The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
It’s the first line of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between. The narrator, now a melancholy, middle-aged man, remembers a hot summer spent at a friend’s home in Norfolk, in 1900, when he was 13 years old. Surrounded by adults busy with their own lives and tangled up in their own affairs, he’s drawn into a plot between a woman and her lover that leaves him bewildered and ultimately disillusioned with life: used and abused, damaged in some obscure way. In many ways the novels of Patrick Modiano are similar stories of young people who, now much older, try to make sense of a past that truly is foreign to them, populated by men and women who cling to the shadows, whose very words beg for translation and meaning, as though their deeds and their language were somehow a mask, behind which lies in its deep place the truth. Thus a Modiano novel is also a kind of detective story: the narrator searching for a face to go along with a name, a name to label a person in a photo, a home that might be reached by a phone number once jotted in a notebook. It’s as though his separate memories lack the connective tissue of what might be called one’s life story.
An author’s body of work is typically never consistent. There are the very good books, the perfectly adequate books, and then there are the out-and-out duds. Authors take risks and sometimes they don’t pay off. Authors get lazy, and the result is for all to see. But to find a writer whose nearly 30 titles are so consistent in quality, not to mention in tone, style, and subject matter, is a rarity. Apart from his first published novel, La Place de l’Étoile, set during the Nazi Occupation of Paris and narrated by a half-mad Jew named Schlemielovitch, the novels of Patrick Modiano have followed a certain quiet pattern: the protagonist is typically a man, often a writer, who, coming across a name or a photo, or even a telephone number (which feature prominently in his work, and often migrate intact from one book to another), begins to sense that this could be the key to a troubled, half-remembered past. What in that brief description might seem the recipe for dullness is in fact the foundation for a rich body of work.
There is a difference, however, in his 17th novel, La Petite bijou, translated by Penny Hueston as Little Jewel and published by Yale University Press in their Margellos World Republic of Letters series. The main character here isn’t a man but rather a 19-year-old girl, Thérèse, “Little Jewel,” as her mother called her, because “she had to have something else that she could show off like a piece of jewelry: that’s no doubt why she gave me my name.”
Thérèse works in a half-hearted way looking after the young daughter of a well-off couple virtually oblivious to the desires and concerns of their child. What the parents are involved in is never made clear; very possibly it’s something criminal. Like so many of Modiano’s protagonists, and just like the child she looks after, Thérèse is a young woman trapped in a world not only of adults and their coded language but of half-memories and broken relationships. As Denis Cosnard points out in his indispensable critical biography, Dans la peau de Patrick Modiano, Little Jewel is based on a true story drawn not, as in so many of Modiano’s books, from his own life, but rather from a history dating from the 1940s about an actress whose daughter was known as “Petite Bijou.” It was only after the novel was published that the daughter of the real Petite Bijou contacted him to tell him that her mother, Eliana Gardaire, then 65, was still alive, leading him to alter some of the names in the book to give them some distance from the author’s creations.
It’s a simple story, one that grows richer with each reading: Thérèse spots a woman in a yellow coat on a moving walkway in a métro station, and begins to suspect this may be the person known to her and others as “the Countess,” with whom she’d lost contact so many years earlier. “She was standing next to me. I saw her face. She was so like my mother that I thought it must be her.” All the daughter knows is that the Countess had died in Morocco many years earlier (as indeed Eliana Gardaire’s own mother met her death, in a car accident that may have been a suicide). Like many Modiano narrators, Thérèse begins to follow this woman, as though she were leading the woman who may be her daughter down a path into memory and answer.
As in so many of his novels, Modiano’s obsession with places, names, phone numbers, and those mysterious telephonic zones of intermediacy where people can dial a number and exchange information in a kind of background haze, frail voices trying to connect, reappear in the author’s 2012 novel, L’Herbe des nuits, translated by Mark Polizzotti as The Black Notebook and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The narrator, Jean, populates the streets of Paris with those who have walked it long before: the 19th-century writers Gérard de Nerval, Tristan Corbière, and Charles Baudelaire, whose mistress, Jeanne Duval, floats wraithlike through the pages, as though saying that the past never truly leaves its roots, that the ghosts of the people who once walked these streets linger on forever. Unlike in his other novels, the events here come much later than the dark years of the Occupation which have provided him with his richest harvest: the ’60s, with l’Affaire Ben Barka.
