Thursday, May 14, 2015

Nobelist Patrick Modiano’s works finally becoming widely available in English translation

The Guardian photo

When Patrick Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, my reaction was similar to that of a lot of U.S. readers: WHO? Patrick WHO? Now, finally, in the wake of the Nobel, U.S. publishers are hurrying to release some of his thirty works in translation.

Suspended Sentences, a collection of three novellas, translated and with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti, had been scheduled for publication later this year but was – thankfully – rushed into print by Yale University Press.

There are so many ways to think of (or describe) these novellas that it is difficult to know how to begin. There are certain themes that appear over and over. “I always have the impression that I write the same book, which means it’s already 45 years that I’ve been writing the same book,” he is said to have remarked when told he had won the Nobel Prize. (Alan Riding, The New York Times, 12/24/14)

The novellas can be read as a love poem to a Paris that has disappeared, a Paris that will never be recovered and, perhaps, never was. This theme
of disappearance – by people, places, memories – returns often.

The stories are largely set in a time before Modiano was born – the Nazi occupation of Paris. He (and the narrators, often indistinguishable from himself) look back and attempt to unravel events that occurred decades before:

In these three newly translated novellas we see the sophistication with which Modiano’s sentences quietly seek their way through the historical fog. (Gregory Day, Sidney Morning Herald, 3/14/15)

Since they contain many autobiographical details, they can also be viewed as the attempt of the artist to come to grips with his own family history. Modiano’s mother was an actress, often away on tour. His father was a “businessman.” In his late teens, Modiano concluded that his Jewish-Italian father had been involved in black market and other criminal activities connected to the notorious Rue Lauriston gang. This gang assisted the Reich from the start of the Occupation and was known as the “French Gestapo.” The collaboration was not based on ideology but, rather, was simply a means of lining pockets. Modiano’s father refused to wear a yellow star, was caught without his identity papers, and taken to Drancy, a holding prison for those who would be sent on to the death camps. He was mysteriously released, most likely because of his underworld connections.

Yet another way to approach the novellas is to think of them as “mysteries of remembering and forgetting”:

The fictional narrators, who resemble the author, search for truth about an elusive past, always linked to the Nazi occupation of Paris…Modiano’s writing is straightforward and his language, as translated by Polizzotti, is beautiful and spare; he piles on details, but between sentences he leaves questions unanswered, things unsaid.” (Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week, 12/23/14).

Modiano has been compared to Proust except, as Adam Thirlwell has pointed out, the memories of the past are never really recovered in Modiano’s work: “time is lost forever.” (The Guardian, 11/19/14)

While reading him, I was reminded more of Joyce and his attempts at “stream of consciousness” in Ulysses. The difference is that there is no “stream” in Modiano. His is more a “stutter of memory.” Time and again, the narrators reach back and try to capture the fullness of a memory. Sometimes, they grasp a small piece of it, sometimes they are doubtful that even that small piece is true, sometimes they can recover nothing except a vague feeling that something is lurking under the surface. It is the way our minds really work: a walk down a street or an odor or the back of a woman a half-block ahead will cause a memory to flash – and then disappear.

In “Afterimage,” a nineteen-year old boy meets Francis Jansen, a photographer who once worked with Robert Capa, and visits his studio. Jansen has three stacked suitcases filled with a jumble of his photographs. The only things hanging on his wall are a picture of Capa and himself and a portrait of a woman named Colette Laurent. The narrator is able to summon vague partial memories from his childhood of having met Colette Laurent (who is now dead) and even of being sent into a hotel to ask for any mail left there for her. He also learns that, during the Occupation, Jansen had been picked up and interned as a Jew at the Drancy transit camp. “He stayed there until the day the Italian consulate managed to have its citizens freed.”

The narrator offers to catalog and organize Jansen’s photographs: “I had taken on this job because I refused to accept that people and things could disappear without a trace.”

Jansen asks him what he intends to do with his life and the boy responds, “Write.” Jansen laughs.

