Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Patrick Modiano Wins the Nobel Prize

Patrick Modiano (© SIPA)
For many years, as some of my students will attest, I have shared with them my ongoing fascination with writers who essentially write the same book over and over. By "same book" I mean these writers take what might thought of as a core text, however fully articulated in its first published version, and then rewrite it over and over, with some variation. Though I have often expressed my interest in such projects, it is not because I do so myself; I am constitutionally incapable of doing so. A senior writer I admire greatly once asked, with interest and perhaps concern for my career, why I had not written multiple variations on Annotations, suggesting that they might have gotten published. (And created a brand?) My general approach, however, seems to be to condense two--or multiple--books into one, as my slender oeuvre will suggest. Each book, however small or large, stands as its own creature, and multiple ones.)

Yet I have always urged my creative writing students to write any book they produce at the very least twice, the second time to perfect what they attempted the first (another bit of advice I've never been able to follow so far, for the reasons outlined above). In so doing, I tell them, they will written two books instead of just one, meaning potentially two to publish, and experience has taught me that many readers have little problem with reading an improved variation on a previous book. (The same seems true of movies.) Nearly all writers in the United States, are rewarded for being productive, and for publishing, hiring, award, etc., purposes, two is better than one, four than two, six than three, etc. Some writers manage to make a lifelong career of this.

To take one example, John Ashbery has essentially written the same book over the last 25 years (, after producing sometimes quite distinctive books over the first 25-30 years of his career (think Some Trees through A Wave). Our current US Poet Laureate, the great Charles Wright, also has rewritten, with slight variations, the same book--poem--over his last half-dozen collections. In fiction, nearly all (though not A Little Lumpen Novella, for example) of Roberto Bolaño's final ten published novels and story collections are variations on a core book, with similar characters, themes, techniques, etc. Bolaño, in my humble opinion, had the skill to transform each book into something distinctive, however. And certainly there are many more. Oe Kenzaburo has repeatedly written a variation on the same book: a writer has a child with developmental disabilities, and the rest of the plot follows from there. Oe usually finds engaging ways of addressing this theme.

Another writer I deeply admire, Alexander Kluge, also has done this; you could conceivably take any of this story collections, beginning with Case Histories (Lebensläufe), through the most recent ones, and, accounting for an increasingly radical concision, interchange them. The depth of and variation in the content, however, is impressive. Alice Munro, who received the Nobel Prize two years ago, has also been accused of rewriting variations on the same story, too narrow subject matter, and so on, though close study of her skill at varying her subject matter offers a master class on prose fiction. One could say of another favorite of mine, Harold Pinter, that his early works and the late ones could conceivably read as the same work, with slight changes (characters, scenarios, development of style, etc.). The same is true of the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, whose work I acquainted myself with earlier this year.

By "same book" I do not mean works merely marked by a consistent style, carry-over characters, etc. Anyone familiar with Toni Morrison's style, say, or Christine Brooke-Rose's formal playfulness, could spot one of their books. You can spot a sentence by Henry James or William Faulkner on the other side of the library door. But each of their books is clearly different in terms of structure, content, and so on. Nor do I mean a serial writer, like Marcel Proust, whose A la recherche du temps perdu, or Anthony Powell, whose A Dance to the Music of Time, or Nathaniel Mackey, who in both poetry (The Song of the Andoumboulou) and fiction (From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate), has produced a series of texts which, in the eyes of the author, are intentionally part of and constitute a larger, continuous work.

I say all of this as a prelude to noting that this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the French author Patrick Modiano, is one of the great literary replicationists of our or any era. The Nobel committee praised him in its citation "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation." Modiano has, since his outrageous, highly controversial first novel, La place de l'étoile (still untranslated as a whole into English, but roughly, The Place of the Star, the doubled meaning of the actual Parisian address, where the Arc de Triomphe stands, and of the yellow star the Vichy Government forced Jewish residents to wear embedded in the French term--you can find an excerpt, translated by Pepe Karmel, on Agni's site here), written the same book over and over, or rather, variations on the same, fairly narrow theme, characters, and plots. In fact, one could say that his entire body of work functions as a vast, continuous investigation of the same concepts, themes, ideas, and characters, with variations. Yet in Modiano's hands, when he is writing at his best, this repetitiveness ascends to the status of considerable emotional power and beauty.

I am neither a scholar of French literature nor of Modiano's work, but I have read several of his books, mostly in English, as well as two in French, and I can say that you can pick up almost any Modiano novel--or, in the case of Dora Bruder, which could also be read as nonfiction--and you will encounter the following: characters who vanish or forced to do so; some reference to the German Occupation of France, the Vichy collaboration, and, in the background, the terrors of the Holocaust and World War II; a meditation on time, memory and loss; ethical complexity, such that many of his main characters are neither easily categorized as good or bad; and some element of mystery as a narrative mode, though not in the direct form of the mystery genre per se. There is also his precise, occasionally lyrical French--we are not talking about Proust, for example here, but work that reads stylistically almost like his inverse--prose, which is deceptive in its simplicity. In some, of course, this combination works better than in others.