Mehdi Ben Barka was a Moroccan politician, leader of the left-wing National Union of Popular Forces, active in various anti-colonial movements, and considered dangerous both by France and the United States. After being exiled, he settled in Paris, vanishing in 1965. It was said that he had been kidnapped by, variously, French officers, the CIA or by a Moroccan government minister, interrogated, tortured, his body dissolved in a vat of acid. His remains have never been found.
Modiano doesn’t concentrate on Ben Barka’s disappearance or the rumors that swirled around afterwards as to what, exactly, had happened to him and who had been responsible for his fate. Rather, he deals with the months prior to it, when the character called Aghamouri and various hangers-on, including Dannie, the young woman who draws Jean into this universe, are holed up in a third-rate Montparnasse hotel. Jean is there, and he is not there, already separating himself from this enigmatic group of people. As they sit in the lobby he stops to look at them through the plate-glass window and thinks: “Perhaps the glass was opaque from inside, like a one-way mirror. Or else, very simply, dozens and dozens of years stood between us: they remained frozen in the past, in the middle of that hotel lobby, and we no longer lived, they and I, in the same space of time.”
In an interview that appeared around the time of the book’s publication in France, Modiano states,
Paris in the sixties was very menacing, a dark and troubled time, coming so soon after the war in Algeria. I was on my own, I was a minor, I wasn’t studying. Paris at that time frightened me. You’d meet people older than oneself who would draw you into their world. But I liked mixing with all kinds of people, observing them as through the glass of an aquarium. I felt even then that one day I would put them in my books.
As he writes in The Black Notebook, “…it’s only much later that you can finally understand what you lived through and who those people really were, on condition that someone finally gives you the key to decipher a coded language.” And, like his creator, Jean is a dedicated note-taker, a man who writes down names, addresses, phone numbers, names of streets, as though to prove they truly existed, that they hadn’t simply dissolved into the air, like a dream or the trace of a memory. From reading his memoir, Pedigree, we learn that Modiano, as a young man, watched his world fall away from him. Too preoccupied with her own life as an actress, his mother barely tolerated him (unless she needed money, at which point she would drag him off to the pawn shop to hock his latest literary prize, in one case an expensive fountain pen; she grabbed the money and walked out the door), while his father, a complicated man who, during the Occupation, rode the gray line between collaboration and the black market, basically shunned his eldest son, once even summoning the police to arrest Patrick when the young man came knocking on his apartment door. Taking notes, defining a solid, albeit changing Paris was (and undoubtedly still is) Modiano’s way of situating his place in the world, of finding something dependable and concrete that is there today and would be there tomorrow. Or else it would simply vanish, as did the original of the hotel that lies at the geographical heart of The Black Notebook.
Life is a routine, one day after another, while the big events take place as though in another galaxy, and yet briefly, intimately, they sometimes touch us, gently nudging us like one billiard ball tapping another before rolling away and vanishing into a distant pocket. This is the universe of Patrick Modiano, as each of his novels explores this subtle zone where history collides, even momentarily, with our own reality. It was quite simple,” Thérèse states in Little Jewel,
“that evening, there is a girl with brown hair, scarcely nineteen, sitting on the banquette of a café in Place Blanche. You are five foot three inches tall, and you are wearing an off-white woollen cable-knit jumper. You’re going to stay there a bit longer, and then that will be the end of it. You are there because you wanted to go back to the past one last time to try to understand. Right there, under the electric light, in Place Blanche, is where everything began. For the last time, you went back to your home country, to the beginning, to find out if there was a different path to take and if things could have turned out differently.
What’s vivid doesn’t always lead us to the truth; it’s what lies in between that may show us the way.