Another Shade of Darkness: The Life and Work of Beryl Bainbridge

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We have a framed photographic print on our wall, bought some 25 years ago in London, of three people at a table littered with luncheon dishes in the middle of a tree-lined allée. The man on the right, tilted comfortably back in his chair, wears a dashing hat and puffs on a cigarette. The woman opposite him wears an equally-stylish hat. Her right arm is delicately perched on the table. She’s seems in the midst of telling a story. A third man sits at the foot of the table. Everything points to a meal enjoyed on a distant summer afternoon in Provence. It’s called “Memories of Avignon,” and it was taken by the Irish photographer E. Chambré Hardman. The people in the photo are, to the right, Harold Hinchcliffe Davies, a Liverpool-based architect; his wife, Norma Davies; and, odd man out in the wide-brimmed hat, Fred Jenkins, identified by Brendan King, in his new biography of British writer Beryl Bainbridge, also as an architect. It was only in reading the biography that I discovered that Harold and Nora Davies were the parents of Beryl Bainbridge’s first husband and the father of her first two children, Jojo and Aaron. Having known Bainbridge’s books for so many years, and then having come to know the author personally in the late 1970s, I felt like I’d come full circle. All along Austin Davies’s parents have been hanging on one wall or another over a succession of apartments and houses.

Still little known in America, Beryl Bainbridge was, at the time of her death in 2010, a Dame (yes, like Judi Dench and Helen Mirren) and, as sometimes happens in Britain, deemed a National Treasure (like Alan Bennett). Her works are witty, dark, disturbingly funny, and utterly memorable. I’d discovered her in 1973 when I picked up a copy of The Bottle Factory Outing in a London bookshop and saw the accolades on the back, especially the rave from Graham Greene. I read it twice and then began to order her books as they were published by Duckworth & Co., a small London publisher with offices in The Old Piano Factory, a quick walk from Bainbridge’s house. I’d never read novels like hers before. Sharp and acerbic like Muriel Spark, she brought a different kind of originality to her fiction: something true and dark, full of accident and humor. You reread her and try to figure out how she does it, and you end up like one of her characters: lost in a plot not of your own devising.

The books were short — somewhere around 135 pages — and all of the jackets had been designed by Bainbridge, from the photo of the two girls on the cover of Harriet Said, her breakout novel (actually a photo taken of Bainbridge and her brother when they were much younger; Bainbridge had inked in pigtails on her sibling), based on New Zealand’s Parker–Hulme murder case, in which two teenage girls killed the mother of the older girl; to The Bottle Factory Outing, featuring Bainbridge, a friend, and her publisher, Colin Haycraft; to the book she had just published when I met her, Injury Time, featuring a photo of her house, the door wide open, and what appears to be a very drunk or very menacing Haycraft about to stagger into it.

Once I’d read The Bottle Factory Outing, we began a trans-Atlantic correspondence that lasted the better part of a year. Alas, the letters, aerograms from each side, have been lost. I brought them to London with me when we moved there and had set up an interview with her for The New York Times Book Review, which was afterwards spiked. Yes, I should have had it in writing and at least received a kill fee. Lesson learned.

I rented a small tape recorder and took the Tube up to her place on Albert Street. She greeted me at the door and introduced me to a little redheaded 12-year-old girl, Rudi, whom she described as “my Sweet William baby,” familiar to those who’ve read the book or seen the film adaptation. Rudi’s father was the novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp, whom she never married, best known for his script for the movie Night Moves. Rudi was complaining about her breakfast, and Bainbridge suggested, in the time-honored British way, to “put some sauce on it, love, all right?” Rudi became Ruth Davies, the actress, now retired.

As we headed up the stairs, Bainbridge stopped me and pointed to a small hole on the ceiling. “That’s where my mother-in-law tried to shoot me.” According to Brendan King’s biography, she told everyone that. She told everyone, journalists especially, pretty much the same things every time. That morning I was just the latest to hear them.

My tapes of our conversation, which lasted the better part of three hours as we sat across from one another in her cluttered study, its walls covered with framed antique photos and paintings (Bainbridge was also a talented artist whose paintings were exhibited at London’s Somerset House in 2014), are also gone. (Long story short: we stored a whole box of belongings with friends when, after five years, we moved back to the States, and both belongings and friends have fallen by the wayside.) But I remember a good deal of it, even after all these years. She set an ashtray down between us. I was smoking Silk Cuts #4, while she was smoking another of their line, “Mine’s got something like cabbage leaves instead of tobacco. You see, I’m trying to give it up. May I have one of yours, then?” Over a pot of tea, we together polished off my entire pack over the course of the morning. Bainbridge, as her biographer points out quite often, could resist neither cigarette nor drink. Towards the end of her life, by then a famous writer, Bainbridge got so drunk that she once fell asleep on the curb not far from her home. When she went to the Booker Awards dinner whenever a title of hers was shortlisted she’d be in a state of near collapse, as though she knew she’d be bested by a fellow writer, and needed to be sozzled enough to let it roll off her back.

Her most famous line to journalists was that all of her work was based on her own experiences. She found it impossible, she said, to make things up. I asked if that included all of the rather grotesque deaths in her novels, and she admitted that, yes, that part was fictional, but that, as writers, weren’t we all rather obsessed with death? “Whenever I finish a new novel I go out and buy a book on Victorian murder. Victorian death. Can’t get enough of it. Anyway, isn’t death the great mystery? What else is there for us to write about?”

She had no airs about her; she enjoyed nothing more than having a drink or three at her local pub with a friend, or bumming smokes from a young interviewer while explaining how she was trying to quit by puffing on her foul cabbage-leaf cigarettes (I tried one, and never repeated it). For her, being a writer was simply about the end product, not the person behind it. The cult of personality, so much a part of American literary culture, didn’t exist then in Britain. You could open a telephone directory, she told me, and find not only her name, but the names of all the top writers and actors. “Ralph Richardson, he’s in it.”

She had what sounded like a wonderful relationship with her publisher: she’d deliver her manuscript by May, work with her editor for several weeks at their office (where she was allotted a typewriter and desk), then see the novel launched in September. As she said to me, “Kingsley Amis and Margaret Drabble have to wait something like 18 months to see their books in the shops. Mine are published four months later.” There was a catch, as King points out. Bainbridge’s books were selling in increasing numbers, but the royalties weren’t flowing in a commensurate fashion. Duckworth & Co. was essentially funneling much of her royalties back into the company. She was losing in a big way, and it was one reason, after the company chairman Colin Haycraft died, that she moved to a new publisher. It was then she began writing her excellent historical novels, The Birthday Boys (about the ill-fated Robert Falcon Scott expedition to the South Pole), Every Man for Himself (the sinking of the Titanic), Master Georgie (set during the Crimean War, and easily the finest of her later works), According to Queeney (Samuel Johnson and his coterie), and the unfinished The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, based, as Brendan King points out, on diaries Bainbridge had kept during an earlier trip to America, all leading up to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Brendan King’s biography deals less with her work than with her loves, and there were many of them: appropriate men, inappropriate men, married men, the singularly unmarried. Yet she was never completely satisfied. Relationships fizzled to nothing, or the men returned to their wives, or she was nudged into despair by their abandoning her. But Beryl Bainbridge will always be remembered for her books, which truly stand alone in 20th-century English fiction. Hers was a talent that no one ever quite equaled, and those of us who have in one way or another been influenced by her return to her novels often. Each time we see something different: another shade of darkness, another perfectly-timed line of dialogue. There is a case to be made that she was one of the great modern writers, one of the truly original voices of English prose. Shortlisted — and many believe robbed — five times for the prestigious Booker Prize (various of her books had won other prizes), her brilliant Master Georgie was awarded a special Booker prize, The Man Booker Best of Beryl award. The fact that it took her dying to earn this is something very much in keeping with Bainbridge’s sense of irony. She would’ve loved it.

