bruder, who had ran away from her convent school where she had been placed to avoid the impending trouble. She was Jewish and would have been a “hidden child”. The narrator tries to find what happened to her and what happened to her family. Along the way he drops in details of his own family background, a broken family where – just as in his hunt for information on the Bruder family – he tries and fails to find his own estranged father who’d escaped from a round-up in Paris. He wonders if his father, who survived the war, had met Dora Bruder who was caught and did not survive.
The Search Warrant is a brooding novel with a narrator who turns out not to be so nice. Hanging over him all the time is a sense of loss. Something only too easy to feel in the boulevards of what was once an occupied city.
The book is ably translated and I look forward to reading more Modiano as his work appears in English.