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My first Patrick Modiano

Outside France, very few people had heard of the new Nobel laureate in literature. He turns out to be excellent

Simon Willis | October 10th 2014

The judging panel for the Nobel prize in literature is, if it's anything, a very well-funded book club. Sometimes it chooses writers you've heard of, or even read. Sometimes it chooses writers whose names you have to Google. Yesterday, after I'd found out that Patrick Modiano was French and not Italian (as I'd guessed from his name), I saw that a few of his books had been translated into English. So taking up the recommendation I headed to the library, scanned along the Ms, and found a short book called "Night Rounds". It was my first Patrick Modiano and it won't be my last.

"Night Rounds" was written in 1969, and published in English two years later. At little more than 100 pages, it's brief and intense. The setting is Paris during the second world war. Phosphorus bombs fall from the sky, razed houses line the streets in a jumble of broken beams and shredded Toile de Jouy. And dashing through the streets, driving a white Bentley loaned to him by his criminal superiors, is the narrator—20 years old, a petty thief, extortionist, whore and "model son". It's a story of double-crossing and betrayal. More than that it's a story of moral panic, of a behavioural vacuum in a ruined city that sucks in wrong 'uns and strays. In essence it's a thrilling combination of detective novel and existential drama.

The panic shows on the surface. Opening the book is like being presented with a broken mirror, the world a mess of colourful fragments. Amid a party of exotically named characters—Ivanoff the Oracle, Count Baruzzi, Frau Sultana—there's an interrogation taking place. Two men named Mr Philibert and the Khedive want names, locations. Most of all they want to find Lamballe. As people knock over huge vases of dahlias and orchids, and flutes of champagne are poured, screams emanate from the cellar. Modiano gradually, skilfully, gives you the tools to reassemble the cracked image: how the narrator got here to this grand house, his relationship with these interrogators, the identity of Lamballe. But the atmosphere comes straight away, a louche fug of waltzes and torture.

Modiano's baroque imagination for detail and image is dazzling. Paris is a drowned city, "Ten thousand, a hundred thousand drowned men with laboured, listless movements, like the cast of a slow-motion film." At one point, the narrator—chief among these drifting men—is sitting in the mansion he's occupied, which smells of Arabian perfume. He tries on a dress "with imitation tulle and festoons of pink morning-glories" and a hat with flowers and "plumes of lace". He paints his face with kohl and henna and sits before the mirror: "to while away the time, I waited till dawn for the apocalypse." And underneath the decor, as though Modiano has set diamonds in a hunk of lead, there's a heavy psychological drag. Sitting in the Bois de Boulogne one evening, lit up by Japanese lanterns, the narrator desperately examines two friends with fairy-tale names, Coco Lacour and Esmeralda, "scrutinising the expression on their faces the way you cling to a bridge railing."

But perhaps the best thing about this novella is the way the narration hovers between confession and self-excuse. He never quite allows you to know whether you aren't just another one of his dupes, hearing him dash round the corner before you realise you're missing a wad of francs. Modiano's world is full of ambiguities and backsliding and glamorous degradation. It's a world I want to go back to.

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