Past Imperfect: On Patrick Modiano’s ‘Little Jewel’ and ‘The Black Notebook’


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.

Literary Touchstones: On the Life and Death of Marcel Proust

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I knew an MFA candidate in grad school who had already written a novel and even had an agent, and who, whenever Ernest Hemingway was mentioned, would instantly come down with a migraine so severe that he had to retire to bed with a cold compress on his forehead for eight hours. It was as though Hemingway were a kind of god whose very name could smite his acolytes. My friend, needless to say, never published and did not become a writer. The weight of his hero was just too much for him.

Writers have their touchstone authors. Marcel Proust is mine, and has been for almost 30 years. I learned French primarily because I wanted to read Proust in the original. I’d made my way through the Scott Moncrieff translation over a period of eight or nine months while living in the usual reduced circumstances of an aspiring writer in Cambridge, England. He was deep-sea diving into themes that I’d begun to introduce into my own work: time, memory, the past. In French his prose is sinewy and supple, much stronger and bolder than he comes off in the Scott Moncrieff translation. But it was how Proust dealt with character that most fascinated me.

By my count, I own some six biographies of Marcel Proust, not including biographical material contained in other volumes, such as his devoted housekeeper and amanuensis Céleste Albaret’s valuable Monsieur Proust, as well as those books dedicated to one aspect or another of his life. For years the most authoritative biography in English was that of George D. Painter, who wrote under the assumption that In Search of Lost Time was a way into the life of its author; an approach Proust utterly disdained. As Proust wrote in what is considered an early version of the Search: “A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices.” Thus, many assumed that this asthmatic hypochondriac with his fur-lined coat, pale complexion, and drooping mustache could never possibly create anything more substantial than a flowery thank-you note to his hostess. Instead he produced one of the great works of literature.

Also one of the least-completed. Most readers who take the plunge get through Swann’s Way and give up. Yet once you forge ahead in the seven-volume work you see the pace increase, the humor deepen, the obsessions grow even more obsessive. This isn’t a rambling, stream-of-consciousness book of memories lost and found; it’s a novel with a subtle and solid architecture, where in its last volume, Time Regained, the shape of the work comes finally into focus. The man who tells this story, the “I” of the book, known as the Narrator, isn’t the author, per se, though once or twice they share a first name. And the book you’ve just finished reading isn’t quite the book the Narrator now sets out to write: it’s as though the author and his novel were a kind of optical illusion: where is the reality, where is the fiction? And what is this we’ve just read? A book about a man who wants to write a book about what we’ve just read?

The arc of the novel is the Narrator’s search for understanding the nature of time and the meaning of the past, in the end learning that, though the body ages and the mind weakens, the past never dies, it’s as vivid as when it was first experienced: always retrievable, always alive within us. The Narrator is something of an undercover agent. He’s an outsider who yearns to be accepted by the higher circles of le tout Paris, in particular the salons of the Duchess de Guermantes and that of her cousin, the Princesse de Guermantes. Proust himself, never one to shun the salons of le beau monde, had the perfect disguise: mix with high society and French nobility, look and listen and be tolerated, while few would suspect this social butterfly would ever make anything of himself. And yet the entire time he was observing, taking in not just how people spoke but how they looked, how they gestured, how they presented themselves both when in public and in their unguarded moments (something that Pablo Picasso recognized when he and Proust were at the same gathering towards the end of the author’s life: “Look, he’s keeping his eyes out for models,” as Jean Hugo quoted him as saying, though Benjamin Taylor rightly points out that all the models had already been found; some of them in that very room).

There’s a key scene in the novel when the Narrator, still a young man, happens to witness an exchange between the Baron de Charlus and Jupien, a tailor, soon to be Charlus’s secretary and afterwards the owner of a brothel, which the Narrator sees as something like an insect being drawn to pollen. He observes the baron’s little dance of seduction, how he now approaches, now retreats, until the two men have vanished inside Jupien’s waistcoat shop. Now the Narrator knows something that no one would suspect him of knowing. I spy with my very own eye, Proust seems to be saying, and I know everything. In many ways the central character of this long novel, Charlus, so robust and masculine at the start, then becoming an old man, retains something of the decrepit dignity of King Lear. As a creator of character, Proust is something of a Cubist: his people are never seen in only one dimension; they’re constantly changeable, and changing, and all of those faces exist on the same plane.

In Search of Lost Time is, I’ve always felt, aside from being a kind of detective story, something of a spy novel, which may stem from the fact that its author was both Jewish and gay, firmly placed as outside the perceived mainstream. The fact that gay men were ostracized (though in some quarters quietly tolerated) needs no elaboration here. And with the Dreyfus Affair being the story of the day when Proust was a young man — a story that didn’t quite go away for some 12 years — the population was divided, with anti-Dreyfusism becoming to a degree synonymous with anti-Semitism. Proust campaigned on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus. “Was this because he felt Jewish?” his latest biographer, Benjamin Taylor, asks. “Certainly not. Proust saw himself as what he was: the non-Jewish son of a Jewish mother. The Dreyfus Affair was for him, first and last, a clear-cut miscarriage of justice that demanded reversal. In this he was like most of the Jews, half-Jews, and baptized Jews who rallied to the cause in 1897 and 1898; they did so not because Dreyfus was Jewish but because he was innocent.”

The definitive biography in English is by William C. Carter, and in French we have the exhaustive, encyclopedic and equally valuable doorstopper by Jean-Yves Tadié, which has been translated into English. Just released from Yale University Press is Benjamin Taylor’s slim but rich volume, Proust: The Search. By now we know pretty much everything there is to learn about Proust, though the diaries of Reynaldo Hahn, considered by scholars to be, as Taylor calls it, “the holy grail of Proust biographers,” are under embargo until 2036, and will undoubtedly shed a great deal of light on this important relationship. So what does Taylor have to offer that’s new?

One might think that, as Taylor’s biography is part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, the author would be focusing on Proust’s life as a Jew. Though Proust’s Jewish mother, Jeanne Weil, never converted, his father, Adrien Proust, wished to have his children baptized into the Catholic church. Taylor, I think wisely, doesn’t make much of this, and turns his attention to the life of a writer, not just a Jewish writer, giving us a slender but rich work of biography that is stylishly written and covers all the bases of Proust’s life and career. Because so many of the highlights and details are well known to those who’ve read the earlier biographies, he succeeds not so much by narrowing the focus but by shedding light on the salient points of the author’s life and by reminding us why Proust is such a touchstone for so many.

