Serendipity: “A Pretty Girl with an Arid Heart”

Patrick Modiano in 1968, the Year His First Novel Was Published

I have just finished reading the book whose cover is shown above. It is an autobiographical essay by a Nobel-Prize-winning (2014) author that covers the years from his earliest childhood to the publication of his first book in 1968. I believe I have mentioned elsewhere that Patrick Modiano is by far my favorite living French author. He is approximately the same age as I am, and I feel a unique kinship with him and his work. So far I have read six books by him, and I am just getting started.

His autobiographical essay Pedigree: A Memoir is painful to read. The author was raised—or I should rather say neglected by—two parents who did not particularly care to see him and shunted him off to various boarding schools, the farther apart from Paris the better. Below is a savage description of his mother, who was a small-time actress:

She was a pretty girl with an arid heart. Her fiancé [after her divorce from Patrick’s father] had given her a chow-chow, but she didn’t take care of it and left it with various people, as she would later do with me. The chow-chow killed itself by leaping from a window. The dog appears in two or three photos, and I have to admit he touches me deeply and that I feel a great kinship with him.

 

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.

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.

 

“Fixed Points”

Avenue Rachel, 18th Arrondissement

Avenue Rachel, 18th Arrondissement

There are two parts of Paris that I know fairly well from having stayed there for a few days in May 1997 and again a few years later. I couldn’t say exactly when because, for some reason, our arrival at and departure from Charles De Gaulle were inexplicably missing from my passport of that period.

During the first visit, Martine and I stayed at the Citadines ApartHotel on Avenue Rachel between Montmartre and the place de Clichy. Avenue Rachel is a one-block street that dead ends (how appropriate is that expression!)  at the main entrance to the Montmartre Cemetery. Opened in 1825 at the site of an old gypsum quarry, it was originally called the Cimetière des Grandes Carrières (Cemetery of the Grand Quarries). Buried therein were such notables as Hector Berlioz, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Edgar Degas, Theophile Gautier, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, and many other luminaries.

Something brough the Avenue Rachel to mind this week: It was Patrick Modiano’s somber and brilliant novelette entitled In the Café of Lost Youth: “I had forgotten the silence and calm of avenue Rachel, which leads to the cemetery, slthough you never think of the cemetery, you tell yourself that at its end it must let out into the countryside, or even, with a bit of luck, onto a seaside promenade.”

I, on the other hand, was very aware of the street ending in a cemetery. From my hotel window on an upper floor, I would stare at the funerary statuary. I also got to know the immediate area pretty well, from the massive Lycée Jules Ferry, the Rue Caulaincourt with its bridge arcing over the necropolis, Place Blanche, and the nearby Moulin Rouge—all of which figure in Modiano’s story as locales where the heroine, if she could indeed be called one, was raised.

In a futile search for a patisserie, I tromped up and down the streets of the neighborhood. It was not a particularly picturesque area, known primarily for nude dancers and sleazy bars.

It was interesting to be reminded of the place. Such a short street. And yet so memorable!