Neil Rathmell

100+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 22 October 2014

The Nobel Prize for Literature caused less of a stir in England this year, when it was awarded to French novelist, Patrick Modiano, than it did last year, when it went to Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro. Last year, bookshops stood to benefit from additional sales of books that were already on their shelves. This year, with hardly any of the Frenchman’s books available in translation, the award was only of passing interest to the British book trade. After the initial announcement, the media lost interest too.

I have read only one of Modiano’s novels, but that’s one more than most people outside France. I have read only one of Munro’s books, which is less than most people but enough for me. My evidence base might be limited but I stand by what I wrote in my diary on 23 October last year. A review in the New Statesman which claimed that ‘these melancholy, autumnal tales of small-town Canadian life demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best’ was right about Munro but wrong about the short story, which ‘at its best’ can do much more than Munro has ever done. Her Nobel Prize citation described her as ‘a master of the contemporary short story’, which says more about the contemporary short story than it does about her.

Modiano’s Nobel Prize citation is ‘for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation’. (Perhaps some of these curious phrases work better in Swedish. What exactly is a life-world?) The only novel of his that I have read so far, Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue, lives up to the citation, though the memories it evokes in the mind of the narrator are of Paris in the years after the occupation, the years of his youth. The first sentence prepares the reader for the confusion and ambiguity that follow when the narrator begins his search for Louki, a girl he used to see sometimes in a café. ‘Des deux entrées du café, elle empruntait toujours la plus étroite, celle qu’on appelait la porte de l’ombre.’ Memory puts its own interpretation on events, gives meaning to things that in themselves are meaningless. What are we to make of the fact that the café had two entrances, of which she (whoever she is) always chose the narrow one, the one that was known as the door of shadow? What does the narrator make of it? He doesn’t say.

Most of what I have read about Modiano since the award was announced refers to him as a modern-day Proust, but that seems to me to be not quite right. In A la recherche du temps perdu Proust remembers everything perfectly, in Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue Modiano remembers everything imperfectly. After Proust there was Robbe-Grillet and Queneau. I was reminded, reading Modiano’s novel, more of L’année dernière à Marienbad and Zazie dans le métro than of Du côté de chez Swann. Proust’s art of memory is to awaken the past in the present, Modiano’s is to take the reader down the familiar and unfamiliar, confused and confusing by-ways that connect and disconnect us from the past.

There is actually very little of Proust in Modiano and a great deal of other European (but not English) post-war literature, which is where ‘ungraspable human destinies’ and ‘the life-world of the occupation’ come in. In the countries of Europe that were either occupied during the war or did the occupying, where resistance or collaboration were moral and practical choices, where after the war it was better to forget than to remember, the art of memory has a meaning which is lost on other countries and which has as little to do with Proust as with melancholy, autumnal tales that demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best.

Not long after I had finished reading Modiano’s novel, I discovered that he had written the screenplay for a film by one of France’s great film makers, Louis Malle. It was a film I had watched not long before, when I was revisiting my own cinema-going youth, a film set in Paris during the occupation, one of the most haunting and disturbing films I have ever seen, Lacombe Lucien. The purpose of tragedy, as the Greeks knew, is to confront horror. Malle’s 1974 film works like that and Modiano’s 2007 novel ends with such a moment, a sudden death, which he describes as an absence, a blank, which didn’t just cause him a feeling of emptiness, but which he was unable to look at, because it was like a dazzling light. ‘Et cela sera comme ça, jusqu’á la fin.’ And that’s how it will be until the end.

Most of the commentary on the Nobel Prize this year has, however, been concerned not with who got it, but who didn’t. Philip Roth missed out again and year by year the Swedish conspiracy theory gains in credibility. Perhaps Roth minded less this year than last.

patrick modiano 01

The next post on 29 October will be about three short plays by Samuel Beckett.

That will be followed by my Reader’s Diary for 5 November.

My new novel Vive le Mole! is out now in paperback and on Kindle – for more information visit my online Bookshop.

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