That activity struck him as ‘squaring the circle’ – the exact phrase he’s used. Indeed, writing is done with words, whereas he was after silence. A photograph can express silence. But words? That he would have found interesting: managing to create silence with words. He had burst out laughing.…Of all the punctuation marks, he told me, ellipses were his favorite.

Jansen instructs him not to answer the door if anyone knocks and to tell anyone who telephones that he is not in. Indeed, some people named Meyendorff constantly try to reach Jansen. (Decades later, the narrator find the Meyendorff’s abandoned chateau and peers in the window. The Meyendorffs have disappeared but Mrs. Meyendorff’s portrait still hangs on the wall in the empty room.)

Jansen himself comes to his studio less and less and, one day, the narrator finds the studio empty and the photographs gone:

I didn’t hold it against him. I even understood him so well…I couldn’t predict the future, but thirty years later, when I’d become the same age as Jansen, I wouldn’t answer the telephone either, and I would disappear, as he had, one June evening, in the company of a phantom dog.

In the title novella, “Suspended Sentences,” two young boys have been left with friends of their actress mother while she is supposedly “on tour.” Their father is “away on business” and rarely visits. The boys’ caretakers have mysterious visitors who appear at all hours of the day and night. They are all kind to the boys and lavish gifts upon them.

There is an abandoned chateau at the end of their street which is said to have belonged to a mysterious Eliot Salter before it was “commandeered by the U.S. Army” for a General’s use. Their father claims to have known Salter:

He could see my brother and I were curious. So he told us the story of Eliot Salter, the marquis de Caussade, who, at the age of twenty, during the First World War, had been a flying ace. Then he’d married an Argentinian woman and become the king of Armagnac. Armagnac, said my father, was a liqueur that Salter, the marquis de Caussade, made and sold in very handsome bottles by the truckload. I helped him unload all those trucks, said my father. We counted the cases, one by one. He had bought this chateau. He had disappeared at the end of the last war with his wife, but he wasn’t dead and someday he’d be back.

Gradually, gradually, the boys hear mention of the notorious Rue Lauriston gang and we begin to understand that the people in the house, as well as the boys’ father, are involved in black market and other criminal activities. Decades later, thinking back on those days, the narrator recalls that his father had been apprehended and taken to the Drancy transit camp.

One night, someone showed up in an automobile at the Quai de la Gare and had my father released. I imagine – rightly or wrongly – that it was a certain Louis Pagnon, whom they called “Eddy” and who was shot after the Liberation with members of the Rue Lauriston gang, to which he belonged.

On an otherwise normal day, when the boys come home from school for their lunch, all the adults are gone. The police, who are searching the house, tell them only that something “very serious” has happened.

They searched everywhere…they walked around the courtyard, appeared in the windows of the house, and called to each other in loud voices. And my brother and I, we pretended to play in the garden, waiting for someone to come collect us.

In the final novella, “Flowers of Ruin,” the narrator is attempting, through research, to learn more about Louis Pagnon, the gangster with whom his father might have worked. He meets a man who may be Philippe de Bellune, sought because of “collaborationist activities during the Occupation” or who may be someone else entirely:

The fate of a man wanted for colluding with the enemy, who might or might not have survived the Dachau concentration camp, left me puzzled. What set of circumstances could have pulled him into such a conflictual situation? I thought of my father, who had weathered all the contradictions of the Occupation period, and who had told me practically nothing about it before we parted forever. And now here was Pacheco, whom I’d barely known, and who was also slipping away without providing an explanation.

In addition to the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick Modiano has won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca from the Institut de France for lifetime achievement, the Prix Goncourt, and the Grand Prix du roman de l’Academie francaise. His works have been translated into more than 30 languages. Among the Modiano novels now available in English are Dora Bruder, Missing Persons, Honeymoon, Ring Roads, and The Night Watch. In the Fall, Yale University Press will bring out Pedigree, a memoir of his first 21 years.

Mark Polizzotti has translated more than forty books from the French and is director of the publications program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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