However one reads the Search, when you come out at the other end of the experience you have become a different person; not just because something like eight months or a year has passed and you also have changed over that time, perhaps falling in love, or out of love, or becoming a parent, or finding yourself uprooted, but because you now see the world through the eyes of this author, just as, Proust writes in his novel, once Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings were seen, people would say of a woman passing by, “That’s a Renoir woman.” “To succeed thus in gaining recognition,” Proust writes elsewhere in the novel, “the original painter, the original writer proceeds on the lines adopted by oculists. The course of treatment they give us by their painting or by their prose is not always agreeable to us. When it is at an end the operator says to us: ‘Now look!’ And, lo and behold, the world around us (which was not created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an original artist is born) appears to us entirely different from the old world, but perfectly clear.” And that is what Proust does to you: you begin to define the world around you through the eyes of this artist.

There’s an eerie moment in the fourth volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Sodom and Gomorrah that stopped me dead the first time I came across it. In a meditation on sleeping and waking and memory, the author writes: “…I, the strange human being who, while he waits for death to release him, lives behind closed shutters, knows nothing of the world, sits motionless as an owl, and like that bird can only see things at all clearly in the darkness.” I had the strange sensation that the author, by then dead more than 50 years, was somehow still very much with us as he describes his exact circumstance, both as the voice of the book’s Narrator and as the person writing this book, as though he knew that one day someone would come across this line and sense the living author behind it. For that moment he knows you’re there; in those few words he is still alive. As he wrote upon hearing of the writer John Ruskin’s death to his friend Marie Nordlinger, “I am shown how paltry a thing death is when I see how vigorously this dead man lives.” Thus it is with Proust, and all our touchstones.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mutt: On Patrick Modiano

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I remember when I began to hate Patrick Modiano. It was in November, 1978. Lingering at the newsstand next to the old Arts Cinema in Cambridge, England, waiting to catch a matinée and leafing through the latest copy of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, I came across a photo that soured my entire day.

I’d begun to teach myself French some six months earlier, having had a useless three years of it in high school, and another wasted two semesters in college. I’d learned nothing. Rien. So looking through French news magazines was a bit of an ego boost. The articles and captions were as simple to follow as Monsieur le Président Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s very slow and deliberate delivery before he faded into obscurity.

There Modiano is, smiling at me, gloating over his newly-crowned Prix Goncourt novel Rue des Boutiques Obscures (Missing Person), seeming to say, “Mon ami, you are a loser,” while a bank of excited press photographers crouches to capture his image. He had good hair, he was young, I had good hair, I was young, but my career as a published author was still a few very long years away. I had travelled 3,000 miles to make a career for myself, and here I was, looking at the face of success. And so, privately, without any basis in reality, without having read a single word by him, I turned my wrath upon Patrick Modiano. What is it Gore Vidal used to say? Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies. I’d reached the stage in which total strangers were flaying me alive.

The damage wasn’t permanent. Having lingered far too long over Voltaire and Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet’s incredibly tedious Tartarin de Tarascon, I needed something contemporary to challenge me. At the time I’d been doing a good deal of research into the German Occupation of Paris for a novel that in fact became my first to see the light of publication, and Modiano’s work, being set during that period, was suddenly back on my radar screen. I picked up a copy of his first novel, La Place de l’Étoile, set during the Occupation of Paris and published when this wunderkind was barely into his 20s. It has just been issued in English in what the publisher calls The Occupation Trilogy: three titles, three different translators, each set during the time of the German Occupation: the ground zero of Modiano’s body of work, the foundation for everything that will come after, though after these three titles the Occupation will stand always at an angle to his novels, a shadow cast over the succeeding volumes of what is, even by his own estimation, really a single, long work. When he faces the Occupation head-on once again, it’s with Dora Bruder, his masterful nonfiction (and to some extent autobiographical) story of a missing Jewish girl and the author’s attempts to understand her fate and give her a second life.

Unlike Marcel Proust’s great novel, and unlike the romans fleuves of the last century, such as Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Modiano’s work, including his most recent novel, Pour Que Tu Ne Te Perdes Pas Dans Le Quartier (So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood), released in France just before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, is more a series of incremental epiphanies on the past, on lost opportunities, on lost people, on the small gaps in memory that leave his narrators and protagonists in a world from which they are one step removed. The language in the later books is uncomplicated, and what the author leaves out is as important as what he puts on the page.

What readers find most audacious about La Place de l’Étoile is how intimate the writing is. To deal with a period in which one never lived, to make a leap of imagination and bring the voice of the past vividly and credibly to life, is very much a part of what being a novelist is. But the difference between the historical novelist — who, in adding facts and details and color in hoping to contextualize the fiction, inevitably distances the readers — and what Modiano does in this trilogy is to lend an immediacy and an intimacy to the muddy tide of those years, catching the language, the flow, the Zeitgeist of the period without once having to step back to situate us in the narrative. Since La Place de l’Étoile I haven’t stopped following Modiano, reading each new volume as it’s released, and celebrating his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. My apologies, monsieur. My rancor was entirely misplaced.

The title, La Place de l’Étoile, the epigraph informs us, comes from a Jewish story:
In June 1942, a German officer approaches a young man and says, “Excuse me, monsieur, where is the Place de l’Étoile?” The young man gestures to the left side of his chest.
The Place de l’Étoile is both a famous square in central Paris and the place on the body where Jews under the German Occupation were required to wear the Yellow Star, the word juif sewn inside it, over their heart. Modiano had begun writing this in the summer of 1966, when he was 21, and the manuscript was handed to the redoubtable French publisher Gallimard by the great Raymond Queneau, who had been a friend of both the young author and his mother, the Belgian-born actress Louisa Colpeyn. (All autobiographical details are drawn from Denis Cosnard’s indispensable Dans la Peau de Patrick Modiano, published by Fayard in 2010 and not yet available in English translation.)

It was eventually published in 1968, when Modiano was 23 (though everyone believed he was only 21; for several years, out of homage to his late brother Rudy, he had claimed his year of birth as 1947) and it made of him an instant literary phenomenon. As with his second novel, Night Watch, the main character exists in the slippery surreal space of Occupied Paris, where identities shift with one’s loyalties, often vanishing behind several aliases. Modiano makes vividly clear what the German Occupation meant to the French: it was never an unambiguous us-versus-them situation; some openly collaborated with the Nazis, others courageously resisted. And then there was that cloudy intermediate no man’s land occupied by those who played both sides: serving their French masters one day, placating their German ones the next, and that’s where Modiano’s novel is situated. It’s an audacious, ambitious, risky work, especially for a young, first-time novelist, for he was writing in the voice of a Jew who is working with the French Gestapo. This is an author who launched a career by decidedly not playing safe.

Modiano did not come unprepared when he set out to write that first novel. It was in his genes from the start. As he relates in his sort-of-life (to borrow Graham Greene’s title), Pedigree, translated by Mark Polizzotti and just out from Yale University Press, his father, of Italian-Jewish parentage, had been enmeshed in the two worlds that Paris became after 1940, and because, like a virus, the Occupation and its hazy aftereffects had remained long after the last German had left the city, the young Patrick had been drawn into a life filled with colorfully disreputable characters who lingered on into postwar France: real people who drift in and out of his novels (from Night Watch: “I have invented nothing. All the people I have mentioned really existed”): phantoms from a lost world, the displaced many who had done their worst during the war only to find themselves surviving in a self-imposed purgatory, swinging between doomed love affairs, petty crime, the company of faded movie stars, smarmy bands of South-of-France gigolos, and the melancholic regret of Russian émigrés; the comforting oases of rose-tinted, cognac-softened memory. Like them, Modiano’s father had played both sides: dealing with the gangsters of the French Gestapo, endlessly cutting deals on the black market, and refusing to wear the yellow star required by German law. Albert Modiano was neither here nor there, neither one thing or another, a creature of the night forever on the make, a man of such intense self-regard that he could simply cast away his children like so many business deals gone sour.

