Archive for December 6, 2014

I’ve read a book by Modiano

December 6, 2014 40 comments

Dimanches d’août by Patrick Modiano (1986) Not available in English. (yet)

Modiano_DimanchesSo Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in literature this year. It was as surprising as having a French laureate for the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. I had never read Modiano because of the image I had of him. I imagined his books as boring ramblings of white men distressed by their middle age crisis, tortured and endlessly looking for the perfect woman that doesn’t exist. I looked at his books in bookstores, read the blurb and put them down. Several times.

When he won the Nobel Prize I sort of saw it as my duty as a French book blogger in the English speaking blogosphere to at least try a book by him and see. Therefore I took my wary self to a book store and bought a Modiano. The one I knew about, Rue des boutiques obscures, was not on the shelves. I discarded Place de l’Etoile because it was –again—about Paris during the Occupation and I’m sick of reading about WWII. I asked for help to the libraire, who had not read Modiano either. Some libraire he was. After reading several blurbs I picked Dimanches d’août.

We’re in Nice in the 1980s. The narrator, Jean stumbles upon an old acquaintance, Villecourt on the boulevard Gambetta. The two men are not so pleased to meet again. They have a Sylvia in common, they both come from somewhere on the banks of the Marne near Paris. It is soon very clear that Sylvia is gone, that she and Jean fled to Nice, that Villecourt used to be her lover or husband. Seeing Villecourt again will decide Jean to relate what happened. At once, the reader feels that something went wrong, that this story goes beyond the usual love triangle. This comes from the diamond that Sylvia had. It is named Croix du Sud and part of the mystery is linked to it.

In a classic Noir tale, the narrator is in a bad place –Jean ran aground in Nice and now wanders there like a broken soul—and he starts telling his story from the beginning. The reader follows how he ended up where he is. Here, Jean goes backward. From one detail to the other, we will rewind the moments and events from Nice to the banks of the Marne where it all began.

So, the verdict? Bof, as we say in French. You can’t judge a writer by one book but I wasn’t thrilled. Before reading Modiano, when I heard his name, it conveyed the image of a solitary man walking on a deserted beach in Normandy, wearing a beige wool jumper. This novel was set in Nice and the man was wandering on the Promenade des Anglais but the impression remains.

Sure, he pictures Nice and the French Riviera with talent. The story is well crafted but rather classic and I guessed part of the ending which is not a good sign. He writes well but he’s no Albert Camus or J.M.G. Le Clézio. I have only two quotes for a book of 190 pages. I had more from the 50 pages I’ve read of At Swim-Two-Birds! Still, here’s a sample:

Je me suis approché d’elle et bientôt son parfum était plus fort que l’odeur de la chambre, un parfum lourd dont je ne pouvais plus me passer, quelque chose de doux et de ténébreux, comme les liens qui nous attachaient l’un à l’autre.

I went close to her and soon her perfume was stronger that the smell of the room. It was a heavy perfume I couldn’t live without, something sweet and dark, as the bond that tied us to each other. (my translation)

Lots of writers are as good as this, no? I expect from a Nobel Prize winner to be innovative, to bring something new to literature, to have a style that looks like no one else’s. I’d like to know what prompted the Nobel Jury to grant him such a prestigious prize because after reading Dimanches d’août, I can’t figure it out. A Nobel Prize winner should let me wide eyed and mouth hanging from admiration. Next time maybe?

%d bloggers like this: