Nouvelle Vague

Patrick Modiano, Winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature

To date, I have read five of Patrick Modiano’s novels and loved all of them. In order of publication, they are:

  • Missing Person (1980)
  • Young Once (1981)
  • After the Circus (1992)
  • Out of the Dark (1998)
  • In the Café of Lost Youth (2007)

With each of them, I felt I was back in the 1960s, in the world of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), the Paris of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless and Giani Esposito in Paris Nous Appartient. Relationships are quickly entered into, but turn into quicksand. In After the Circus, we are not altogether sure of the main characters’ names. Describing his roommate, “Lucien” writes:

He had something in common with my father: they both wore suits, ties, and shoes like everyone else. They spoke unaccented French, smoked cigarettes, drank espresso, and ate oysters. But when in their company, you were seized by doubt and you felt like touching them, the way you rub cloth between your fingers, to make sure they really existed.

Earlier, he writes, “But topographical details have a strange effect on me: instead of clarifying and sharpening images from the past, they give me a harrowing sensation of emptiness and severed relationships.” That’s a good summary of the feeling of the novel: emptiness and severed relationships. “Lucien” is never sure when he parts from his girlfriend “Gisèle” that she will not just disappear forever into the warren of streets without a word of warning.

Fortunately, Modiano is a prolific writer, and many if not most of his works have been translated into English. Of the five novels I have read, I prefer the three most recent ones.

Favorite Films: Paris Belongs to Us (1961)

Production Shot from Jacques Rivette’s Film with Françoise Prevost and Giani Esposito

They called it “The New Wave” as if half a century more would not pass and make a mockery of the term. It’s like those terms such as modernism and post-modernism. What’s next? Postpostmodernism? YetAgainModernism? It was definitely a new movement, breaking away from the stagy studio and going off into the streets of Paris. There were a whole slew of great directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer, Agnes Varda, Louis Malle, and let us not forget Jacques Rivette.

Rivette spent three years in making Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient). I saw it several times in the 1960s and early 1970s, and I loved the film anew with each viewing. Then the film dropped out of sight. Today, I watched the Criterion Collection version and once again fell for it. Except, now I think I understand the film whereas before I was merely dumbly enthralled by it.

This is the ultimate conspiracy film. Betty Schneider (Anne) goes to a cocktail party where the suicide of a talented musician named Juan is discussed. The people we meet at this party will continue to play a part in the film. Anne next attends a rehearsal of a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre directed by Giani Esposito (Gérard). She is offered the part of Marina, the daughter of Pericles; and Gérard begins to fall for her. Gérard’s girlfriend is the Sphinxlike Terry, who seems to ward off everyone. Anne goes in search of a tape that Juan had recorded for Pericles, and runs into several people who knew Juan. One of them is played by director Jean-Luc Godard (below).

Betty Schneider and Jean-Luc Godard at a Café

Other people begin to die mysteriously, including Gérard and even Anne’s brother Pierre. There is talk of a worldwide Fascist conspiracy, a theory fomented especially by Daniel Crohem as Philip Kaufman, an American fleeing the McCarthy hearings in the United States. How did Gérard die? Was it suicide, or was he murdered. It appears that Pierre was gunned down by Terry. Why? There are no clear-cut answers. There is only the persistent Betty, making the rounds of people who might know of Juan’s tape in the labyrinth that is Paris.

In the opening credits sequence of Paris Belongs to Us, there is a quote from the poet Charles Péguy: “Paris belongs to no one.” Now, as I write about this film, I want to see it again.

 

At the Café of Lost Youth

Paris Café Scene, 1950s

Paris Café Scene, 1950s (Ed van der Elsken)

On the back cover of my New York Review edition of Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth was an intriguing blurb:

In the Café of Lost Youth is vintage Patrick Modiano, an absorbing evocation of a particular Paris of the 1950s, shadowy and shady, a secret world of writers, criminals, drinkers, and drifters. The novel, inspired in part by the circle (depicted in the photographs of Ed van der Elsken) of the notorious and charismatic Guy Debord, centers on the enigmatic, waiflike figure of Louki, who captures everyone’s attention even as she eludes possession or comprehension.

Naturally, I was intrigued and looked up the photos of Ed van der Elsken, of which I present two samples here. The above café scene is strongly suggestive of the Modiano book. The Parisian girls shown below are appealing images from a time long past:

Parisian Girls 1950s (Ed van der Elsken)

Parisian Girls 1950s (Ed van der Elsken)

One of the reasons I am drawn to Modiano’s work is that I am in love with Paris of the 1950s. I love the films (Melville, Chabrol, early Godard), the philosophy (Sartre, Camus), and now, with Modiano, the writers—even though he is writing retrospectively about the period over the last decade.

For more photos by Ed van der Elsken, click here.

 

Petroleuses and Communards

Nope, Not the French Revolution—Eighty Years Later

Nope, Not the French Revolution—Eighty Years Later

Most Americans know little about French history, particularly in the years after the French Revolution and Napoleon. I mean, aren’t they “surrender monkeys”?

Not quite. In 1870-1871, Germany invaded France and crushed the French forces at Sedan, as described by Émile Zola in his novel Le Débacle (The Débacle). The Emperor Napoleon III hurriedly decamped; and the Third Republic under Adolphe Thiers, headquartered at Versailles, took over and continued the war. The problem was the city of Paris. The lightly armed National Guard wanted no truck with either Thiers or the Prussians, whereupon the forces of both laid siege to Paris.

This is when the Paris Commune was formed, which ran the besieged city from March to May of 1871. There were stories (probably mythical) of Parisiennes called petroleuses (illustrated above) armed with bottles of inflammable fluids roving the streets, setting fire to buildings. Admittedly, Napoleon III’s Tuileries Palace was torched; but most of the fires were attributable to French and Prussian cannon fire. Still, women found hurrying home with bottles of cooking oil were frequently executed on the spot.

Altogether, the casualties of the siege were about ten times larger than the entire Reign of Terror under Robespierre: The invading forces usually did not take prisoners and instead went in for an early version of ethnic cleansing, targeting mainly the working poor.

It was during this siege that the Parisians first developed a taste for horsemeat, which they were forced into eating along with dogs, cats, and various vermin when food supplies became scarce.

When I was in Paris, I visited the Communards’ Wall at Père Lachaise cemetery, where several hundred men, women, and children were captured, lined up against the wall, shot by firing squads, and buried in a mass grave.

Not too many years later, Vladimir Lenin carefully studied the lessons of the Paris Commune and adopted them in the Bolshevik Revolution, which was much less bloody than the events of Paris in May 1871.

“Life Uglified”

Paris in the Spring

Paris in the Spring

What will Paris be like tomorrow? The thought was in my mind as, strolling beside the Seine in the mist, I contemplated the glory of the buds that covered the trees with a delicate veil. Paris possesses a beauty that alarms me at times because I feel it is fragile, under threat. Mainly from our town planners. Which young architect is at last going to give us the city of the future, a fine city capable of appealing to the generations to come as we have been enchanted by the Paris that has been fashioned slowly by the centuries? Is it too much to dream of a visionary who will be the poet of space and no longer one of those organisers of a life uglified, to paraphrase Baudelaire, one of those bearers of wasted space who erect modern apartment buildings as graceless cubes, full of the sound and fury of the neighbours’ television sets and plumbing facilities….—Julian Green, Paris