Albert, aka Aldo, Modiano

As he describes it in Pedigree, Modiano was essentially abandoned by both his parents, “like a mutt with no pedigree,” as he puts it: his mother was consumed with her life as an actress and treated her eldest child like an accessory, a thing that could be left wherever to be looked after by others, and his father showed him more or less open disdain. It was what bonded him to his brother Rudy, who died at 10 of leukemia, and of whose death he heard as a kind of casual aside: “On the road to Paris, my Uncle Ralph, who was driving, pulled over and stepped out of the car, leaving me alone with my father. In the car, my father told me my brother had died. I had spent the afternoon with him the previous Sunday in our room on Quai de Conti. We had worked on our stamp collection.” As he also writes in Pedigree, “Apart from my brother, Rudy, his death, I don’t believe that anything I’ll relate here truly matters to me.”

La Place de l’Étoile (translated by Frank Wynne) is as much a novel about language as it is about the narrator, a kind of EveryJew named Raphaël Schlemielovitch, “the Indispensable Jew,” “the official Jew of the Third Reich,” as he calls himself, who is identified with all the famous Jewish authors who preceded him, most notably the half-Jewish Marcel Proust. It’s a Céline-esque spew of a narrative, full of pastiche and alive with the bile and dark wit of a man who has sold his soul to the worst of his generation. It’s a journey to the end of a nightmare set in a time when trust becomes an item to be retailed, along with names and reputations, to the highest bidder, almost always someone with solid friends in the Occupationist hierarchy. It’s a world in which once-loyal French men and women are sucked into the gravitational pull of the collaborationist universe, like the young Lucien in Louis Malle’s film Lacombe, Lucien, with a script by Modiano, where the temptations of power and the ratatat of automatic weaponry are eerily close to what is happening today with young Westerners being drawn to the barbarism of ISIS.

This dreamlike narrative allows notorious anti-Semitic writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline to be identified as Jews, where Sigmund Freud gets to quote Jean-Paul Sartre, and Franz Kafka is the elder brother of Charlie Chaplin. At one point the narrator relates a little side story that is also firmly based in family lore:

His own father had also encountered Gérard the Gestapo. He had mentioned him during their time in Bordeaux. On 16 July 1942 Gérard had bundled Schlemilovitch père into a black truck: ‘What do you say to an identity check at the rue Lauriston and a little spell in Drancy?’ Schlemilovitch fils no longer remembered by what miracle Schlemilovitch père escaped the clutches of this good man.

In Pedigree the author writes of his father telling him about his arrests during the Occupation, and his sheer good fortune in escaping deportation to Auschwitz:

And he told me of a second arrest, in the winter of 1943, after “someone” had denounced him. He had been brought to the Depot, from where “someone” had freed him…He said only that the Black Marias had made the rounds of the police stations before reaching the lockup. At one of the stops, a young girl had got on and sat across from him. Much later, I tried, in vain, to pick up her trace, not knowing whether it was in the evening of 1942 or in 1943.

The “young girl” in question was Dora Bruder, the subject of one his most celebrated works. Albert Modiano managed to escape; her future was, of course, much more horrible.

La Place de l’Étoile is a journey into the mind of a man firmly screwed into the darkest period of 20th-century French history as told by the Marx Brothers. But it’s also a way for the author to attempt to come to grips with what his father did during those very dark times. Without some knowledge of the leading lights of collaborationist Paris some references will seem obscure, and the footnotes are either unhelpfully sketchy or simply wrong: the banker and embezzler Alexandre Stavisky, appears here as “Stavinsky.”

These three novels gathered into a single volume constitute the primal stew of all of Modiano’s books. Shifting loyalties, hidden identities, and missing people regularly appear in a body of work that is so remarkably consistent that, taken as a whole, they seem to be one long novel.

The narrator in Ring Roads, the third of this so-called trilogy — published in Caroline Hillier’s translation, but newly “revised” by Wynne — a hack writer named Serge Alexandre, is caught up in what he calls a “hopeless enterprise” in trying to track down his father. In doing so he has to descend into the dregs of society: “Pornographer, gigolo, confidant to an alcoholic and to a blackmailer…Would I have to sink even lower to drag you out of your cesspit?”

This novel sets the central theme of all of Modiano’s work: the search. In Ring Roads it’s for his father; for the amnesiac protagonist of the Goncourt-prize winning Rue des Boutiques Obscure (available in translation as Missing Person) it’s for himself; and this search, so different from that of Proust’s great novel, establishes the groundwork for all of the work that follows, though stylistically we won’t see another like La Place de l’Étoile again. After this, and the second title in the volume, Night Watch, to a degree an early version of his screenplay Lacombe, Lucien, his work grows increasingly more spare, achieving what the French call Modiano’s petite musique, this allusive, elusive approach to writing that has not only marked his novels, but also his speech. Watching filmed interviews with him (most notably with Bernard Pivot, host of Apostrophes), one hears him respond with maybe a few words, frequent ellipses, and sentences that simply trail off without conclusion. The unsayable is as powerful as the words surrounding it.

Though after Ring Roads the Occupation remains in the background, what follows are works of short fiction that examine not just the themes of loyalty and deception, but also the temperament of a series of young narrators who could be thought of as Modiano himself. Taken as a whole, and as a work-in-progress, his body of work is about perception, deception, disappointment, and discovery, borrowing from the conventions of the detective genre.

For those coming anew to Modiano, reading Pedigree first might be a wise choice. His life, such as he tells it here, is as extraordinary and as bizarre as the situations of his fiction. The fact that Pedigree was published 37 years after the publication of La Place de l’Étoile says much about Modiano’s famous reticence about his family and background, on which, until then, he had been notably elliptical. His childhood had been a remarkable one, and by today’s standards it would have been considered borderline abusive. The lack of parental involvement and even interest in Patrick’s well-being is astonishing, and his bitterness is understandable. But it also goes a long way to show what made him a writer.

As the writer Jenny Diski wrote in a recent essay for the London Review of Books, a memoir is “a form that in my mind plays hide and seek with the truth.” Such is the universe of Patrick Modiano.

The Edge of Life: Dying by René Belletto

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I first discovered René Belletto’s novels when some years ago I fell upon a review in the Times Literary Supplement of his book Le Revenant, which seemed to be a combination of literary fiction and what the French call the roman noir, a kind of thriller sometimes involving cops, villains, and those dubious inhabitants of Soulless-on-the-Seine, though in his case we were firmly entrenched between the Rhône and Saône, in the heart of Lyon.

I ordered a Livre de Poche edition, and came to identify the tough guy in the fedora on the cover as the author himself. Though he often shares traits with them—a love and knowledge of music, expertise in teaching and playing the Spanish guitar, a fascination with fast cars and the best stereo equipment money can buy—Belletto only occasionally looks like the heroes of his novels. Of all the writers he’s sometimes (and sometimes capriciously) grouped with, whether the more modern stars of the roman noir such as Jean-Patrick Manchette or Thierry Jonquet, or those, like Jean Echenoz, who borrow from the genre but belong to a more nebulous group, René Belletto is the one most likely to surprise and entertain us.

