Saturday, November 25, 2023

Two by Patrick Modiano (#NovNov)

So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood

Jean Daragane is an elderly man living on his own, suspicious and irritable. Then a stranger Gilles Ottolini calls up to say that he's found Daragane's address book: could he bring it by? (Daragane had written his phone number and address in the book in the space supplied after 'If found please return to...'). Daragane doesn't want this stranger to come to his house, but they arrange to meet at a café the next day.

Daragane is a well-known writer, famous for his book Le Noir de l'Eté about the Paris demimonde. He has genuinely lost his address book and, despite his suspicions, supposes he should get it back. Ottolini shows up the next day with a 'friend', Chantal Grippay, and it's clear Ottolini knows quite a bit about Daragane. Ottolini has read through the address book and he's interested in a name from it, Guy Torstel, which was also a name that Daragane had used in that famous novel. Who is Torstel? Daragane claims he can barely remember the actual Torstel, and that he remembers nothing about the novel he wrote so many years ago. But he agrees to try to remember something and to meet again with Ottolini when Ottolini's back in town. 

But before that Chantal Grippay comes by and warns him not to trust Ottolini. Daragane tries to work out the connections between Torstel and his mother and the woman (not his mother) who raised him and the other figures from that novel. And what do they have to do with Ottolini and Grippay? And just what has he got himself into? 

Interesting and evocative, but in retrospect not the one to have started with. In the real world, Modiano's first novel was La Place de l'Etoile.

155p. And with rather wide spacing and margins. Translated by Euan Cameron.

In the Café of Lost Youth

Louki is an habituée of the café Condé. The place is a little downmarket even for students, with a somewhat rough clientele of youths, with a few dodgy elders mixed in. Louki seems just a bit more glamorous than the rest of the crowd. But Louki is just a nickname. Who is she?

The novella is structured as four different narrators telling us what they know (or what they want to tell us) about Louki. The first is an actual student: he studies at the École Supérieure des Mines; because he's a student, though one perhaps not entirely committed to his studies, he feels isolated from the core crowd at the café. Still he observes Louki without ever knowing her real name.

The second figure is a private detective who's looking for Louki on behalf of her abandoned husband; he learns Louki is actually Jacqueline Choureau née Delanque, that she'd been in minor trouble with the law as a teenager, that her mother was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. He has to decide what exactly to report to the abandoned husband.

The third chapter is from the point of view of Louki herself; the last chapter is that of a writer from years later who had hung out with this crowd at the time. We learn Louki's fate.

Wikipedia says the novel is loosely about the circle around the Situationist Guy Debord, philosopher, Marxist, provocateur. In any case, the novella begins with an epigraph from Debord:
"At the halfway point of the journey making up real life, we were surrounded by a gloomy melancholy, one expressed by so very many derisive and sorrowful words in the café of lost youth."
Also evocative, and less dependent on a familiarity with the Modiano oeuvre. Pretty good, I thought and it would have been a better start. (Though as you can see I didn't stop after the first that I did read.)

118p. Translated by Chris Clarke.

Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, and I've been meaning to try him out since then. That's all the Modiano I've read, but I liked them both and it made me curious to read more. I'll probably go next to the beginning and read La Place de l'Etoile. (Same title in English.) It's the first in a trilogy, it seems. Do you know Modiano? Is that a good plan? Any others to be sure not to miss?

November is Novellas month!


  1. I'm not familiar with Modiano at all. But that second novella does sound a little better than the first.

  2. La Place de l'Etoile was my first read of Modiano and I found it very tough. His other two novellas were easier. I think I will like to read both the novellas you have mentioned. I find his language, even in translation, very evocative.

    1. Thanks! I'll see which one I come across then.