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.
John Boyne’s The Absolutist is a slim, tightly wound novel of love and disaster in World War One, narrated in a claustrophobic first person by Tristan Sadler, a young soldier who returns to England after the war with a secret that is too horrifying to share and too heavy to bear alone. The story unfolds through flashbacks to Tristan’s war training and trench life, during which he falls in love with a fellow recruit, Will Bancroft, the “absolutist” of the title. A soldier turned conscientious objector who refuses to do anything to further the war effort, Will is eventually executed by a firing squad, leaving Tristan to fight on for a morally bankrupt cause. After the war, Tristan meets up with Will’s sister, Marian, to rake over the questions of love and guilt, right and wrong, and the struggle to preserve them against the onslaught of the trenches.
I spoke with Boyne about the challenges of creating a fresh story out of well-worn history, and finding a voice to describe the unimaginable.
The Millions: I’d like to start by asking about Tristan’s voice. How did you find that balance, a voice that sounds contemporary but also authentic to the time period? Did you go back to letters, diaries, and memoirs of World War One?
John Boyne: I like to go back to novels that were written at the time my novel is set. I’ll fall into the idiom of the time, and find phrases that have fallen into disuse, and if I immerse myself in those, I find a voice starting to appear. I knew that because Tristan was going to be narrating his story from old age, and because he was going to be a novelist, he would have to speak in quite an elegant style—very proper and English. That was a challenge too, because it was about paring down the language, nothing superfluous. It’s a shorter book than any of my other adult novels.
For the trench scenes, I spent a lot of time at the Imperial War Museum in London, and I read a lot of letters not only from the front but also from the families the soldiers were writing to. I was trying to find the themes running through those letters, and the ways that a voice would change. There’s only a short space of time between the scenes where Tristan is a young man before the war, the scenes where he’s in the trenches, and immediately afterwards, in 1919—but emotionally he was going to have changed in so many ways, that he would have to sound different, but the same. Same person, but experience is going to have to have come in on him.
TM: It’s so revealing to look at letters from families and not just from soldiers. Perhaps it upsets Paul Fussell’s claim that communication is always one way: his idea that the soldiers can’t communicate and stop trying, and that the people at home can’t understand, and also stop trying. The character of Will’s sister Marian, for instance, is a complicated and traumatized figure in her own right.
JB: In any novel I’ve ever read about the First World War, you never seem to read about what’s happening back home, the effect of the war on the family. In the previous novel I wrote for adults, The House of Special Purpose, which is the next one coming out here, I started with the idea that I hadn’t previously written a really strong female character, and I wanted to rectify that. When I wrote this I wanted to go further—I wanted a female character who was stronger than either of the two boys. She would be articulate, she would be a woman out of her own time, a woman who was capable of so much, but not allowed to do anything.
I really invested in her as a character, probably more than any other character I’ve ever written, including Tristan, because I didn’t know how she was going to react. In those long chapters in the cafés, when she meets and talks to Tristan, I didn’t know how she was going to respond to him, and I knew it would change as the day went along: there would be moments where she would be suspicious, moments where she would be warm and funny, moments where she would be aggressive. I wanted that conversation to just go where it went, but for her to be always one step ahead of Tristan, putting him in his place a lot. She talks along the way about things like the fact that she doesn’t have the vote—she’s a victim of these politics along with everybody else, but she’s not allowed to vote out the politicians who start the wars. I named her after Marian Maudsley, from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, which is one of my favorite novels, and a great character. I wanted her to leap off the page.
TM: She’s so active, even in those static scenes in the café. You have this wonderful detail of the ubiquity of cigarettes—how important they are to how people manage their emotions during a conversation.
JB: I felt she would be someone who wanted to help the soldiers coming back to the front, but at the time would be so conflicted about the fact that they killed her brother. I mean, emotionally, what does that do to a person? That’s the key to novel writing for me: putting characters into situations where you don’t know how they’re going to respond, and letting the story take you where it takes you, to show you that. I thought that was an interesting conundrum for her: great anger, great pain, but still helping.
TM: Not just for her character, but for Tristan as well, there’s an enormous sense of frustration about what they can possibly do with these situations that are not in their control, and they don’t emerge heroically. Rage, for instance, becomes the emotion that drives Tristan. Even in fiction about war, I imagine rage is a difficult emotion to work with, as a novelist—it doesn’t really have a forward motion.
JB: Those climactic scenes were very difficult to write. It’s hard, in the printed word, to achieve that sense that you have in real life, where something just snaps—to create a moment where the reader will honestly feel that a character’s gone too far.