His earliest publications were on the experimental side: Beckett seems to be the governing shade there, with a touch of Maurice Blanchot and a sprinkling of Mickey Spillane. And then came his breakthrough, Le Revenant (The Ghost), which on the surface seems to be a straightforward thriller told in the first person, but becomes a highly personal and compellingly readable narrative of loss and redemption set within certain recognizable tropes of American B-movies. It’s also the story of a man attempting to escape fate: the fate of family, the fate of vengeance, the inescapability of his own actions in a world full of traps and false smiles. This was followed by the second part of  the Lyon trilogy, Sur la Terre comme au ciel (On Earth as it is in Heaven), and finally L’Enfer (Hell, or, as it was published in translation here several years ago, Eclipse). These days, Belletto sets his fictions in the narrow streets of Montmartre, where he now lives. His newest work, Hors la loi (Outlaw),  is a complex and riveting novel of reincarnation that, as with some of his more recent works, goes beyond the limits of reality into unexpected realms of other genres as, by using the musical concepts of theme-and-variation, prelude and fugue, and stepping into the regions of science fiction, it explores the inescapability of fate, the pleasures and traps of desire, the loss of identity through passion for another. Yet Belletto’s novels really don’t adhere to the standard plot devices of polars or romans noir; his concern is with character caught through wayward fate in a plot not of his own design, drawn into a world that on the surface seems familiar but bristles with unreality and danger.

Mourir, first published in France in 2002 and now expertly translated by Alexander Hertich as Dying, has just appeared in a handsome paperback original published by the Dalkey Archive Press. It’s a work of unusual though never-confusing complexity, a novel of reflections and correspondences that contains all of the author’s strengths: Belletto, who has a brilliant grasp of pacing and possesses a connoisseur’s knowledge of film, is a natural storyteller with a strong, sure voice, and his books prove difficult to put down.

Although the original French edition of Dying contains a section of reproductions and photos (discussed in the translator’s introduction, but sadly left out of the Dalkey Archive edition, as they playfully comment on and supplement the story surrounding them), the governing image is Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez.

What at first seems to be a portrait of the artist painting the Infanta Margarita with her attendants becomes, the more we look at it, a study in realities. The painter himself looks away from his canvas to glance up at us. Or is it us? Reflected in a mirror behind the Infanta are the girl’s parents, Philip IV and Queen Mariana, placed nearly where we, the viewers, would be. Which suggests that the painter is in the process of painting a royal portrait. Yet this is called Las Meninas, “The Girls,” which from his vantage point is not what he’s painting at all. Isn’t this instead a painting of an artist painting another painting altogether, one that we may never see? And where is Velázquez in all of this? Has he basically vanished into the work itself? The reflexiveness of this complex work is echoed—indeed mirrored—in Dying, where a character is even known as Reine, Queen, or, as Hertich renders it, Queene. In this novel we are, in fact, in a world of mirrors, not as mere literary trickery, but as a skillful, serious and indeed brilliant play on levels of reality in a story that, at heart, is about conquering death. And yet this is also a book filled with Belletto’s characteristic humor and melancholy, to which Alexander Hertich is especially sensitive.

As Dying opens, the voice we meet, or rather the voice that creeps up on us, is a familiar one: it could be the narrator of any of the titles in Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, croaks and wheezes of men in extremis, or at least at their worst, a man so solitary that the presence of another—whether character or reader—unleashes a torrent of words, an obsessive and mad swirl of internal logic. For the narrator is a resident of the Rats and Vermin Hotel, and he may well be in that shimmering transitive state between life and death. But wait… Because on page thirty, just as we’re becoming lulled into thinking this might be another Beckettian exploration of the human condition, we’re in a kidnapping story—one we’ve seen before in a Belletto novel and that we’ll see again in subsequent works. It’s then that the narrator known as Sixtus claims to be the husband of the kidnapped woman; at that moment he has stepped into the plot and left his miserable life behind him.

Armed with the ransom, showing up at the specified time, Sixtus discovers that the kidnapped woman he has just met is an imposter. Not the Armelle of the ransom note, but Queene, with whom he’s immediately smitten as they drive to Madrid and a room at—where else?—La Casa Margarita. We are inside the world of Las Meninas, where reality can either be tangible, something glimpsed in a reflecting glass, or a tale that we tell ourselves to make sense of another’s universe.

And then, suddenly, part one—“An Old Testament”—ends and “A New Testament” commences, with a new narrator and a new voice, more human, more direct, more trustworthy, more modern and, dare I say, more Belletoesque. We’ve walked through the mirror, and we’re in another world. Or is it? “I know today…our story was nothing other than the world without us,” the narrator of this new section writes, and the line is like the center of gravity for this work: a tale told by a man present at his own absence. “We toil relentlessly to hide beneath artifice that which is naturally out of reach,” he continues, as though to inform us that the man behind this voice, René Belletto, is giving us a kind of self-portrait, though one so deeply coded that whenever we seem to catch a glimpse of the author (his passion for the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria is known to me, but I’d be hard pressed to say that the character he writes about is Belletto himself), he slips out of view.

Even whole passages in Dying are lifted from his earlier novel L’Enfer, as though Belletto were looking at his life and works through the lens of a kaleidoscope, capturing the shifting and changing details as they create new visions, new worlds, and the endlessly-repeated reflections that constantly alter our view of the author’s reality.

For Belletto is first and foremost a storyteller, a devotee of the films of, among others, the director Richard Fleischer, and the novels of Dickens (he’s also the author of a fascinating 700-page work devoted strictly to Great Expectations), and so his venture into a world as complex and as full of reflection and echo as Dying never once grows heavy with theory, or with the machinations of consciousness. To Belletto this all comes naturally. The ease with which he shifts between genres—whether they be straightforward thriller, detective story, spy tale, or the blisters and flames of a thwarted romance—is breathtaking and highly entertaining. One reads Belletto’s books both for the humor and the intricacies of plotting. Which isn’t to say that character doesn’t count, for all of his works depend on richly-drawn protagonists, many of them variations on a single theme: the man we first met in Le Revenant, a man with an honest soul and only the best of intentions for whom we feel only the warmest affinity.

But Dying isn’t just a literary trick that slips like mercury between genres. There’s a haze of anguish that lies over the tale, indicating that the author has brought his most personal side to the page. Loss, mourning, regret—all of these come into serious play in this most playful of books.

Reading in Tongues

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When many years ago I first read Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu in the Scott-Moncrieff translation published in seven very elegant paperback volumes by the London house of Chatto & Windus—an effort that took just about six months—I was so affected by this work that I was determined to read it all over again in the original.

My French up until then consisted of three years in junior high and high school, and a year of it in college; I retained none of it. As we were living in England at the time my wife and I (and eventually our infant daughter who, at three months, cried so incessantly one night in the Hôtel Aviatic on the Rue de Vaugirard that the poor Frenchman on the floor above us could only pace and pace until suddenly he fell silent, leaving us to imagine in all its vivid detail that he had done himself in, pauvre type, his body fished out of the Seine late the next afternoon, a note stuffed in his watery pocket, Adieu, monde cruel!) occasionally took cheap trips to Paris, which consisted of multiple train journeys to Dover, a hovercraft nightmare to Boulogne, and an interminable railway stop-and-go in ancient rolling stock through World War I battlefields to the Gare du Nord. Once, at Dover, our hovercraft gasbagged into life only to deflate when, as we watched through the porthole, the Queen Mother stood beneath an umbrella in her usual pale blue hat and dress and took bows from the wardens of the Cinque Ports before being driven off for her nightly ration of gin-and-it.