One of the best that I read a few years ago is the 1995 novel Du plus loin de l'oubli (Farthest from Oblivion, translated as Out of the Dark, by Jordan Stump, University of Nebraska Press, 1998). Rather uncannily, though perhaps because I'd mentioned him to my graduate fiction class, I wrote to a friend shortly before the Nobel announcement that:
Modiano tells the same story over and over and over, but sometimes, he can be very original and striking. Out of the Dark is one of my favorite of his books. It’s about this guy who meets a couple and falls in love with the woman. They run away to Britain, but after a short period of time, she leaves him. The husband seems to be a criminal or gangster. Then, years later, he meets the woman again, this time briefly. Turns out she’s married, but he’s still smitten, only he realizes he cannot have a life with her, though he remembers their youth and the excitement of that earlier moment. Third time, years later, he sees her again, but now he does not even try to catch her attention; the memory is enough. That’s the whole novel. But it’s thrilling. What you can do with art, man!
That's basically it. Of course the plot is a bit more complicated than I outline above, but Modiano often manages to achieve complexity with carefully chosen details, brief lyrical passages, and shifts in rhetoric and perspective.

His 1978 novel, Rue des boutiques obscures (Street of Dark Shops, translated as Missing Person by Daniel Weissbort, Boston: David R. Godine, 2004), which received France's most prestigious fiction prize, the Prix Goncourt, is a mystery novel that fails at that genre, yet manages to be utterly enthralling. Set in 1965, the novel concerns the protagonist Guy Roland, who mysteriously lost his memory and identity 15 years before, at which point his soon-to-retire boss in a Parisian detective, (Baron) Constantin von Hutte, created the new one for him. The novel explores Roland's search for his past self, through his interviews with people who may have known him under his prior guises, as (Jimmy) Pedro (Stern) (McEvoy), a Salonican Jew and "broker", later to "disappear," only to return as an envoy at the Dominican embassy, who'd married a beautiful young woman, Denise Coudreuse, of French and Belgian Christian background, and then, when the stranglehold of the Gestapo and their Vichy authorities and foreign collaborators grew too tight, attempted to slip away with her to Switzerland via the mountains separating that country from France.

I'll say no more except that Modiano manages to do quite a bit with impressive narrative economy, to give a history lesson while appearing not to, and to create a constant air of menace, psychological but also at times almost corporeal, with the slenderest of means. Many threads remain hanging but, once you set the book down, you begin to piece them together. For example, was it Hutte, the former tennis champion, who rescued Pedro in the Swiss snow? Did Pedro, working in concert with the Argentinian embassy, create the story that Salonica's archives--which would have contained family histories, thus making it easier to identify Greek Jews there--had been destroyed? Was it not Oleg de Wrédé who'd arranged to entrap Pedro and Denise? And, more broadly, was not Pedro's story a version of Modiano's mother's and father's stories, only without the stranding at the border? Missing Person is, as the Nobel committee noted, a masterpiece of the highest order, though, as I noted at the beginning of this paragraph, as a mystery novel, it most certainly fails.

I'll mention one other work of his that suggests his innovativeness and gifts and is worth reading, though I did not like the book was much, despite its evident skill and haunting elements. I am talking about the 1997 text Dora Bruder (translated by Joanna Kilmartin, University of California Press, 1999), which could either be a novel or a work of memoiristic nonfiction. In it, Modiano explores the disappearance of a girl, Dora Bruder, who was nearly his father's contemporary, during the period of the Occupation. Dora Bruder, a young Jewish girl, Modiano learned by reading a 1941 Parisian paper, had run away from a convent school, but whereas this would mainly provoke parental concern and censure under normal circumstances, under Gestapo rule, the stakes rose incalculably. Her parents, frantically searched for her, placing the notice that Modiano discovers, and from this he begins to assemble a mystery backwards--much as in Missing Person--with elements of fictional narration, as well as nonfictional speculation and meditation woven together uneasily. What we come to grasp is not only Modiano's own troubled youth after the war, but the perilous path, parallel to Dora Bruder's Modiano's father, like all French citizens of Jewish faith and ancestry, found himself on. Utterly saddening is the moment when Modiano finds Bruder's name on a 1942 list of people deported to Auschwitz. Had his own father suffered the same fate, he and we realize, there'd have been on Patrick Modiano.

So, on the whole, I recommend his work, and while I do think there were more deserving French (Michel Tournier, Yves Bonnefoy, etc.) and Francophone (Assia Djebar, Maryse Condé, Leïla Sebbar, FrankétienneEdouard Maunick, etc.) writers, as well as other writers who might have been considered, like the pioneering figure Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or perennial favorite Haruki Murakami, or writers whom I mention every year who seem never to receive enough consideration (Jay Wright, Wilson Harris, etc.), Modiano is not a bad choice. Prolific, distinctive, and capable of doing a great deal with very little. That's not a bad epigraph.

No comments:

Post a Comment