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Category Archive for 'Eth – F'

Most of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s novels echo with memories of his own early life and his efforts to come to terms with his parents’ virtual abandonment of him before he was even in his teens. This novel is different, however, unique, a stand-alone. Main character Jean is sensitive, observant, and emotionally free to love, as the main characters appear to be in most of Modiano’s other novels, but in this novel, the main character does not feel like a substitute for the author. Instead, Jean is a young, rather naïve young man, caught in circumstances that he regards as more of a mystery than the serious crime that readers may conclude it to be, a conundrum which he does not fully grasp. Jean is almost certainly a pawn in the hands of clever criminals, rather than the victim of childhood traumas which typify Modiano’s main characters in his other novels. The mystery here, which may even include murder. Flashbacks, reminiscences, and overlaps between the events from the past and events in the present take place as Jean and the reader are forced to consider what really happened, especially when some of the earlier characters suddenly reappear in the present.

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Patrick Modiano establishes the tone and many of the themes for this often dream-like collection of interconnected stories, filled with mysteries and riddles, by setting the story at a school much like the one he himself attended. Nobel Prize-winner Modiano also saw almost nothing of either of his parents from the time he was a child until he was in his early twenties, when he went out on his own. His father, a smuggler of food and weapons from Africa and South America to the French Gestapo in Nazi-occupied France, had made a fortune, and his mother, an actress often out of the country, had no time for her sons, leaving them to be brought up with no sense of home by surrogates – at one point a group of circus acrobats who lived near a falling-down chateau. Modiano has spent his life since then recreating his early life in his novels and raising questions about it, including details from many aspects of his life. This is the first of his novels that I have seen which concentrates on his time at an elite boys’ boarding school, a school in which most of the other boys were also on their own, isolated from their busy parents and prevented from growing up in a home of love and attention. Overlapping stories of ten alums show the results of their schooling as time passes, and many of them are as lost and purposeless as adults as they were as teenagers. Memory and identity and its connection to these formative years become major themes.

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In one of the wildest, most creative, and surprising literary novels of the year, French author Camille Laurens plays with reality and virtual reality on all levels and involves the engaged reader in the action as it occurs. The novel opens with a mysterious two-page Prologue, written in stream-of-consciousness style, a deposition from the Police Headquarters archives of a city in France, by a woman claiming to be an academic with a background in women’s issues and history. Her stream of consciousness raving has no context for the reader just beginning the novel (though it makes sense when re-read after the conclusion). The opening chapters of the book, not in stream of consciousness, begin with interviews between Claire Millecam and Dr. Marc B., as she reveals her academic background and her experience in the theatre. Though Dr. Marc B. is new to her, she has been “here” for two and a half years, and she, now almost fifty, tells him that “it’s his job to resuscitate me to rewire my circuits.” The doctor wants her to talk about “Christophe, the corpus delicti or rather the corpus so delectable he broke my heart.” She made Chris her Facebook Friend because he was the roommate of her former lover with whom she thinks she is still in love. Soon, however, she is falling in love with Chris and he with the persona of the 24-year-old girl whose photo she posted online. The reader is soon involved in a complex play of various types of reality: the reader’s reality; the reality of the main character, Claire; the reality of the action as it unfolds, and the virtual reality of Facebook. Surprises galore as the author involves the reader in drawing conclusions.

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One of the legends of World War I, Mata Hari has been, for over a hundred years, a symbol of mystery, excitement, and danger. Her exotic life and her eventual fate – an early morning execution by a firing squad of French soldiers on October 15, 1917 – has always felt somehow “deserved” by a woman who so craved attention that she publicly flouted every norm of society in order to develop a reputation as an erotic dancer and lover, and who was finally declared a spy by the French government. Fearless in her private life and pragmatic enough to realize, as she was approaching age forty, that she was not as supple – or as slim – as she once had been, she eventually accepted a six month contract to perform in Berlin in 1916, seeing this change of location as an opportunity for new rewards and wider opportunities. The big question raised by this novel is whether her various liaisons in Germany and France provided her with opportunities to share real secrets or whether she was merely a scapegoat, conveying the society gossip of the day, as she has claimed. When she left Germany precipitously in an attempt to return to Paris in 1917, the French declared her a German spy trying to re-enter. Whether this is true has never been fully answered, though this author has some suggestions.

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In an unusual twist, author Patrick Modiano uses Therese, a young woman, as his main character in this intense and totally seductive novel of identity. Few readers of his novels, however, will notice much difference in her thinking from that of the young men who are also searching for identity in many of his other novels. Her isolation from her parents is like theirs – and like that of Modiano himself as he has described his childhood and early teens. Therese, who is about nineteen as this novel opens, was put on a train, as a six-or-seven-year-old child, alone, with a sign around her neck, directing those in charge to take her to a woman in the countryside for care. There she was abandoned by her mother, leaving behind only a portrait of herself and a small metal box containing a diary, a notebook of contacts, and a few jottings on paper. Periodically, Therese would look through this assortment of “stuff,” but the only news she ever heard of her mother was a long-ago report that she had died in Morocco. The layers of reality (or fantasy) here quickly begin to accumulate. When Therese eventually gets a job as a babysitter for a lonely young girl, the overlaps between the early life of Therese and the life of the unnamed child begin to combine and blur. Without a trace of sentimentality, Modiano creates one of the most revelatory of all his novels, one that shows the possibilities of redemption, even for those who have always been alone.

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