My spoken French was pathetic (my wife’s far better), though having l’enfant along made everyone like us immensely. I may be one of the few Americans who has not actually encountered a rude French person, and I ascribe this to the presence of a babe in arms. One thing we discovered is that the English love children as long as the children in question are grown-up—childhood tolerated only as nostalgia, a memory of the land of lost content, as A.E. Houseman would put it; Americans want to be children forever, and many as they negotiate the minefield of middle-age dress as though they are; while the French go all gooey over them and indulge them with expensive gourmet baby food and clothes that look as if they were actually thought up by someone. This may have changed, but it worked for us from the moment we stepped onto the beachhead at Boulogne-sur-Mer.

I began to learn French with a few grammar books bought at Heffer’s Booksellers in Cambridge, and after several months began to read some simple stories, graduating to Candide and Tartarin de Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet, and then moving on to more contemporary writers. I started with Patrick Modiano’s first novel, La Place de l’étoile. All I knew of Modiano was that he wrote about his past and that of his parents, which was intricately bound up with the years of the German Occupation of France, a topic I was about to introduce into my own fiction. Modiano’s true subject, I discovered, is the nature of identity and memory as it’s distilled through the past—in itself a Proustian conceit—and what I find fascinating about him is that his many novels, which take up a good portion of a bookshelf, in a way are like individual chapters of one book. His theme is unchanging; his style, “la petite musique,” as the French say, is virtually the same from book to book. There is nothing “big” about his work, and readers have grown accustomed to considering each succeeding volume as an added chapter to an ongoing literary project. His twenty-five published novels rarely are longer than 200 pages, and in them his characters, who seem to drift, under different names, into first this novel, then another, wander the streets of Paris looking for a familiar place, a remembered face, some link to their elusive past, some ghost from a half-remembered encounter that might shed some light on one’s history. Phone numbers and addresses are dredged up from the past, only to bring more cryptic clues and, if not dead ends, then the kind of silence that hides a deeper and more painful truth.

You open the latest Modiano and you know exactly where you are. The writer is artistically all of a piece. It’s his obsession with memory and the haunted lives of his protagonists which truly caught my attention, and especially how he returns time and again to mine this subject. As someone with a very broken chronology, with a memory of childhood that is in many ways unreliable (how much has been planted there? How much of it is real? What’s been removed by doubt or by someone else’s will?), I saw in Modiano how the capriciousness of memory can in itself become the subject of a novel. And because back then I found plot a troublesome thing to handle in my fiction, the idea of creating a narrator in search of a story became the basis for my first novel. I sent Modiano a copy of it when it was published and, not surprisingly, heard nothing back.

Though I needed (and still do need) a dictionary beside me, I continued to read in French with a greater fluency and quickly saw how my own work was being both enlarged and influenced by it. Living in Britain had its risks: my writing could begin to adopt some of the market-driven demands to write about being a writer in Hampstead (a subject so effectively cornered by Margaret Drabble and others) or to delve into agitprop (quite common back then in both theatre and television drama) or even historical fiction, but it was reading French that pulled me into doing something different, into introducing characters from other cultures, bridging genres, and bringing in some of my Russian grandparents’ émigré experience, if not in fact then as a kind of mist that lay over the landscape of my fiction.

They had almost moved to Paris in 1911 and only at the last minute decided to come to New York. My grandfather had heard that Frenchmen would stand on the railway platform as Jews from Eastern Europe would step off their trains and scream “Juif! Juif!”, a remnant of the days of the Dreyfus Affair, and one that was mined until 1940 and after. Had my grandfather and namesake moved there with his family, I wouldn’t be writing this today, and the lot of them would be dust in the grounds of a concentration camp in Poland.

Somewhat serendipitously I discovered what’s come to be known as the nouveau roman noir. Nominally detective novels, these took the basic elements of the genre and added to them various elements of postmodernism and of film, and led the genre to a whole new place. Possibly Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes (The Erasers), a recasting of “Oedipus Rex” as a murder mystery, was the first. But having read an article about the more well-known practitioners of the genre, writers of a whole other generation than Robbe-Grillet’s, I was introduced to the Lyon trilogy of René Belletto—Le Revenant, Sur la Terre comme au ciel, l’Enfer—and was immediately impressed both with his dark humor and how he introduced myth, musical structure (Belletto is both an excellent musician and composer, as well as something of an expert on J.S. Bach), and an encyclopedic knowledge of American B-films, into novels that straddle the genres of literary fiction and crime. Though I also read, and still read, Jean Echenoz, Thierry Jonquet, and, beyond the genre, Jean-Patrick Toussaint and Georges Perec, it was Belletto who influenced me perhaps more than the others. I wrote him, as well, and for twenty years we’ve been friends.

When I eventually did make the leap to read Proust in the original I was surprised to discover that he really wasn’t a difficult writer, per se: his vocabulary was hardly erudite, he expressed himself simply (though still in sentences whose length the idea being expressed required), and the writing possessed, as he himself hoped it would, the naturalness of breathing, even that of an asthmatic, which he was. All of a sudden he was a very different kind of writer from that in Scott-Moncrieff’s translation. Where that translator emphasized, or rather extracted and highlighted, the poetic and romantic side of Proust, reading him in French showed just how muscular, how sinewy, Proust’s prose truly is.  In reality there is a stylistic and narrative confidence in these more than three thousand pages that, in the first English translation, comes off as tentative and somewhat precious, as though he had bought into the contemporary view of Proust as being not much more than a gossip and a social butterfly. What we miss in Scott-Moncrieff’s version is the edginess of Proust, especially his extraordinary humor—and I contend that Proust was one of the truly great comic novelists—and the dark and, at that time, forbidden sexuality of what has now properly come to be known as In Search of Lost Time.

This is also something of a tale of espionage and detection: the narrator (allusively called Marcel, though this is far from being a reliably autobiographical novel) is a man separate from the world, an outsider cloaked within his own secrets and private memories who comes to perceive the world as something mutable, unreliable, cruel and dismissive, and seeks that elusive knowledge that will allow him to become the creator of the very people we’re reading about—people who also have many things to hide at a time when the cloak was far more useful than the megaphone. Knowing that Proust was homosexual, we can see where this sense of being a fugitive observer comes from and which leads him to become a kind of scientist (Proust’s father and brother were physicians) of human behavior. I know you, he seems to be saying, but you will never entirely know me. Six months, eight months, a year later, and once you’ve finished the entire novel you see the world differently from when you first read the opening sentences. That is but one, to me important, measure of what art can achieve: to make you comprehend things in a whole new way.

Adopting French as a second reading language gave me two worlds through which my own work could be filtered. As a novelist (far less so as a screenwriter), I find that reading in two languages has a way of enriching one’s own work. When reading in French I’m really stepping beyond myself and my world, and it’s this tiptoeing into another culture and another way of viewing things, that allows me to look back over my shoulder and find perhaps a whole new way of telling my own story.