TM: Like the challenge of writing about the violence of the war—you reach these limits. One of the things you did so well in the trench scenes was to convey how the soldiers have to keep going, the next day, and the next day, even though every day seems to be a limit case of what can be endured.
JB: I deliberately made those into very short scenes, which could almost have been taken out of the book, juggled in different directions, and put back in. I wanted to create a sense of disorder and confusion, no linear structure to it all. When you write about the First World War, you’ve read so many books that you have to be careful not to simply replicate what you’ve read before. It’s one of the things this book has in common with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which deals with the Holocaust: when you’re approaching a subject as big as this, that’s been written about so many times, you’ve got to find some fresh way to tell it. So I knew when I started that I was going to spend more time in a café in Norwich than I was in a trench in Northern France.
TM: So you get rid of the idea that the events of the war are part of an arc, a conflict-to-resolution story. The war blows that up.
JB: I felt there shouldn’t be a beginning, middle and end, but that Tristan should be at the heart of the action all the time. Even when Tristan and Will’s story ends, when their wartime story ends, it’s not the end of the war—that continues off the page.
TM: Right, and his survival is just a matter of chance. You create that sense of chance, of randomness, as the characters we get to know in the training scenes are gradually picked off. We feel the shock every time someone we’ve met dies.
JB: I had to keep a chart of who was still alive and who wasn’t.
TM: I wanted to ask about the role of homosexuality in the book. Of course it’s important in the literature of World War One for writers who were gay, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but I was also thinking about Pat Barker, and her character Billy Prior, in the Regeneration trilogy, who was a gleefully boundary-crossing character in both class and sexual terms. Yet Tristan doesn’t have that kind of freedom. So what does thinking about sexuality in this context allow you to do with a character that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?
JB: It occurred to me I hadn’t really read anything about gay soldiers in the trenches—there must have been gay soldiers there, and surrounded by so much horror, relationships must have struck up. But that wasn’t something I had read, so it was a new way into a familiar story. What interested me was the idea of two boys where one has already started to come to terms with who he is, and the other hasn’t, so it would be an ambiguous relationship between them. Tristan gets angry with Will for rejecting him, but Will can’t understand this, because as far as Will’s concerned it doesn’t matter. In France, Tristan is all about this obsessive love, and Will is about the politics, and he finds this conversation that he’s forced to endure every so often to be an embarrassment, and to be almost trivial compared to what it is that’s going on there. I wanted there to be moments where you think that Will would open up, and let Tristan in, and moments where he would shut down. It was important to me that at the end you wouldn’t really know who this boy was.
TM: The term Will keeps coming back to is “comfort.” That’s all the relationship is for him, a purely temporary alleviation—it’s not love, it’s comfort.
JB: And Tristan can’t accept it. But that’s how it is in life, isn’t it? In most relationships, one person is much more into it than the other—in my experience, anyway—until you find someone who’s at the same place as you. Tristan’s just in love.
TM: To come back to the Shot at Dawn politics—as you know, after a long campaign in the UK we finally have a memorial to the men who were killed in this way. But there’s still so much we don’t know about what happened to these men. The term “absolutist,” which gives you your title—that was a technical term used at the time?
JB: It’s not a very common term, but I came across it one day when I was researching conscientious objectors and immediately thought, “there’s my title.” I knew that a lot of conscientious objectors would do some work on farms, or in field hospitals, or—as I talk about in the book—a lot of them were made to be stretcher-bearers. But there was this small group of people, absolutists, who wouldn’t do anything. It was important that Will would be a soldier and would be fighting when he becomes an absolutist. I didn’t want any charge, any confusion, that he was a coward, that he just wasn’t willing to fight—he had to be out there fighting, and seeing that the moral absolutes for which the war was being fought were being corrupted. If they can murder a German boy in cold blood, it’s a different kind of killing, to him, than the shooting in war.
It’s interesting because Tristan is the person in the book who cares about truth, and wants to express himself and his love, and he feels that Will is being dishonest in not doing that. But when it comes to a political situation, when a captured German boy gets murdered by group of British soldiers, Tristan doesn’t see that that’s a problem. It’s the same thing turned around: in the romance, Tristan is one place and Will is in the other, but in the morality and the politics they’re also in different places. Will’s morality has become much more finely tuned. He can’t just go shooting people without some kind of emotional response. Tristan is also completely honest when he says, I don’t get it, it’s just another—what does it matter?
TM: That line that seems so faint to Tristan is absolute to Will.
JB: So they’re both absolutists—Will in a literal sense, and Tristan in terms of his love affair. It’s all or nothing to him.