The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 17 December 2015

So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood

Hello Gentle Reader

Patrick Modiano is a psychogeographic writer. Past and present often meld themselves on the streets, now long since changed, demolished, and or renovated. Modiano’s work often traces his narrators as they walk the streets of Paris. The streets that were, no longer are the streets that are. Though the same old streets have become something new; and the notes of long past that trace a map stating: “So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood,” become obsolete, as we quickly become lost in once was familiar. Even in the small city in which I reside, when I leave my own circular daily walking routines and venture further out, the city becomes monstrous, mysterious, bewildering, and strange. The more I engage with it, the more I see the city change through time. I know what winter brings everything closer; how spring softens it; how summer rejuvenates it, how autumn brightens it. For Patrick Modiano this is all true. The seasons change the lighting of each city street, back to the past. A past that is not coloured; but covered in sepia tones and shadows of once was. All of this is the hypnotic charm of Patrick Modiano.

Modiano is a rarity in French Literature. He explores the French Occupation, and the river of oblivion sloshing through the sewers of Paris, wiping away the remnants of that dark period of French history; and it’s unfortunate war time errors. Yet that has all been forgotten. It has been recorded, filed, and left where many believe it should be: in the past. Why discuss the grievous and grief stricken errors of the past, our forefathers? Those were desperate days in desolate times. Now they are now dearly departed. It’s best to leave sleeping dogs where they lay. Yet for Modiano, the discussion of this era is not a discussion of the guilty past; nor is it a requirement of moving forward and forgiveness. Rather the discussion of the French Occupation itself is a personal one. In his Nobel Lecture Modiano states:

“Like everyone else born in 1945, I was a child of the war and more precisely, because I was born in Paris, a child who owed his birth to the Paris of the occupation. Those who lived in that Paris wanted to forget it very quickly or at least only remember the day-to-day details, the ones which presented the illusion that everyday life was after all not so very different from the life they led in normal times. It was all a bad dream, with vague remorse for having been in some sense survivors. Later on, when their children asked them questions about that period and that Paris, their answers were evasive. Or else they remained silent as if they wanted to rub out those dark years from their memory and keep something hidden from us. But faced with the silence of our parents we worked it all out as if we had lived it ourselves.”

“It’s full of ghosts here,” is what Annie Astrand states to our narrator Jean Daragane, in his novel “So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood.” She states this in a deserted mansion by the Bois de Boulogne; and immediately one can think of the entire career and bibliography of Modiano himself. Each novel becomes a new room in an ever expanding, and depleted mansion:  from the Honeymoon suite, down the nursery; all the way into the garden, where gatherings were once held. Ghosts surely do move through the halls of Modian’s literary mansion. Ghosts that were once seen a few books ago, quickly come back, and make their subtle appearances. Recognizing a particular character or name, one is quickly hunts through the books to find prior novels and volumes already read, to sift through the chapters, the words; the streets, and the names to find the prior appearance of this particular character once again.

“So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood,” depicts Jean Daragane, a writer removed and unplugged from the world, who is disturbed by a couple, who express interest in a name in his address book, which he had lost, and they wished to return. This couple immediately reminded me of the young Jacqueline and Gerard from: “Out of the Dark,” because they survive off of gambling. Yet Gilles Ottolini is far more sinister that Gerard; and Chantal Grippay (Josephine) is far less cold and distant then Jacqueline. Yet their lives seemed to intertwine, if only by lifestyle and career choice. But other than that, the two couples are separated. Yet the interest in the name Torstel sends Jean Daragane back to his childhood – a place of murky inconsistencies, that has been enveloped by the present and tossed into the future, and what remained has been covered up, renovated, and discarded into the past, living on in photographs and memories of those, who lived in those times. Of course “So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood,” had me running not just back to “Out of The Dark,” but to “Suspended Sentences,” with the mention of Annie, and a certain Roger Vincent and his American convertible. But while sifting through “Suspended Sentences,” there was of course another peculiar mention of a certain Jean. D as well – and I could only wonder if this was Jean Daragane himself? Of course with Patrick Modiano, you never get any real concise answers to your own questions.

Yet I did my best to theorize. The Jean D. from “Suspended Sentences,” seemed older or at least older the then then Jean Dargane, who appears in Annie’s care in “So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood.” Then of course there was Annie – she herself appeared younger in “Suspended Sentences,” and in now making an appearance in “So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood,” she has aged dramatically. The only individual, who remains consistent with himself, is Roger Vincent; who is only mentioned in “So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood,” but the appearance of his trademark American Convertible. Then of course there is the fact that an ‘acrobat,’ nightclub is also mentioned – something Annie participated in, before “Suspended Sentences.” Yet one can only wonder about the ambiguous questions raised in these slight connections by Modiano in his novel “So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood,” and wonder if the Jean D and Jean Dargane are both one in the same and are connected to the Rue Lauriston gang; in which case of course, is this what Gilles Ottolini wishes to know?

Modiano is not a writer of answers though. He is not a writer of mysteries. Mysteries are developed as puzzles: they must have a logical and conclusive answer at the end. Rather Modiano is a writer who takes the guise of a mystery writer, to explore the misty memories of the past, with all the black, white, and varying shades of grey. He is an atmospheric writer; and this strongly plays to his talents, the ability to build up tension and alienation through the stifling uncertain atmosphere; which is all thwarted in the end, by the lack of anything else acted upon this atmosphere.

Jean D. in “So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood,” is a rather weary character. He quickly loses interest or falls into apathy in regards to situations that surround him:

“In the end, he decided to take advantage of the silence of the night to reread all the pages of the ‘dossier’ for one last time. But no sooner had he started his reading than he experienced an unpleasant sensation: the sentences became muddled and other sentences suddenly appeared that overlaid previous ones and disappeared without giving him time to decipher them.

[ . . . ]

“He put this down to weariness, and he closed his eyes.”

Often this was the case with “So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood.” As a reader of the novel myself, I found myself overcome with weariness and exhausted by Jean Dargane’s communicable sense of weariness and existential apathy. Of all of Modiano’s novels that I have read yet, this one in particular struck me as being lack luster, and not up to par with his other novels from the past. Or perhaps its reading too much of one writer in one go. Nonetheless Modiano has so far been the most successful Nobel Laureate to be translated into the English language since he has won the award. I am still waiting for many more Le Clezio novels and short stories to reach me in English, and Herta Müller only comes around once in a while; like a distant relative who finally has the chance to come and visit now and then, but always leaves prematurely. Modiano has become a great success, and it is relieving to see his novels become more widely translated, for a new chapter in his great tapestry of his book to be penciled in.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

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