The Trick of It

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The man who ran the magic-trick concession at Polk’s Hobby Shop, now just a distant memory on 31st and Fifth, always wore a white shirt, cuffs rolled (“Nothing up my sleeves”), narrow tie loosened at the throat, and above it all a five o’clock shadow that seemed to tell its own story of late nights and long hangovers. His midfield gaze and melancholic smile spoke of a lifetime of disappointment and the kind of dashed dreams that push you to the back row of life: canceled gigs, second-billings and threadbare audiences in the Poconos or the Catskills. His job at Polk’s was to perform trick after trick, encourage you to buy one, and then afterwards take you behind his counter where he kept his brown-bag lunch and his Daily Mirror and where he quietly and discreetly showed you how it was done. His breath was a cocktail of bourbon and Sen-Sen. By that time money had changed hands, and the horrible realization that nothing magic had actually happened—that the whole damned thing was just another cheap trick crudely devised with bits of wire and lengths of fishing line—also meant that refunds were not available. Magic, like life, he seemed to be saying, is just another five-buck trick.

“Never reveal your secrets,” he’d always tell me as he placed my purchase in a paper bag. “A good magician keeps it inside, right, kid?”

When night falls and gravity has its way with him, he goes uptown to an apartment you can see from the number 4 train to Woodlawn as you head north out of Manhattan. He drinks Seagrams and watches the fights and falls asleep in front of “Sergeant Bilko” or “The $64,000 Question.” He does the occasional charity show, or performs at kids’ parties, tossing down a shot before setting out for an afternoon of mystification. When once a month he gets together with his fellow practitioners of the black arts he’s a real kibitzer, lurking by the bar, slapping backs and telling jokes. He’s had a wife, who ran away with another performer, and the two of them live in Vegas. Eventually her husband will retire, she’ll trade in the Caddy for an Accord, and now and again she’ll think of the man she left who worked at Polk’s, and of how, when they were both young and in love, he could pull a Queen of Hearts from the air and make her feel like the luckiest woman in the whole wide world.

He was just a guy I used to see on the Saturdays my mother took me to Polk’s, but he’s stuck with me over the years, living in that apartment in the back of my memory, palming coins and fanning cards behind that glass counter. That newspaper; the rolled sleeves; the five o’clock shadow. Out of those few remembered details comes an entire life. It may not be exactly his, but I’ll find a place for him somewhere.

Some years ago, at an eighth grade graduation (not my own, eighth grade for me being nothing but a dim memory on the Hudson midway between Sing-Sing Prison and the Rockefeller estate), the guest speaker had brought what she called the Backpack for Life. In it contained everything that the graduates would need for setting out on their great journey in life. There was a mirror, a comb, a pen, a notebook, and five or six other objects, all of them giving way to meditations on why these would be important. What dawned on me was that she left out one big thing: all the baggage that the average eighth-grader has picked up along the way and stuffed into the other backpack. That bag would be mighty heavy. You ain’t going to ninth grade with that, my young friend.

Or, rather, you are. By the time you reach college it’ll be even heavier. And just wait until you’re forty, when you really start feeling the weight of it. Or fifty—? At that stage an 18-wheeler might just do the trick.

Lately I’ve been meditating on the nature of writing fiction out of one’s own life. I know what they tell you in writing school (even though I never took a writing course in my life): write what you know. Which means what the average young author knows: childhood, parent issues, girlfriend or boyfriend angst, bad skin, the odd broken limb, summer jobs, applying to college, then college and, if you need a few extra years to kill, graduate school. There’s a lot of emotional material there, all the growing issues and coping issues, the triumphs and disappointments, and these are important, because childhood and adolescence are the great gateway experiences to adulthood, middle-age, the so-called golden years, and then decrepitude when you get to forget all the stuff you agonized over for so long. All that, waiting to be unpacked. By that time it’s too big for a backpack. We’re talking about a whole civilization you’ve buried in your backyard.

No one had ever told me to write what I know, so my first five or six attempts at fiction were about writing what I wanted to know—books set in countries where I hadn’t (yet) lived, about characters utterly unlike myself, until I was ready to write what became my first published novel, which was set mostly in France of the 1930s and 40s and in London of the 1970s and 80s, where I was then living. The characters bore no relation to anyone I knew, but for the fact that they were Russian, and I’m Russian by ancestry. Nothing in the book is drawn from my life, save for the narrator’s need to create a story out of his past. Is it true, or is it just another con game, like the ones his parents played in the South of France all those years ago? The narrator is creating a fiction both to give his life some sense and to cover up what really happened in Nice in 1938 and in Paris during the German Occupation. What I had was a circumstance and a handful of characters, and I just wanted to know who these people were and what they were up to; answering these questions was my goal.

While screenwriting is the art of disclosing a story determined in advance, writing fiction is all about excavation, luck and discovery. As a novelist you start your dig (John Fowles famously woke from a dream about a woman standing at the end of the Cobb in Lyme Regis and out of that single image came The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Your shovel turns over clots of soil, worms, shards of pottery, bits of glass. Maybe an ancient coin or two. And if you’re very lucky, you hit something immovable in that deep earth and uncover the city of gold that’s been buried for so long. It might be your own past, or even just the tomb of someone you’d forgotten and who, awakened from the deep slumber of oblivion, comes to life and steps onto the page and, like a magician, plucks out of the air something amazing for you to write about. But attempt this too early and you’ll turn up only familiar things, fresh memories not yet ripened by time. Experience really demands a degree of strangeness before one can write about it. We need to outgrow the person we were way back then in order to see him whole.

Seven or eight years ago my wife and I were watching Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. I’m not sure what sparked the memory, but I turned to my wife and said with complete clarity and certainty, “We never dug it up.” That was the origin of a recently-completed novel. My memory had snapped into focus, shot me back some thirty years, and I had the beginnings of my story. Time, memory and objectivity, the ability to gaze back and dispassionately see a period of one’s life as a finished thing, observable and definable: this is what a writer needs before taking it on as material for a book.

It began as a script. On one level it was a buddy story (these do well: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, even Sideways); on another, a crime story, a caper film. What I discovered after writing it as a screenplay is that no one in Hollywood is much interested in a movie starring a couple of old guys in their 50s. Can you make them, oh, twenty-three or something like that? I could almost hear that voice in my ear. And can you add some shoot-outs and crashes?

No, I could not. This was the story I was going to tell. It was about something I’d buried and forgotten for all these many years. It began with a different me from the one that’s here now. And, oh, before I forget, along the way I was going to reveal more about myself and my own experiences than I’d ever done before. I own up to crimes and lapses both real and moral: things I’d thought I’d forgotten; things I’d done that I’d allowed to sink into the mud of oblivion. Until now. My backpack is all the lighter for it. My conscience is clear. And my backyard is a damned mess. I’m still digging up bodies.

Image credit: Flickr/froderik.

Death in Venice? Don’t Look Now

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It’s all about the water, isn’t it. You travel on it, you cross bridges over it, reflections in it confuse you, and when you’re lost (which most people in that labyrinthine city usually are), you end right up against another bloody canal when instead you should be strolling into your hotel lobby at two in the morning after one too many Bellinis at Harry’s Bar. It’s the prototype for Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. At one point in it Marco Polo says, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” There’s no place on earth quite like it. And in Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, Venice deep in its winter is a sullen, mirthless place of steep shadows and greasy waterways where you go to die as though it were the very ends of the earth and you had run out of time.

The English have often been drawn to Venice for their literary settings, and apart from expatriate American Henry James, who chose the city as setting for The Wings of the Dove (another death, of course, in Venice), perhaps it’s thanks to film director Nicolas Roeg that Daphne du Maurier is also known for making use of the city. His adaptation of her short story “Don’t Look Now” was a critical and popular success when released in 1973, and was chosen by the British Film Institute as eighth in their top 100 British films. Both the source material (recently reissued in a collection of du Maurier’s stories by NYRB Books, selected and introduced by Patrick McGrath) and the film are superior entertainments that extend far beyond the expected frissons of genre.

The term “psychological thriller” is particularly apt in both cases. This is a tale about faith, doubt, and death. Not to mention what can only be called after-death, since we experience it twice in the course of the film. And though movie-making has generally become all about blowing things up, Don’t Look Now, almost forty years later, still retains its quiet ability to unnerve an audience, hauntingly and without ever completely giving up its secrets. What Roeg has added to the narrative, apart from a much fuller depiction of the main characters’ relationship, is a story about the thin membrane of reality. The capabilities of film draw us visually into this tale of a city, a murderer and the death of a child.

Daphne du Maurier was for many years considered a minor English novelist and short-story writer: a best-seller, certainly, but something of a “women’s writer.” Best remembered for her novels Rebecca and Jamaica Inn (both filmed by Alfred Hitchcock) she’s also known for writing the story Hitchcock’s The Birds was based upon (she hated the film as much as she loved Roeg’s version of “Don’t Look Now”). Both that story and “Don’t Look Now” reveal a subtle and psychologically astute mind at work. Where Roeg gives it to us in full, du Maurier merely suggests; she makes us do the work. In both cases, film and story, the reader is left with mysteries that are inescapably human and somehow always just out of reach. For me, as a sometime screenwriter, the finest movies are like the best works of fiction when they leave the reader to fill in the gaps. The audience should always take away something from the experience that remains unanswered. So that time and again we’re drawn back to think about it, or see it once again, and then see it in a whole new light. Antonioni’s films are like that, as are those of Krzystof Kieslowski. Art should always pose questions, not give us answers.

Like all the best cinematic adaptations (in this case, by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant), Don’t Look Now is exact not necessarily to the facts of the story but is completely faithful to the poetry of the piece, the intent of the original.

It begins with a death. It begins with water. It blossoms into grief that yearns for relief, and comes with a premonition that’s firmly planted in the viewer’s mind—in a film that works upon its audience like something read, lifted from the celluloid by the eyes and stashed in the memory, so full is it of significance, be it moments or glances—as though it were a key image in a poem that would return in a later stanza, twisted and cast in a different light but instantly recognized. At which point, as you rise from your seat and walk out into the night, you realize you have to see the film all over again to grasp its meaning. You sense that every line of dialogue, every shot that may seem throwaway or simply scenic, contributes to the growing sense of unease in this movie that, like illness setting in, comes over us as an undefined uncertain feeling before blossoming into a chill, then fever, then pain.

And then the release, which leaves one of the characters dead and the other somehow vindicated: this death had to happen, just as Venice had to happen. A death for a death; the stillness of a memory redeemed.

The film opens as John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) sit by the fire on a chilly autumn day in a cottage in northeast England while their young son and daughter play outside in the brittle sunshine of a dying afternoon. John’s an architect, about to leave for Venice to oversee the restoration of the Church of St. Nicholas. As he examines photographic slides of the building, Laura asks a question their little girl had posed to her earlier: “If the world is round, why is a frozen pond flat?” The only answer he comes up with is key to our understanding of the film: “Nothing is as it seems.”

(Including, I might add, the infamous love scene that comes some thirty minutes into the movie. Censored in some countries, it earned the film an X rating when it opened in Britain and for years had been censored and re-edited on video releases in the US. What looks on the screen like the real thing was, according to Sutherland, all acting. Roeg would say put your hand here, turn your head, and so on. It looks like genuine passion, but of course nothing is as it seems.)

John is the rational man, the author of a book glimpsed early on, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space (Joseph Lanza’s long out-of-print book on Nicolas Roeg, entitled Fragile Geometry, is well worth reading; if you can find and afford a copy, that is) who clings to his need for hard reality, the patient precision of rebuilding a church. Laura is the emotional one who hasn’t been able to let go of her lost daughter who drowns while her parents mull over why a frozen pond is flat. Laura comes to Venice in a fragile state, hoping that she’ll be able to find her footing and discover clarity.

In this watery city reality is fluid, as if the minds of the characters had molded Venice to fit their anguish, confusion and inability to accept the truth of things. On top of all this there’s a serial killer loose in Venice. Two people have been found with their throats cut. There will be another before the credits run nearly two hours later.

Two sisters, twins from Scotland, stand at the center of this story. In du Maurier’s we meet them in the first sentence: “’Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’” As du Maurier suggests, they may even be men in drag. One is blind; though sightless, she possesses vision. She has a connection with the spirit world, and when she reveals to Laura minutes later at the restaurant that she “saw” the dead child happily sitting with her parents, dressed just as Laura remembered her, Laura suddenly sheds her grief. Life can now start anew. But John thinks that his wife, aided and abetted by a phony medium, is losing it.

When Laura returns for a quick visit to their son, hurt in a sports accident (appendicitis in the du Maurier story) at his school in England, John is certain that he’s seen his wife in Venice with the twin sisters, on a vaporetto, chugging up the Grand Canal. What he’s seeing, we’ll learn, is some later moment when he’ll no longer be there. He’s looking into a future that lies beyond his time. In this world, past and future are contained in the present, as though it were a universe concocted by the grand magicians of matters temporal, Marcel Proust and, in his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

We’re in the opening minutes of the film, in that cottage in Suffolk on a cold Sunday afternoon. Just before their daughter in her red plastic raincoat drowns in the pond, John spills a glass of water over one of his slides, a shot of the interior of the church, where sitting in a pew appears to be a child in a red coat with a hood. The water distorts the celluloid, and the red of the coat blossoms over the transparency like blood spilling from a murdered man’s throat. As Mark Sanderson points out in his book-length study of the film, that scene—in fact the entire seven-minute opening sequence—tells us everything we are about to see in Don’t Look Now. Everything is figuratively or literally second-sight in this movie: both what the blind medium sees, and what we watch. We’ve seen it all before, right at the beginning, and now, because it needs to draw us deeper into the story, we get to see it again.

Of course in prose this wouldn’t work. We can parse too much at our leisure, examine the words, understand their meanings, see the subtleties. A movie possesses a literalness that a truly good piece of fiction doesn’t, or shouldn’t. Because we can’t, in the first instance, flip back to an earlier scene (though DVDs make this much simpler), and because it’s presumed (and hoped) that we’re seeing this movie for the first time at the cinema, we experience it as one continuous unspooling of narration. It’s on subsequent viewings that the rewards of Don’t Look Now truly emerge. We see how much we have to work to look at all the elements in a scene, how much Roeg is compelling us to linger over the objects in a hotel room, the expressions on Julie Christie’s face, the mosaic tiles in the Church of St. Nicholas. And yet it remains a mystery to us. It eludes us in the end. We feel we have witnessed a kind of ancient sacrificial rite playing itself out in an unreal city, and that something necessary has happened. We see it on Laura’s face as, the two sisters beside her, she stands on the vaporetto as it makes its way up the Grand Canal to a funeral. Winter’s about to break, and spring’s only weeks away. The gods have been served.

Like all the best works of fiction, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now makes us want to experience it all over again. And still we won’t be able to find the words to say exactly what it all means.